Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Praying for Rainfall

By He Qifang

The last flock of pigeons have also gone out of sight after doing their final circling in the soft breeze, the sound of their whistles barely audible. They are hastening back to their warm wooden dovecote earlier than usual perhaps because they have mistaken the bleak leaden sky for nightfall or because of their presentiment of a storm.

The willow twigs, daubed with a light green by several days of sunshine, are now covered all over with dust and look so sickly that they need to be washed. And the parched soil and tree roots have likewise been dying for rainfall. Yet the rain is reluctant to come down.

I can never forget the thunderstorm we often had in my home town. Over there, whenever the rumble of thunder reverberated across the valley, the buds of spring would seem to sprout freely after being disturbed and roused up from their slumber in the frozen soil. Then tenderly stroked by the soft hands of fine rain, they would put forth bright green leaves and pink flowers. It makes me nostalgic and melancholy to think about old times and my mind is as depressed as the vast expanse of North China is thirsty. A tear stands in my dull eye and, like the rain lingering in the murky sky, is slow to roll down.

White ducks have also become somewhat impatient. Some are sending out irritated quacks from the turbid waters of an urban creek. Some keep swimming leisurely and tirelessly like a slow boat. Some have their long necks submerged headfirst in the water while sticking up their webbed feet behind their tails and splashing them desperately so as to keep their balance. There is no knowing if they are searching for tiny bits of food from the bottom of the creek or just enjoying the chill of the deep water.

Some of them stagger out of the water and, to relieve their fatigue, begin to saunter up and down with a gentleman-like swagger in the shade of the willow trees. Then, they stand about to preen their white plumage carefully. Occasionally they give themselves a sudden shake or flap their long wings to let off water drops from among their feathers. One of them, after grooming itself, turns round its neck to rest on the back, then buries its long red beak under its wings and quietly closes its small black eyes tucked away among the white fine hair. Apparently it is getting ready to sleep. Poor little creature, is that the way you sleep?

The scene recalls to my mind the duckling raiser in my home town. With a long bamboo pole in hand, he would look after a large flock of gosling-yellow ducklings moving about on the limpid water of a shallow brook flanked on both sides by green grass. How the little creatures jig-jigged merrily! How they obediently followed the bamboo pole to scamper over field after field, hillside after hillside! When night fell, the duckling raiser would make his home in a tent-like bamboo shed. Oh, that is something of the distant past! Now, in this dusty country of ours, what I yearn for is to hear the drip-drip of rain beating against leaves.

When I look up at a gray misty pall of a low-hanging sky, some dust particles feel chilly on my face. A hawk, seemingly irked by the gloomy sky, swoops down sideways out of nowhere, with wings wide-spread and immovable, until it almost hits the hillock on the other side of the brook. But it soars skywards again with a loud flap. I am amazed by the tremendous size of its wings. And I also catch sight of the grizzled feathers on its underside.

Then I hear its loud cry — like a powerful voice from the bottom of its heart or a call in the dark for its comrades in arms.

But still no rain.