With this thought, he sat up abruptly in bed. He had previously realized that he needed an income to support his family. He was already set on submitting his manuscripts to the Happy Monthly Publishers, as they offered generous royalties. However, he would have to limit his choice of subjects if he wanted his work to be accepted. Having limitations is fine . . . but what concerns young people nowadays? There are probably many issues, perhaps dealing with dating, marriage, families, and similar topics . . . A lot of young people are probably worried about these things and are discussing them at this very moment. So, let’s write about families; yet how should one go about it? . . . If this isn’t well written, they won’t accept it. Why be so pessimistic? But still . . .
He jumped out of bed and reached his desk in four or five strides. He sat down, took out a piece of paper, and unhesitatingly—as if he had given up on himself—jotted down this title: “The Happy Family.”
His pen stopped abruptly. He raised his head and stared at the roof, trying to decide where this “happy family” should live. He thought, “Beijing? That won’t do. The city feels dead; even the air there feels dead. I can’t cut the air off even if I built a great wall around this family. So Beijing is out of the question! Battles are going on in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and the same goes for Fujian. Sichuan, Canton? Those regions are war-torn too. Places like Shandong and Henan? There are bandits there! If a family member is kidnapped, then the family will become unhappy. The housing prices in Shanghai and Tianjin’s foreign concessions are too expensive. Maybe the family should live in a foreign country? No, that’s absurd. I don’t know a lot about Yunnan or Guizhou, but I heard that the transportation there is not very convenient . . . ” He could not find a good place to set his story, so he decided to temporarily set it in the fictitious city “A.” However, he then thought, “Many people nowadays are against using English letters as names because doing so decreases the readers’ interest. It is probably safer not to use letters then. So where should the family be? Hunan is war-torn too; the housing in Dalian is too expensive; there are robbers in Cahaer, Jilin, and Heilongjiang!” After pondering for a while, he still could not find a good location, so he decided to settle on the city “A.”
“The happy family lives in A. Naturally this family is composed of a couple—the master and the mistress—who married for love. They made a pact with more than forty detailed terms, which is why they have an equal relationship with a lot of freedom. Both are elegant people and received higher education; it is not fashionable to study in Japan anymore, so let’s say they studied abroad in the West. The master always wears a suit with a snow white collar. The mistress has a frilly fringe that resembles a sparrow’s nest. She has pearly white teeth, but always wears traditional Chinese robes . . . ”
“No way! Twenty-five pounds!” The voice of a man outside the window interrupted his thoughts.
“Whatever,” he resumed his contemplation. “‘Twenty-five pounds’ of what? . . . The two of them are elegant and cultured. Since they grew up in happy families, they probably do not enjoy Russian novels . . . Russian novels often describe the lives of struggling people, and that is not appropriate content for happy families. ‘Twenty-five pounds?’ Ignore him. What books do they enjoy? The poems of Lord Byron? John Keats? No, that doesn’t sound right. Of course, they love reading Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. I have never read the play, but I know professors speak highly of it, so this family must love it too. You read it, I read it—they each have one copy. There are two copies of the play in their home . . . ” He felt hungry, so he put down his pen and held his head as if his hands were the axis supporting a globe.
“ . . . The couple is having lunch,” he thought. “Their table is covered with a white cloth; the chef brings the food, and it is Chinese cuisine. What ‘twenty-five pounds’? Ignore that man. Why Chinese cuisine? Well, don’t Caucasians think that Chinese food is the tastiest and the healthiest? So they eat Chinese food. The first dish arrives, but what is it? . . . ”
“Firewood . . . ”
Startled, he turned around and saw the mistress of his own house, with her two sullen eyes locked on his face.
“What?” He was irritated that she had interrupted his work.
“We used up all our firewood, so I got some more today. Last time he sold me ten pounds for two hundred and forty, but today he wants two hundred and sixty coins. Should I give him two hundred and fifty?”
“Two hundred and fifty it is.”
“He cheated us. He must have counted twenty-four pounds and a half. Should I only count twenty-three pounds and a half?”
“Twenty-three pounds and a half it is.”
“So five times five is twenty-five, three times five is fifteen . . . ”
“Yes, five times five is twenty-five, three times five is fifteen . . . ” He found himself unable to continue. After a short pause, he impulsively grabbed his pen and began doing the arithmetic on the paper with the words “A Happy Family” etched upon it. He eventually concluded:
“Five hundred and eighty!”
“I don’t have enough, I’m eighty or ninety coins short . . . ”
He opened his desk drawer, took out the twenty or thirty coins in there, and placed them in her palms. He watched her leave the room before returning to his writing. His head felt bloated, as if filled to the brim with the firewood, the five times five equals twenty-five, and the random Arabic numbers etched on his scalp. He took a deep breath, as if trying to expel the firewood in his head, the five times five equals twenty-five, and the Arabic numbers.
Once he had taken a deep breath, he felt much more relaxed and resumed his thoughts, “What’s the first dish? It should be an exotic one. Not pork tenderloin or shrimp with sea cucumber, they’re both too ordinary. I’ll say they had ‘Dragon Wrestling a Tiger.’ But what exactly is that anyway? I know some people say it’s an expensive Cantonese dish only served at banquets, made from snake and cat. But I’ve seen this dish on the menu at a restaurant in Jiangsu, and people there don’t eat cat or snake! So let’s say that it’s a dish of frog and swamp eel. Now let’s decide where the master and mistress are from . . . whatever. Anyways, it doesn’t matter if they ate snake and cat meat or frog and swamp eel. Trivial matters like this would not upset a happy family. So the first dish is ‘Dragon Wrestling a Tiger.’”
“The dish is placed in the center of the table. They point their chopsticks at the plate while smiling at one another. They begin conversing in English . . . ”
“My dear, please.”
“Please you eat first, my dear.”
“Oh no, please you!”
“So they both take a piece of snake meat . . . No, snake sounds too strange, let’s use swamp eel instead. So, ‘Dragon Wrestling a Tiger’ is made of frog and swamp eel. They each take a piece of eel of the same size . . . five times five is twenty-five, three times five . . . Whatever. They put the eel in their mouths at the same time . . . ” He wanted to turn around, as he sensed that something was happening behind him. Someone was walking back and forth across the room. Yet he still continued to think, “All of this sounds too romantic, a family like that does not exist. Why are my thoughts so unorganized? I cannot finish writing the story . . . perhaps they did not study abroad, but had higher education somewhere in China. They are both college graduates, both classy, classy . . . The man is a writer; the woman is also a writer or appreciates literature. Perhaps the woman is a poet; the man appreciates poetry and respects women. Or . . . ” At last, he could not help but turn around.
A mountain of cabbage had appeared beside the bookshelf behind him. There were three at the bottom, two in the middle, and one on top. They seemed to form a large letter A.
“Wow!” He sighed, feeling a burning sensation on his face as if many needles were gently puncturing his spine. “Hmm . . . ” He took another deep breath to rid his spine of the needles. He thought, “A happy family has a spacious house. There is a storage room where stuff like cabbages is kept. The master’s study is full of bookshelves; obviously there are no cabbage piles there. The shelves are full of all sorts of books: Chinese books, foreign books, and two copies of An Ideal Husband. There is a bedroom with a brass bedstead, or something simpler, like an elmwood bed made in a prison factory. The space underneath the bed is very clean . . . ” He glanced underneath his own bed and realized that they really had run out of firewood. All that was left was a straw rope that lay there lazily like a dead snake.
“Twenty-three and a half pounds . . . ” Remembering that firewood would soon pile up beneath his bed, he began to feel dizzy again. He stood up briskly to close his door. His hands had barely touched the door when he realized that closing it would be an irrational decision. Instead, he dropped a curtain that was piled with dust. He thought, “This way I can be safe and accessible simultaneously, and that is very consistent with the Doctrine of the Mean.”
“ . . . So the door to the master’s study is always closed,” he determined as he walked back to his desk. “You need to knock before entering, for that is only fitting. For example, if the master is in his study right now and the mistress wished to discuss the arts with him, she’ll have to knock. This way he can be sure that she won’t enter with her arms full of cabbages.”
“Come in please, my dear,” he says in English.
“And what if the master has no time to discuss the arts? Should he ignore her repeated knocks on the door? That does not sound right. Perhaps I can find the answer in An Ideal Husband, which seems to be an excellent play. When I have the money, I’ll have to buy a copy of it . . . ”
He stiffened immediately. He recognized that sound; it was the sound of his wife slapping their three-year-old daughter’s head.
“In a happy family . . . ” He ignored the child’s weeping and continued thinking, “Their child is born late, very late, or perhaps they don’t have a child at all, just simply the two of them . . . Better yet, they can live in a hotel, where everything is taken care of for them . . . simply one of them . . . ” As the crying grew even louder, he stood up and passed through the door curtain while thinking, “Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital despite the cries of his children, and that is why he is a great man . . . ” When he walked outside and opened a window, he smelled the unpleasant scent of kerosene. The child was lying to the right of the door face down on the floor. She began to cry as soon as she saw him.
“Don’t cry, there’s a good girl.” He bent down to hug her.
He turned around and saw his wife, who stood there stiffly, her hands planted angrily at her waist, as if she were in the opening pose of a gymnastics routine.
“You are bullying me too! You never help at all; all you do is make trouble . . . You even have to knock over the gas lamp. What are we going to light tonight?”
“Oh, don’t cry.” He ignored his wife’s trembling voice and carried the child into his room. He stroked her head and said gently, “My good child.” He then placed the child between his knees and said, “Don’t cry, my baby. Daddy will show you how a cat washes its face.” He extended his neck, stuck out his tongue, pretended to lick his hands, and then smeared them on his face.
“Hahaha, kitty.” She laughed.
“Yes, yes, kitty!” He traced a few more circles on his face. He saw that she was smiling although her face was still streaked with tears. It struck him that her cute and naive face resembled the face of her mother from five years ago—the rosy lips are especially uncanny—the only difference is that the child’s lips are a bit smaller. It was a bright winter back then as well, and when her mother heard him proclaim that he was willing to take on the world for her, she also smiled at him with tears on her face. He sat there wistfully, captivated.
“Cute lips . . . ” He thought.
The door opened and the firewood was brought in.
Jolted to his senses, he opened his eyes and saw that the child still had tears on her face and was looking at him with her lips wide apart. “Lips . . . ” He looked to the side and saw that the firewood was coming in. “ . . . The child’s future will probably still be five times five is twenty-five, nine times nine is eighty-one! She’ll also end up with two sullen eyes . . . ” With those thoughts, he used the paper with the one line of words and some arithmetic calculations on it to roughly wipe the child’s eyes and nose. “Sweetie, now go play by yourself,” he said, pushing her aside as he crumbled the paper into a ball and threw it into the trash can.
He regretted the way he had treated the child, so he turned around again and watched as she left. The sound of wood was still echoing in his ears. He wanted to calm down. He turned around, closed his eyes, banished all random thoughts, and meditated peacefully. He saw a round, gray flower with an amber center bloom and float from the left corner of his left eye to the right before disappearing, followed by a bright green flower with an emerald-green center, followed by a mountain of six cabbages, stacked in the form of the letter A.