The Invisible Valley: Chapter 1 Ghost Bride

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Author’s Note

In the late 1960s, at the call of Chairman Mao, 20 million Chinese students of middle- and high-school age streamed from the cities to the countryside as part of the “Down to the Countryside” movement. For years they lived among the peasants, separated from their homes and families, forced to give up formal schooling to be “re-educated” through hard agricultural labor. It was a time of great idealism and incalculable hardship.
In the southern province of Canton one million students were downcountried, many of them to state-run rubber plantations in the tropical highlands of Hainan Island.

Chapter 1: Ghost Bride

The Invisible Valley coverBlood-red snakeclouds gathered in the western sky, and the rubber trees glowed as if on fire. Lu Beiping counted the pits he’d dug that day on the recently denuded hillside, picked up the squad leader’s notebook, recorded his number, and stood scanning the list of names for Fong’s mark.

Nothing. She’d vanished. And their squad leader, Sergeant Fook, was nowhere to be seen either. With a sigh, Lu Beiping swatted away the head that hovered inquisitively over his shoulder.

—Okay, Chu, I don’t need the National Joint Newscast to tell me that they’re off Seeking Peer Support again. Am I right?

Seeking Peer Support: It was a fashionable term in those days. Sometimes they called it a “Revolutionary Heart-to-Heart.”

—Well, said Chu, smirking: I can’t speak to her whereabouts. But she did mention she was hoping you’d pick up her share of pork scraps at the ration supp tonight. And some of that frozen fish they just brought in from Whitehorse Harbor.

Maybe I should stop by the supply co-op and pick up her monthly allotment of TP and sanitary napkins while I’m at it, Lu Beiping thought sullenly, since it appears I’ve become the errand boy. Then the whole goddam world would see how steadfast her affections are.

And yet, as he gathered his satchel and books, he felt a quiet thrill at the thought of his special ration-collecting status.

—Oh, Chu added: One more thing. Fook wants you to write another propaganda piece for Operation Red May.

—How about this: Pork Production Continues to Soar on the Ass Cheeks of Our Fearless Squad Leader . . .

Fook was what passed for fat in those days. He might be a model re-ed, but he was no match for Lu Beiping in terms of looks—Lu Beiping liked to think.

He said he didn’t give a damn, but the truth was, Lu Beiping cared far too much.

Long shadows slid past them as they hiked down the twilit trail. Lu Beiping fell back to the end of the column, where he could listen to the raunchy banter of the plantation hands and occasionally add his own two cents. This was a nightly ritual. Most of the city kids would blush to hear the workers, women included, riffing in elaborate and colorful detail on the subject of one another’s intimate habits, but Lu Beiping was one of the few re-eds who’d cultivated a tongue sharp enough to join in the game. Pointing at the shadow cast by the satchel swinging from his hoe, Lu Beiping remarked upon its resemblance to the shape of a fat mother cat being humped by a scrawny old dog. This won him a few guffaws, and several hands crowded round for a closer look. Too late! Lu Beiping cried, jiggling the hoe so that the two forms quivered languidly: You missed it, the big moment’s over. A storm of laughter erupted, then a shrill woman’s voice called out over the others: Your turn, Lu! Take her, she’s yours! Surveying the crowd for the offender—probably the company gossipmonger, Choi—Lu Beiping said: Sure! But only if you show that old dog a good time tonight.

—Listen to the mouth on that boy! the workers hooted. Shame these ears!

Just then, as the wail of a pig being slaughtered echoed up from the direction of camp, Sergeant Fook’s shadow loomed from behind.

—Low-minded Sentiments! You people should do yourselves a favor and quit indulging in these Low-minded Sentiments!

Not seeing Fong there among them, the squad leader hastened away, and as his silhouette rolled off down the trail Chu said something snide that Lu Beiping didn’t catch. Stiff-faced, Lu Beiping meandered away from the crowd, putting some distance between himself and the hands, then pointed at the shadow of his satchel and said to Chu with a grim smile:

—Will you look at that. That dog and cat are at it again.

Right at that moment, their eyes fell simultaneously upon a flash of red not far from the dog’s hindquarters.

(It was right over there, Lu Beiping told Tsung years later, as they walked up toward the trailhead near the old base camp entrance: It was lying at the edge of that stand of rubber trees we just passed. In those days, Lu Beiping explained to Tsung, the country’s entire agricultural administration had been restructured as a military hierarchy: A work unit was a company, a plantation a battalion, and the system of state-run farms on Hainan Island was known collectively as the Agricultural Reclamation Corps—Agrecorps for short.)

A scrap of red paper lay in the dirt, stabbing into Lu Beiping’s vision.

He stooped, picked it up. The edges were sticky with mud. He unfolded it, squinted at a few lines of scrawled inkbrush characters rendered nearly illegible by the damp, thought it odd, and was about to throw it away when out of the bushes, cackling and clapping, ran Mrs. Kau, the foreman’s wife.

—Bounty and bliss! Bounty and bliss! Congratulations, friend Lu, bless your soul and bless the soul of my poor little girl! Your brother-in-law could come into his next life a horse or a cow or a mule and not have paid back half the good turn you’ve just done him, oh, bless your soul, bounty and bliss! Come along, right this way, quit making such a fuss, step right on in, make yourself at home, and don’t you run off now, Chu, have a cup of yammings while the pork’s still stewing. You city boys are all manners, don’t be shy, oh, bless my poor girl’s soul down in the dark place! Now where’d Lu get to? There he is! Here, son, you have a cup too, mercy me, don’t just stand there, have a seat, move over brother, this young man’s the reason we’re having this party. Come on, Lu, don’t be a stranger, you’re part of the family now . . .

(Chance, Lu Beiping would say to Tsung years later. You can make a joke out of a lot of things, but Chance—no. Chance is no laughing matter.)

It was at the end of a long and tedious journey that Tsung decided to make Lu Beiping the main character of his novel. Of course, this choice was itself pure chance. The journey was a routine field survey for a boring research project run by Tsung’s tedious American grad school advisor, and Lu Beiping, their escort from the Hainan Foreign Visitors Office, had done little to relieve the prevailing ennui. Lu Beiping, Tsung gathered, had spent most of his adolescence in these hills, working on this very plantation, in fact; yet he seemed to have nothing at all to say about it, and instead spent the trip leafing through Tsung’s professor’s Taiwanese magazines and crowing at the alien wonders therein. At last Tsung said: God, I’m bored out my skull, I think I’ll write a novel. About what? Lu Beiping piped up. Anything, Tsung said. Like . . . he glanced over at Lu Beiping, who by this point looked even more washed-out than Tsung, though still trimly dressed in jacket and tie, speaking always in clipped, proper Mandarin, the perfect image of an anonymous bureaucrat: You, for example, Tsung said, without really meaning it.

At that offhand remark, Lu Beiping began to tell his story.

Really, he said, you can’t make light of Chance.

He couldn’t remember how she managed to drag him, flapping like a captive chicken, her bony fingers digging painfully into his arm, all the way down to the Kau family’s cookhouse; nor could he remember who was sitting in the shadows of the smoke-filled room as he was manhandled onto the only unoccupied stool and, sweating profusely, was forced to down round after round of yam beer on an empty stomach. He remembered watching in a drunken daze as the foreman’s son Wing, his mother egging him on, bowed to him and toasted him with a cup of beer, then Mrs. Kau tried to get him to kneel and he refused to kneel, till finally the foreman strode into the room and the boy sank grudgingly to one knee. He had a memory of Wing struggling in his mother’s grip as she tried to get him to perform some kind of ritual gesture, and then of Foreman Kau’s arm shooting out to stop her, quick and reflexive, like a military salute. Then for a moment the foreman’s booming shout jolted Lu Beiping out of his stupor, and he heard voices chorusing in the surrounding smoke: Bless this feast! (Or was it rest in peace? Lu Beiping couldn’t remember.)

Ghost-married. I’ve been ghost-married.

These were the words echoing in Lu Beiping’s skull as he lay crumpled in bed later that evening after heaving out a great torrent of half-digested pork onto the floor, his mouth still burning with the rank aftertaste of yam beer.

—Congrats, pal! So you’re the lucky one. The whole unit owes you for ration supp tonight—

—Fuck you to hell!

Chu’s head disappeared quicker than it had appeared around the door, leaving Lu Beiping alone to ponder a gleaming morass of meat, beer, and bile.

When Lu Beiping regained consciousness later that night, he shook Chu awake on the neighboring cot and, with his help, managed to piece together the story in which he’d come to play such a pivotal role.

The time had arrived for the foreman to find a wife for his son Wing, but there was the problem of his eldest daughter, Han, who died from malaria the winter the re-eds came, when the fever was raging and many had perished in the lands surrounding Mudkettle Mountain. Han fell into shadow the year after she graduated from elementary school, so she’d be almost twenty now, had she lived. Nobody knew the origins of the rite—was it Hakka? Or native Hainanese? Foreman Kau was a retired army veteran of Hakka blood, but his wife was born and raised on the island, near Lam-ko. Everyone knew how it worked, though: Only if a mate were found for the soul of the unmarried older sibling could the younger child marry without calamity. Otherwise the dead one’s shade would stir against the living, and that meant sons dying without heirs, daughters giving birth to horned abominations; in short, it meant no end of trouble for the entire family.

(In those days, the head of a work unit should theoretically have been called the Captain, Lu Beiping explained to Tsung. But for whatever reason, nobody called him that in our unit; they just called him foreman.)

For the Kaus, the question of a ghost marriage was fraught with complications. The foreman, who was also the local Party branch secretary, naturally worried for his reputation—in that era of Rectifying Ideological Outlook and Eradicating Antiquated Thinking, the slightest suspicion of harboring superstitious beliefs might cause one to be tarred as a reactionary. Mrs. Kau, however, was adamant. Which comes first? she asked—the Party or your son? According to whispered reports circulating in the village, this family matter had caused a livid Mrs. Kau to storm into the next branch committee meeting, causing such a stir that the division clerk and the funds officer both had to come out and intervene. So the Kaus quietly sent a man over the mountains to Lam-ko to consult a well-known spirit elder, who checked the almanacs, chose an auspicious day, and set off the chain of events that ended with Lu Beiping picking up that scrap of red paper at the edge of that particular rubber grove on that particular evening. One hour before sundown, on a west-facing slope; every detail was set according to the elder’s prescriptions. Inside the folded paper were written the dead Han’s birth figures, and all that remained was for some unwitting male to pick up the note and bind the worlds of light and shadow.

That morning Mrs. Kau had taken a stool and a bundle of cane strips for basket-weaving out into the rubber grove and sat there all day, weathering sun and rain-shower, weaving and waiting. Officially the night’s ration supplement was meant to celebrate of the launch of Operation Red May, but everyone knew that the Kau family’s ghost wedding was the real reason for the party, and nobody thought too hard about politics when there was meat and beer to be had. But the cookhouse was already jammed with guests and still nobody coming down the path had taken any interest in that little piece of red paper lying at the edge of the grove—even a wet-diapered infant would’ve done the trick, though females didn’t count, and Mrs. Kau, crouching in the trees, had a few extra notes ready in case a girl picked it up. Darkness fell; the air grew cold; all throughout camp rose the cup-clacking clamor of workers toasting the end of a month’s meatfast; and the foreman’s wife sat anxiously in the forest, hoping her future “son-in-law” would soon appear.

(Married to a ghost, Lu Beiping exclaimed to Tsung: It was just my kind of luck!)

—Help! Come quick! Lu’s in trouble!

Chu told Lu Beiping that after Mrs. Kau had hauled him down to the crowded cookhouse, he’d run off immediately to tell Cigar, an older boy who’d come with them from Canton and who’d since become something of a bigwig among the re-eds, in hopes that he’d step in and rescue Lu Beiping. But Cigar just smiled and said: Lu’s head is way too big for his shoulders. This could be a valuable part of his re-education.

—Hmph! Chu grumbled, he’s just jealous that you stole away the prettiest girl in the unit. He wants to watch you suffer.

In the course of an evening, Lu Beiping had become “ghost son-in-law” to the foreman. Limp as a rag doll, the taste of bile still lingering in his mouth, he lay awake for the rest of the night listening to the creaking song of an oxcart somewhere deep in the hills beneath Mudkettle Mountain.

When the first bar of May morning light lay across his blanket, Lu Beiping woke to see Fong standing in the door.

—They tell me you got married last night? Fong said with a giggle. To a ghost? Gosh, Lu, sounds like a real adventure.

The expression of naïve wonder that she so often wore, which in the past had struck Lu Beiping as faintly seductive, now had a chilly edge to it. Her syllables fell like pins on a frozen lake.

Camp after morning bell was indeed a frozen lake, empty and silent. Even the distant, echoing creak of the well-rope sounded cold.

—You know the whole company’s talking about it, right?

Lu Beiping closed his eyes.

—Say something! If you’re the foreman’s ghost son-in-law, what does that make me?

—Where did you go last night after work? I couldn’t find you.

—Is that your business? Why should it matter to you where I go after work?

She’s toying with me, Lu Beiping thought. She knows that she’s at her most alluring when she’s just on the verge of anger.

—Oh, and what about my fish? I did ask you to pick up some frozen . . .

Your fish? Lu Beiping burst out. I almost got hounded to death last night, and you’re asking me about your stinking fish?

As soon as the sentence was out of his mouth, Lu Beiping noticed that Fong had had her hand over her nose the whole time they’d been talking, her eyes twinkling with amusement as if she were watching a frog drowning in a dye vat. Then he noticed the smell in the room, the reek of yam beer mixed with the fetid odor of half-turned pork, and all at once the embarrassments of the night before—vomiting all over the floor, the whole sequence of mortifying events that led up to it—flooded back to him in a vivid rush.

—Alright, I’m leaving now, Fong said, then she turned and walked out the door.

As she left, Lu Beiping watched the swaying curves of her limbs, so round and perfect they made one ache.

Months later it would dawn on Lu Beiping that Fong had been waiting for the first convenient moment to break off the thing between them, and that the ghost wedding had provided her with just the excuse she needed. She’d even taken care to sever the last remaining vestige of their bond—that frozen fish. At the thought, Lu Beiping laughed out loud.

The sun was in his eyes now. He decided to go down to the well to wash his face. When he stepped out the door he felt like he was treading on loose soil, his feet sinking into cushions of dust, and as he carried his twanging bucket alongside the re-ed dorm building he imagined faces watching him from every window. Stop imagining things, he told himself. But he thought for sure he’d heard laughter. As he picked his way down to the well in the bowl-shaped hollow below the mess hall, the slope above him seemed like an amphitheater, its seats crowded with silent spectators waiting for him to speak. Standing at the well’s edge, he swore at the top of his lungs.

—GOD! DAMN! MOTHER! FUCKING—he went on to evoke the female reproductive tract with the most eloquent profanities in the Cantonese language, words that he’d never have said ordinarily even if a thug in the alleys of Sam-kok Market had been twisting his ear—BITCH!

No response, not even an echo. His maledictions were swallowed by the silence of the morning, as if they’d fallen into a pile of cotton balls.

As he climbed back up the hill he passed the division clerk, whom he recognized as one of the people who’d poured him beer last night in the smoky clamor of the foreman’s cookhouse. The man nodded at him and smiled pleasantly. No work today? he asked. With a small blackboard tucked under his arm, probably from the evening literacy school, he hurried on his way.

Lu Beiping stood frozen for a moment, struck by a sudden thought. At first he’d imagined that the whole company would take delight in his suffering, slapping their thighs at the ridiculous charade of Lu Beiping being crowned “ghost son-in-law.” What he hadn’t realized was that this role had a flip side—he was the foreman’s son-in-law now, ghostly status notwithstanding. Nobody dared laugh at the foreman’s own kin. The camp, with its dirt paths and long brick-and-plaster barracks, was the exactly the same as before the ration supplement party; nothing had changed. But now its everyday appearance seemed faintly uncanny, and this unnerved Lu Beiping, like a subtle insult to which he had no retort.

As he pushed open the door to his room he glimpsed, at the edge of a nearby stand of rubber trees, a woman clad in black, sitting on a small cane stool. It was Mrs. Kau—his “mother-in-law” (ha!) who’d shanghaied him into marrying her dead daughter (good god!) and who now, for some strange reason, was sitting near his dorm room and studying him (monitoring him? protecting him?) with an unfathomable gaze. He supposed he ought to pitch a fit, make some kind of a scene; but then a great lassitude overcame him (what was the point of making a show of force to your mother-in-law?) and pretending he hadn’t seen her, he let the door slap shut behind him.

His world had changed overnight, changed utterly and irrevocably. He had become a stranger to himself, and the world had become alien to him.

(Crazy, right? Lu Beiping said to Tsung. It’s hard to imagine a more surreal transformation than that. But what made it so odd was that it didn’t feel in the least bit unreal.)

All day the image stuck in his mind: Mrs. Kau, dressed in black, sitting by the rubber trees, watching him.

And as he pondered that image, he couldn’t help imagining—no, it was silly—a face, the face of a girl he’d never known: Han, his ghost bride.

He lay in bed, writing in his diary. He knew that Chu had begged leave for him that morning.

—It’s been a big night for you, Chu had crooned ghoulishly in his ear, just as the first rays of dawn were filtering through the window and Lu Beiping was drifting back to sleep: I think the foreman’ll understand!

Then Lu Beiping had rolled over and puked again.

Three days later Lu Beiping, driving a herd of cattle, set off deep into the hills.

————

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