Selected Modern Chinese Essays: When Grandpa Died

By Xiao Hong

Somehow or other grandpa wasn’t quite himself. He was often in tears and forgetting things — even important things of the past. For example, in telling a story that he had often used to tell, he would give up halfway and sigh, “I’ve forgotten the rest of it.”

One night, he fell ill again. After recovering, he said to me, “Write to your third aunt and tell her to come see me. I haven’t seen her for four or five years, have I?” But the aunt he meant had died five years before.

It gave me much pain this time to leave home. Grandpa’s condition was going from bad to worse when I received a notice from my school informing me of the beginning of the new semester.

When he was sound asleep, I lay beside him sobbing bitterly as if he had already passed away. I raised my head to fix my tearful eyes on his retracted lips. His death would mean the death of a person most important to me all my life. It would, as it were, put an end to what “love” and “warmth” there was in this world. My heart was in a turmoil as if entangled with silk string or iron wire.

Then I remembered how, after mother’s death, father had remarried and often beat me. My new mother was seemingly polite and never beat me. Even when she cursed me, she would do it in a roundabout way by referring to something else, say, a chair or table. Polite as she was, we were strangers yet.

“Go and play in the courtyard,” said grandpa giving me a rap on the head. “Look! What’s this?” He thrust a golden orange into my hand.

At night, being afraid to go to the latrine, I asked my stepmother, “Mom, will you accompany me to the latrine?”

“No, I won’t.”

“I’m afraid.”

“What!”

“What! Afraid of ghosts and spirits?” father cut in, his eyes shooting me an icy stare over his glasses.

It was a cold winter night. Grandpa rose from his bed and walked me barefoot to the latrine, his jacket unbuttoned.

I was four days late for school. In March, I returned home for a short visit. While knocking at the gate, I heard my younger brother shouting, “Here comes sister! Here comes sister!” The moment the gate was opened, I directed my eyes far ahead straight towards the room where grandpa lived. Sure enough, I saw the glimpse of his face and beard behind the window panes. I dashed into his room beaming delightedly. But sorrow, instead of joy, came over me when I saw an even more sickly pallor on his face. When I was left alone with him, he quickly wiped away his tears with his sleeve and said with his lips quivering, “Grandpa is dying. It won’t be long now… I had a narrow escape from death the other day when I stumbled and fell.”

“How did you fall?”

“I was at the back of the room when I felt like relieving myself. I called, but nobody answered. I pressed the electric bell, again nobody came. So I had to feel my way out. Hardly had I reached the door when my legs began to tremble, my heart beat hard and I felt dizzy and fell. Luckily, I didn’t break my back… I’m old, no good for anything! Grandpa’s already eighty-one.”

“Yeah, grandpa’s eighty-one.”

“I’m no use. Imagine an 81-year-old man feeling about on the ground. I thought you wouldn’t be able to see me again. But strangely I survived and slowly hobbled back to the kang.”

The day when I left for school, I saw the same silhouette of a pale face moving behind the window panes as upon my arrival.

I could still see it when I looked back from the centre of the courtyard. It remained visible even when I got close to the gate. Then it was completely shut out of view as soon as I stepped out of the gate.

As a matter of fact, I parted from grandpa this time never to meet again. Of course, I said nothing to that effect when bidding him farewell. On my next return home, I found musicians blowing the suona horn at the gate and funeral streamers hanging high above the housetop — so high that I had seen it from afar when I was arriving in the carriage. My carriage pulled up amidst the mournful blare of the suona. There were white streamers, white scrolls inscribed with couplets in commemoration of the deceased, the mourning shed in the centre of the courtyard and noisy crowds of people.

Now, instead of sitting behind the window panes, grandpa was lying dead on a plank bed in the central room of the house. Eager to take a last look at him, I removed the sheet of paper covering his face. Alas, his beard, eyes and mouth were all stiff and insensitive. I reached my hand into his sleeve to feel his hand, but it likewise was insensitive. O grandpa was really no more!

The morning when grandpa was laid into the coffin, the rose bush in our back garden had just come into full bloom. I held a corner of grandpa’s quilt in my hand while he was being carried towards the coffin. Meanwhile, the musicians had gathered before it to blare the suona again.

Seized with a sudden fear, I broke out howling.

Bang, bang! The 7-inch-thick black coffin lid was put in place.

At lunch, I drank wine using grandpa’s cup. After lunch, I lay under the rose bush in the back garden where, like when mother died ten years before, bees and butterflies were flying and the air was filled with the refreshing scent of green grass. After mother’s death, I had continued to dash at butterflies in the back garden. Now after grandpa’s death, I drank wine.

The past ten years had witnessed me at loggerheads with father. I learned how cold-hearted man could become. Father was unkind to me, our servants and even my grandpa alike. He ill-treated us because our servants were poor, grandpa was old and I was a mere child, or, in other words, because we were the unprotected underdogs. Later, when he had my stepmother in his hands, he would be kind or unkind to her by turns, depending upon his changing moods. So my stepmother also gradually became scared of him.

How did it come that my stepmother, being neither poor, nor old, nor a child, should also have become scared of father? And I learned that my female neighbours too were afraid of their husbands and so was my aunt afraid of my uncle her husband.

I knew very little about life. I thought that, without grandpa, there would be none left to feel sympathy for me and that, without grandpa, all people left in this world would be savage and cruel.

I drank, I reminisced, I dreamed…

Yes, from now on, I thought, I must abandon my home and join the broad masses. At this, however, I also began to shudder with fear under the rose bush. I feared that I would miss grandfather while I was with the masses.

Hence I cried, and I kept crying for days after grandpa passed away.