◎ Ba Jin
Lots of things are apt to fade from memory as one’s life experiences accumulate. But some memories will withstand the wear and tear of time.
Those houses and streets in my home town still remain engraved on my mind. I still can recall how every day on my way to school I would invariably walk past Carpenter Lao Chen’s shop.
Carpenter Lao Chen was then only about forty years old, with a longish face like that of a donkey, a scar under his left eye, and a wispy moustache on his upper lip. People said he looked ugly, yet they praised him for his good temper.
He usually worked in his own shop. But from time to time he was employed by some rich people he knew well to work at their residences, either as a hired hand on contract or as an odd jobber. Whenever my family needed a carpenter, he was always the man we wanted. That was how I got to know him. While he was in our home, I would come out to watch him work in my spare time.
What attracted my attention, however, was not the man himself, but the tools he used, such as the saw with toothed blade, the plane with two ear-like handles, the revolving drill, the hatchet that looked like the broad axe in drawings — things entirely strange to me. A piece of coarse wood, after being processed with the hatchet, saw and plane, would become pieces of smooth and tidy wood, square or rectangular in shape. After further treatment with the chisel, drill, etc., they would end up as various kinds of exquisite articles, such as beautiful window lattices, ornamental engravings on wooden partitions.
The work which Lao Chen and his apprentices did was a real eye-opener to me. I was then studying at home under the tutorship of an old scholar of the Qing Dynasty whom my grandfather had engaged. The old scholar knew nothing about teaching methods. All he did was make me learn some Chinese characters and do some dull reading. Apart from that, he had me cooped up in my study and sit bolt upright doing nothing while time was slipping through my fingers. Because of this monotonous life, it was no wonder that I developed a particular liking for Carpenter Lao Chen.
He was often bent over drawing something on a plank with a ruler and an ink marker. And I would stand by and watch quietly and intently, my eyes riveted on him. After making the line with the ink marker, he would pick up the saw or the chisel. Sometimes, when something puzzled me, I would ask him questions out of curiosity, and he would explain patiently everything in detail. He was much more agreeable than the old scholar.
My folks, however, showed no sign of disapproval when they found me so much interested in Lao Chen’s work, but only teasingly called me an apprentice of his. Father even said jokingly that he was going to apprentice me to Lao Chen. All that was the well-meaning remarks of an affectionate father. Once I even believed that father had meant what he said, and I even told Lao Chen that that was exactly what I had in mind.
“You want to learn carpentry?” said Lao Chen immediately with a smile “No kidding! A wealthy young master like you should study and grow up to be a government official! Only poor people’s kids learn carpentry.”
Somewhat annoyed by the way he shrugged off my words as childish nonsense, I argued heatedly, “Why not become a carpenter? What’s the good of being a government official? It’s great fun to build houses and make furniture. If I’m a carpenter, I’ll climb high up, very high up, to build a house for myself.”
“You may fall down if you climb high,” said he casually, the smile on his face fading away.
“Fall down? You’re fooling me! I’ve never seen a carpenter fall down.”
Shooting a glance at me, he continued with undiminished patience,
“A carpenter often has to risk his own life in building a house. One careless slip, and you fall down. You’ll be disabled for life, if not reduced to a pulp.” Thereupon, he bent his head and forcefully pushed his plane over a plank, the shavings of which fell continuously onto the ground amidst the screeching sound. Then he added after a moment’s silence,
“That’s how my father died.”
I just could not bring myself to believe it. How could a man die like that? I had never seen it happen, nor had I ever heard of it. If his father had died of an accident as a carpenter, why should Lao Chen himself still be a carpenter now? I just couldn’t figure it out.
“You’re fooling me. I don’t believe you! How come you’re still a carpenter? Can you be unafraid of death?”
“Lots of guys are in this trade,” he went on gloomily. “It doesn’t follow that everybody meets with such a violent death. Carpentry is my trade. What else could I rely on to make a living?” He looked up at me, some teardrops visible from the corners of his eyes. He was crying!
I was at a loss when I saw him in tears, so I went away quietly.
Not long afterwards, my grandpa fell ill and died, and I was enrolled in a school, no longer under the control of the old scholar. Lao Chen never came again to work in our household after grandpa’s death. But every day on my way to school, I would pass by his small shop.
Sometimes he beckoned me from his shop. Sometimes he was absent, leaving a couple of his apprentices there hammering nails into a stool or making some other articles. At first, he could somehow scrape along. Soon street fighting broke out in the provincial capital, lasting three days until the dispute between two warlords was settled through the mediation of a third party. In the course of the fighting, soldiers looted Lao Chen’s shop until it was empty of everything. After that, nevertheless, he still managed to keep his shop open though business was bad. I often saw him working in his shop with a saddened look on his face. Dejected as he was, he worked on as usual. I heard that he often went drinking at a small wine shop in the evening.
Several months later, his shop closed down for good and I lost all trace of him. Some said he had gone soldiering, others said he had gone to another county to seek a livelihood. One day, however, I ran into him in the street. He was carrying a basket filled with some carpenter’s tools.
“Lao Chen,” I yelled out in joy, “you’re still here in the provincial capital! People say you’ve joined up!”
“I’m good at nothing else but carpentry, I’m good at nothing else but carpentry! One should be content with one’s lot.” He shook his head, wearing a faint smile with a touch of sorrow. There was not much change in him except that he was thinner, his face darker and his clothes dirtier.
“Young master,” he continued smilingly, “you should study hard. Let me build a house for you someday when you’re a government official.”
I took hold of his sleeve, unable to utter a word. He said goodbye to me and went away. He had told me that he was now working at the shop of a former apprentice of his. The apprentice was doing quite well while Lao Chen was now his hired hand.
Thenceforth I never saw Lao Chen again. Much as I liked him, I soon forgot him. It was not until the sedan-chair bearer of a rich household passed on to me the news that I remembered him again.
What news did the sedan-chair bearer tell me?
He told me: Lao Chen, together with other carpenters, was building a mansion for a rich household at the southern city gate. When it was nearing completion, it suddenly came to pass that he fell off the building and died.
Why did Lao Chen, of all carpenters, die such a violent death like his father? All that seems accidental, and also seems predestined. In short, an honest man has thus passed out of existence.