Yu Yan Chen is a poet and literary translator. Her poems and literary translations have appeared in the US, UK and China. Her first collection of original poetry, Small Hours, was published by New York Quarterly Books in 2011. Her translation of The Chief Cellist, a children’s book by Taiwanese author Wang Wenhua, was published by Balestier Press. She currently resides in Singapore.
Li Juan (李娟) was born in 1979 in Xinjiang Province. She spent her childhood in remote towns in both Sichuan and Xinjiang. She used to work on the assembly line, but became a government employee at a later time. In 2007 she resigned to write full time. Her works center on her sensitive meditations while living among the Kazakh nomads of the Altay region. Her prose collections include Nine Chapters of Snow, Corners of Altay, My Altay, Please Sing Out Loud while Traveling through the Night, and Remember Little, Forget More. Corners of Altay has been translated into French and Korean. She has also won a number of prestigious awards including the People’s Literature Award, Zhu Ziqing Prose Prize, Mao Dun Literature Prize, and Shanghai Literature Prize, among others. She currently lives in Altay, Xinjiang.
Corners of Altay is a series of essays depicting Li Juan’s experiences in the Kazakh-speaking region of the Xinjiang Province in western China. In the 1990’, she and her mother, one of the few ethnic Han people living in the Gobi Desert, first operated a tailor shop, then a nomadic grocery store for their equally mobile customers. They would follow the herds in the summer, but they would fend off the winter by staying put in a temporary abode. This piece is about a pet rabbit as the season turns.
Twenty Centimeters to Spring
We spoke in broken Kazakh to do business with our customers, and although they only understood it vaguely, we would always achieve what we wanted. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak their language, as long as we were able to find a way to be understood, everything would turn out all right. Otherwise, we would have to rely on imagination to guess what they wanted.
At first, I had no idea how to use imagination to help, and getting one small item sold would seem strenuous. I had to point at items from one end of the shelf to the other and from the bottom up to the top, while asking, “Is this the one? How about that? This one? That one?”
After much commotion, all the customer wanted was perhaps a box of matches worth ten cents.
As usual, my mother enjoyed handling matters based on her understanding. Although I felt she had misunderstood things on many levels, what she did based on those wrong impressions often ended up correct, so I can’t really complain much.
Now let’s talk about the snow rabbit.
It was a snowy winter’s night. Although it was late, we continued to toil away quietly while hovering around the stove. From time to time we would drift into a conversation about things that happened long ago. Suddenly the door was pushed open and someone came in with a thick cloud of freezing air and fog. We asked him what he wanted, but this gentle looking person couldn’t make himself understood after a long and convoluted explanation. We finally gave up on him and continued with our work. At last, he sank into deep thought and came up with a straightforward question, “Do you want a dzeren?”
“A dzeren?” We were surprised.
“Yes, a live dzeren.”
This time, we were even more surprised.
By then my mother and her apprentice Jianhua had begun to talk about where to keep the animal. Before I could respond, they had made up their mind that the coal shed would be the best place for it.
“What do we raise a dzeren for?” I asked.
“Who knows, let’s get it first.”
Having said that, my mother turned to that gentle looking person, “What’s your lowest offer?”
We were taken by surprise for the third time, because ten Yuan would not be enough. Although dzeren literary means yellow sheep in Chinese, it is really a wild animal as beautiful as a deer, which makes it much bigger than a sheep.
I immediately joined their camp, “That’s right, after we buy the yellow sheep, I am going to ask for some feed from Ahan, because he hasn’t paid us for the flour since spring…”
Our excitement delighted the visitor too. In fact, he was almost proud of himself. Afraid that he might change his mind, my mother went to the counter immediately to get the money. She even added, “My good fellow, if you have more yellow sheep later on, please don’t forget to bring them to us again. We will want as many as possible. Don’t ever take them elsewhere. It would be a waste of time to do that, because besides us, no one else would want them…”
After paying him, all of us followed him outside for the yellow sheep.
A boy stood in the snow. His jacket bulged, and something was wrapped inside.
“Oh, a baby yellow sheep.”
The child gradually unbuttoned his jacket.
“Oh, the yellow sheep is white.”
This was what happened: in a snowy winter’s night, we bought a wild rabbit rather foolishly for ten Yuan. If it were other people, ten Yuan could have fetched at least three rabbits.
I started out this piece talking about misunderstandings, this was precisely the point.
Nevertheless, we had bought the rabbit and we were all enchanted by it, so there was no complaint. It was worthy of the ten Yuan we had spent! It was almost as big as a baby sheep, and therefore much bigger than the rabbits sold for three or four Yuan each. Besides, it was amazingly alive, unlike the ones sold to others, which were usually frozen solid.
It even had blue eyes. Whose rabbits have blue eyes anyway? (I learned much later that all of the wild rabbits have blue eyes. Only house rabbits have red eyes.) This species is also called the “snow rabbit,” as white as snow, so bright and shiny that if it were lying in the snow, there would be no way to spot it. However, I heard that as the weather gets warmer, the rabbit’s fur would gradually take on a muddy hue, which would blend in well with the Gobi Desert while running around.
With such a clever disguise, why did it still get caught? Perhaps it was still not strong enough. It was absolutely outrageous for people to set traps – we couldn’t help but curse that gentle looking person whenever we saw the scars on the rabbit’s hind legs, which were clamped by the trap.
We found a metal cage, put the rabbit in the corner of the coal shed, and checked on it many times a day. All it would do was stay still in the cage, forever chewing on half a frozen carrot. Grandma visited the rabbit most often. Sometimes she even stole the popcorn from the shelf to feed it. She would say to the rabbit, “Rabbit, it is such a pity that you are all alone…”
Whenever I overheard those words, I couldn’t help but feel sad. All of a sudden, I could also sense the plight of this poor rabbit, and Grandma’s situation wasn’t any better either… It was always so cold. All she could do was to put on layers and layers of clothing, which made her bulgy and bulky. She hardly went anywhere except to hover near the stove all day long. Ever since we had the rabbit, she started to make trips between our grocery store and the coal shed. With her hands holding onto the wall for support, she would walk gingerly back and forth on the same path as she moved about the icy ground. Sometimes she would cover her ears with her hands, sometimes she would hide her hands in her pockets.
How dreadful the winter was!
Yet, how lovely it was to be inside our house, so warm and cozy. Even though the coal shed was dark and dirty, but it beat being outside in the freezing cold. We were affectionate with the rabbit and fed it whatever we ate. Soon it grew fat and languid, with its deep blue eyes shinier than ever. If anyone dared to suggest stir-frying our pet rabbit and making it into different dishes, we would not hesitate to hate this person.
We loved this rabbit to bits, but we didn’t dare to let it roam freely. What if it escaped? Without any food, it would probably starve to death in the cold. Perhaps it would be captured by the villagers again. In our mind, it would have the best life in our house under our care.
We loved the rabbit so much that my mother would often stick her hands in through the openings of the metal cage to stroke it slowly. The creature would tremble slightly, burying its head deep between its two front paws, while the long ears drooped down flatly on the ground.
There was no way for it to hide from us, because there was nowhere to go. But we didn’t have any bad intentions, and how could we have made it understand?
As time passed, the weather gradually got warmer. Although it was still cold, the worst part of the winter was behind us. To our surprise, we noticed some muddy furs on the snow white rabbit! Apparently, it could detect the arrival of spring much more sharply than we did.
Then one day, we discovered that this depressed rabbit had escaped and we were sad and surprised at the same time.
But how did it escape? Where could it have gone? After all, there was snow everywhere in the village; there were people and dogs everywhere; where could this rabbit go to hunt for food?
We searched around in the vicinity of the yard, until it took us far away from the house, but there was not a single trace of the rabbit. For a long while we would search anxiously in the snow piled high on both sides of the road whenever we went out. We even put some cabbage in an obvious place in front of our house, hoping that the rabbit would find its way back. Days passed, and no one had the heart to clear it away even though it had turned frozen solid.
Meanwhile, the empty metal cage continued to occupy the same spot in the shed, as though it were waiting for the rabbit’s return – as though it would one day reappear inside the cage, just as mysteriously as its sudden disappearance.
Then the rabbit really did appear inside the cage again…
It was about a month after it went missing. We had taken off our thick jackets and walked about light-heartedly, awakened to the thoughts of accomplishing a plethora of things. We took down the felts and the plastics covering the windows, rolled up the heavy cotton curtains hanging on the doors, and stored them underneath the beds to be used next winter. We even cleaned up the coal shed and straightened the pieces that had fallen off.
Then we saw the rabbit again.
Let me point out that the metal cage remained by the foot of the wall in a dark corner all this time. One would have to stare at it for quite some time in order to see any movements. If it were a rabbit with snow white fur, you would be able to spot it right away. Yet, we had been going back and forth for several days, before we realized that there was something alive inside. Still, I wasn’t sure, for it could have been something dead. It was curled up in the far end of the cage. And when I looked at it some more, I was able to make out its form. “Isn’t that our rabbit?” What used to be a coat of thick and smooth fur was by then thin and scattered. It was wet and dirty, and I couldn’t even make out its face.
I am usually afraid of dead things, but I worked up the courage to touch the rabbit with my hands. Its body was a bag of bones and nearly given up. I had no idea whether it was still alive because there was no sign of the rabbit breathing. I grew even more scared, for I believed that a creature about to die can be scarier than a dead one. As death descends on it, its soul is probably at its most volatile and most vengeful. I ran away quickly and told my mother, and she rushed back to take a look.
“Wow, why did it come back? How did it come back?”
From afar, I watched as my mother carried that creature, our rabbit that went missing a month ago out of the cage. She fed it some warm water by wetting its mouth, enticing it to drink, after which she succeeded in getting the rabbit to take the leftover rice porridge we cooked that morning.
I wasn’t sure how she was able to revive that snow rabbit. I didn’t dare go through the process with her, because watching alone was scary enough. I have little tolerance for death, especially those dying around me. It makes me feel guilty.
Fortunately, our rabbit won the battle and survived. Then it got stronger than ever before. By May, its fur had changed completely into the muddy color fit for Gobi and it hopped around inside the yard, chasing after my Grandma for food.
Now, let’s go back and find out what happened exactly. Since the metal cage we used to cover it only had five sides (which meant that the bottom side was empty), and since it was close to the wall, the rabbit simply started digging a secret cave. It was a rabbit after all, an expert at digging holes. The dark shed was filled with loads of random things, but who would have known that there was actually a hole behind the cage? We’d always thought that the rabbit escaped through the biggest opening between the two metal bars!
The hole dug by the rabbit was rather narrow, about the width of one’s upper arm. I put my arm in but couldn’t reach the end, so I took a hook used to clear the stove, but even that failed to reach the end. Finally, I used a wire and made a more accurate measurement. It was over two meters long, heading east towards the front gate. If the rabbit had dug another 20 centimeters, it would have reached the outside world.
That was unimaginable! When we sat around our table having a warm meal, when we finished a day’s work and began to fall asleep, when we once again found delight in new and fun things, discovering happiness as a result, that rabbit was busy digging alone in the underground, enduring hunger and cold, digging bit by bit with the same movement – the movement towards spring. For an entire month, there was neither day nor night for it. I had no idea how many times the rabbit had to confront its own mortality during that month. It had probably realized the impossible nature of getting out alive, but it continued to sense the approaching spring, however dire the circumstances might be. For that month, it would sometimes slowly crawl back into the cage, looking for something to eat within its confine. But there was nothing, not even a drop of water, except for a layer of icy frost on the wall. So all it could do was to climb up the metal bar and chew on the cardboard box on top of the cage. We discovered much later that the bottom part of the box, wherever it could possibly be reached by the rabbit had been chewed off. It was also eating pieces of coal that had dropped inside the cage. In fact, when it was found, the rabbit’s face and teeth were pitch black. Yet, we remained ignorant about the whole thing. It was only at the brink of its death, that we discovered that the rabbit was there all along!
Everyone says that rabbits are timid. But as far as I know, they are brave animals. They face their death without fear, even when captured or trapped. When our rabbit escaped into the hole, despite the hunger and dire circumstances, it remained calm and collected in the face of death. When confronted with life’s many changes, it trembled and struggled perhaps not entirely out of fear, but because it didn’t understand what was going on. What does a rabbit really know then? In a way, all of the creatures of this world exist beyond our comprehension. They elude us, and the communication between us was nearly impossible. No wonder my Grandma would say, “Rabbit, Rabbit, you are such a pity…”
How lonely our lives can be even if the spring has already arrived. Our rabbit, on the other hand, is joyfully running inside the yard, its two front paws holding onto my Grandma’s shoes, chewing and biting them like a puppy, as though it had forgotten everything. Compared to us, it seems much more adept at leaving the bad memories behind, and therefore much more capable of experiencing the deeper joy of life.
(Reprinted with permission from the author)