The dusk settles over a day in late autumn. The sun sets above the East Henan plain, a blood-red ball turning the earth and sky a deep shade of crimson. As red unfurls, slowly the dusk turns to evening. Autumn grows deeper; the cold more intense. The village streets are all empty and silent.
Dogs are in their dens.
Chickens at roost in their coops.
The cows have returned early from the fields and are snug in their sheds.
The silence is intense. Yet even in the absence of voices or sound, Ding Village lives on. Choked by death, it will not die. In the silent shades of autumn, the village has withered, along with its people. They shrink and wither in tandem with the days, like corpses buried underground.
The grass upon the plain has turned brittle and dry. The trees are all bare; the crops have withered. The villagers are shrunken inside their homes, never to emerge again.
Dusk had spread across the plain by the time my grandpa Ding Shuiyang returned from the city. He arrived on the longdistance coach that travels between Wei county and the distant city of Kaifeng, the bus dropping him at the edge of the main road like a fallen leaf.
The concrete road linking Ding Village with the outside world was built ten years ago, when everyone in the village was caught up in the blood-selling boom. As Grandpa stood at the roadside looking towards the village, a gust of wind seemed to clear his head and restore order to his muddled thoughts. Things he hadn’t understood before began to fall into place. For the first time since he’d left the village early that morning to meet with the county cadres, the fog seemed to lift. There, standing at the roadside that linked Ding Village to the rest of the world, realization dawned on him. The realization that with clouds come the rain. That late autumn begets winter’s chill. That those who had sold their blood ten years ago would now have the fever. And that those with the fever would die, as surely as the falling leaves.
The fever hid in blood; Grandpa hid in dreams.
The fever loved its blood; Grandpa loved his dreams.
Grandpa dreamed most every night. For the last three nights, he’d had the same dream: the cities he’d visited—Kaifeng and Wei county, with their underground networks of pipes like cobwebs—running thick with blood. And from the cracks and curvatures of pipes, from the l-bends and the u-bends, blood spurts like water. A fountain of brackish rain sprays the air; a bright-red assault on the senses. And there, upon the plain, he saw the wells and rivers all turned red, rancid with the stench of blood. In every city and every township, doctors wept as the fever spread. But on the streets of Ding Village, one lone doctor sat and laughed. Bathed in golden sunlight, the village was silent and peaceful, its residents behind locked doors. But, day by day, the doctor in his white lab coat, his physician’s bag at his feet, would sit perched upon a rock beneath the scholar trees and laugh. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. The sunshine would be filled with the sound of laughter. A big loud belly-laugh, ringing out as clear as a bell, strong enough to shake the trees and make the yellow leaves rain down, as surely as the autumn breeze.
And when the dream had ended, the county bigwigs—the higher-ups—summoned Grandpa for a meeting. Since Ding Village no longer had a mayor, it was left to Grandpa to go instead. He returned to the village with an understanding of certain facts, like a series of links in a chain.
The first thing Grandpa had learned was that the fever wasn’t really a fever at all. Its proper medical name was Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. The second thing was that those who had sold their blood so many years ago, and who had come down with a fever within a fortnight of selling it, would now have AIDS. The third thing was that the first symptoms of AIDS wouldn’t appear until eight, nine, or even ten years later. Most people, mistaking the symptoms for a common cold, would take medicine to bring down their fever and before long, they would be back to normal. But a few months later, the disease would flare up again, and the symptoms would be much worse: weakness, skin sores, ulcers on the mouth and tongue, dehydration and weight loss. By then, you had only a few months to live. You might manage to hang on for six months, maybe even eight or nine, but very few made it through a year. In the end, everyone who got sick died.
They died like falling leaves.
Their light extinguished, gone from this world.
The fourth thing was something Grandpa already knew: that for the past two years, people in the village had been dying. Not a month went by without at least one death, and nearly every family had lost someone. After more than forty deaths in the space of two years, the graves in the village cemetery were as dense as sheaves of wheat in a farmer’s field. Some of those who got sick thought that it was hepatitis, while others called it “a shadow on the lungs.” Still others, with perfectly healthy livers and lungs, lost their appetites and couldn’t stomach food. A fortnight or so later, thin and coughing or vomiting blood, they died. Died like falling leaves, their light gone from this world . . . Afterwards, the other villagers would claim they had died of gastritis or hepatitis, of tuberculosis, or of a disease of the stomach or liver or lungs. But, in fact, it was the fever. Every one of them had died of AIDS.
The fifth thing Grandpa learned was that AIDS had originally been a foreigners’ disease, a big-city disease rumoured to affect only deviant people. But now China had it, too. It was spreading across the countryside, and those who were getting sick were normal, upstanding people. The sickness came in waves, like swarms of locusts descending over a field and destroying the vegetation. If one person got sick, the only certainty was that many more would soon follow.
The sixth thing was that if you got AIDS, you died. AIDS was a new, incurable disease, and no amount of money could save you. But the sickness had only just begun: that was the seventh thing. The real explosion wouldn’t come until the next year, or the year after next. That’s when people would start dying like moths to a flame. Right now they were dying like dogs, and everyone knows that in this world, people care a lot more about dogs than they do about moths.
The eighth thing was about me, buried behind the brick wall of the elementary school. I was only twelve, in my fifth year at the school, when I died. I died from eating a poisoned tomato I found on the way home from school. Six months earlier, somebody had poisoned our family’s chickens. Not long after that, my mother’s pig had died after eating a poisoned chunk of radish. It was just a few months later that I found the tomato sitting on a rock by the side of the road. Someone must have put it there, knowing I’d see it on my way home from school. As soon as I’d eaten it, my belly started to ache, like somebody was stabbing my insides with scissors. Before I could walk more than a few steps, I fell down in the middle of the road. By the time my dad found me and carried me home in his arms, I was frothing at the mouth. By the time he laid me on my bed, I was already dead.
I died not from the fever, not from AIDS, but because my dad had run a blood-collection station in Ding Village ten years earlier. He bought blood from the villagers and resold it for a profit. I died because my dad was the biggest blood merchant not just in Ding Village but in Two-Li Village, Willow Hamlet, Yellow Creek and dozens of other villages for miles around. He wasn’t just a blood merchant: he was a blood kingpin.
The day I died, my dad didn’t even cry. He sat at my bedside and smoked a cigarette. Then he went out into the village with my uncle, his younger brother. My dad carried a pointed shovel; my uncle had a chopping knife with a gleaming blade. They stood at the village crossroads, cursing and screaming at the top of their lungs.
“Come and show your faces, if you’ve got the guts!” shrieked my uncle, Ding Liang. “Don’t think you can hide, you poisoning bastards! Come out and see if I don’t chop you in two!”
“So you’re jealous of me, is that it?” shouted my father, Ding Hui, planting his shovel in the ground. “Can’t stand it that I’m rich and didn’t get the fever? Well, fuck you and all your ancestors! First you kill my chickens, then my pigs, and now you think you can get away with poisoning my boy?”
Shouting and cursing, the brothers stood at the crossroads from noon until the sky grew dark, but not a single villager came out. No one wanted to answer to my uncle, or face up to my father.
In the end, all they could do was bury me.
They put me in the ground and buried me.
By tradition, I was too young to be buried in the ancestral grave, so Grandpa carried my little corpse to the elementary school, where he lived as a caretaker. He made me a narrow wooden coffin, filled it with my schoolbooks, notebooks, pencils and pens, and buried it outside the schoolyard, behind the back wall of his house.
Grandpa had always fancied himself as a scholar. He’d gone to school, spent a lifetime as the school caretaker and bell-ringer, and was known throughout the village as Professor Ding. So it was only natural that he’d want to bury me with my books: a favourite storybook, a collection of folk tales, a few volumes of Chinese myths and legends, and a Chinese and an English dictionary.
After I was gone, Grandpa would sometimes stand at my grave and wonder if the villagers would try to kill anyone else in our family. Would they poison his granddaughter, my younger sister Yingzi? Or his only remaining grandson, my uncle’s boy Little Jun? He began to think about making my father and my uncle go to every house in the village and kowtow. Make them kneel in the dirt, knock their heads upon the ground three times and beg the villagers not to poison any more of our family. Beg them not to leave us without descendants to carry on the Ding family name.
At about the same time Grandpa was mulling this over, my uncle came down with the fever.
Grandpa knew that it was retribution. Uncle was sick because he’d once worked for my father, buying blood from the villagers and reselling it at a profit. When Grandpa found out that Uncle was sick, he changed his mind about asking him to kowtow to all the villagers, and instead decided to have my father do it alone.
The ninth thing my grandpa learned was that within a year, perhaps two, the fever would spread across the plain. It would burst upon us like a flood, engulfing Ding Village, Willow Hamlet, Yellow Creek, Two-Li Village and countless others in its path. Like the Yellow River bursting its banks, it would surge through dozens, maybe hundreds of villages. And when that happened, people would die like ants. The dead would litter the ground like fallen leaves. In time, most of the villagers would die, and Ding Village would vanish for ever. Like leaves upon a dying tree, the villagers would wither and fall to the ground, to be swept away by the wind.
The tenth thing Grandpa learned was that the higher-ups wanted to quarantine all the sick people in the village so that they wouldn’t spread the fever to the healthy ones, to those who hadn’t sold blood.
“Professor Ding,” the cadres said. “Your son was the biggest blood merchant in the village, so it’s only fair that you step up now. You have to use your influence to convince everyone who is sick to move into the village school.”
When he heard this, my Grandpa was silent for a very long time. Even now, it makes him uncomfortable, makes him think thoughts that are better left unspoken. When Grandpa thought about my death, he wanted to force my father, the blood kingpin, to go down on his knees and kowtow to every family in the village. And when that was done, my father could throw himself into a well, swallow some poison, or hang himself. Any method would do, as long as he died. And the sooner, the better, so that everyone in the village could witness his death.
It was a shocking thought to imagine my father grovelling before the villagers and then being made to commit suicide, a thought Grandpa hadn’t thought himself capable of. But when the shock had passed, Grandpa began walking into the village in the direction of our house.
He was really going to do it. He was going to ask my father to apologize to everyone and then to kill himself.
Because the sooner my father died, the better.