Proofreaders: happyBuddha, Kai, m@o
Give me a red rose[,] and I will sing you my sweetest song.
–Oscar Wilde, The Nightingale and the Rose
The door to the house was half-open, and he could hear conversation coming from the living room.
Xu Ping didn’t push it open.
His breathing hitched and sweat dripped down the side of his face.
He had dreamt many a times his brother sitting in the chair in the living room, telling him, “I’m back, Gege.” He would tear up from sheer joy and wake up crying.
Was this going to be another dream? And when he pushed that door open, was he going to find himself alone in bed in the middle of the night?
“Thank you, thank you…I really don’t know how to thank you enough….”
Xu Ping heard his father’s incoherent speech.
“Don’t mention it. The kid was actually brought in by an old fellow living at the Nanjiao Dump. He’d thought the kid was mute since he wouldn’t speak at all, and found it in his heart to look after the kid. Afterwards, he saw the missing persons ad and brought him into the station.”
“That’s right. I need to give him a proper thank you.”
“Your kid’s lucky to have met a good person. We get so many of these cases, and not even a third of them ever come back in one piece. Some of the parents have waited for so long their tears have run dry.”
“Thank you, thank you officers for all your hard work. Here, have some tea, and some fruits. Don’t hold back….”
The sounds died down again.
If this was a dream, he prayed to whoever was listening that he would not wake up.
He pushed on the door lightly.
There were three people sitting in the living room. One was a man in green police uniform sitting with his back to the door. Dad was sitting across from him with an overly-emotional expression, and beside him was a child covered with grime with his head hanging low.
Xu Ping stood at the doorway.
The policeman stood up, straightening his clothes. “Well, I brought your child back. I still have work back at the station, so I won’t take up any more of your time.”
Xu Chuan shook the man’s hand, repeating his gratitude while beckoning to Xu Ping. “Come thank the officer. He brought your brother home.”
Xu Ping had his eyes locked on Xu Zheng. He couldn’t hear anything.
He took a step, and then another step. Every step he took, he anticipated falling into a dream state, but in the end, he stood before Xu Zheng, wide awake.
The boy’s hair was long and filthy, and a disgusting stench exuded from him. He was wearing a patched-up men’s undershirt that looked like it belonged in the trash. The skin on his neck and arms were black with grub, and his nails were caked with dirt.
In his dreams, his brother had always been clean and quiet like an angel. His brother would always talk to him and get him to play at the sandbox with him. His brother would smile and whine. But Xu Ping knew even as he dreamed that this was not real.
Xu Zheng had his head bowed and his shoulders were shaking. He was dirty and stinky like a beggar on the streets. He saw his older brother standing in front of him, but he didn’t make a sound.
Xu Ping had thought he would rejoice like he did in the dreams, but in the end he just felt horrible.
He balled his fists tight so the tears wouldn’t fall.
The trickling and splashing of water came from the bathroom, and then a squeak as the tap was twisted shut.
The door wasn’t shut, and he could see from where he was in the living room his dad sitting on the small bathroom stool and holding Xu Zheng’s arm.
“Come now, Xiao-Zheng, let’s get those clothes off.”
The boy wouldn’t stop thrashing around.
Clutching the boy’s arm, Xu Chuan tore off the undershirt that had just about turned black.
His rib bones were distinct under a thin layer of grey, grimy skin.
Xu Chuan was taken back by the sight, and he felt his nose and eyes sting.
He lowered his gaze and proceeded to the dirty pants.
“It must’ve been tough. Probably haven’t had a proper meal all these weeks, huh? I’ll make braised pork for you after we get you clean. You love braised pork, don’t you?”
Xu Zheng didn’t say anything. He was struggling against the hands that were trying to take off his pants.
Xu Chuan didn’t expect an answer from his son either. Using brute force, he stripped Xu Zheng naked and turned him around to inspect. He let out a sigh of relief when he didn’t find any injuries; the boy was just very bony.
He lifted up the pail of warm water he had prepared and poured it over the boy’s head.
Xu Zheng became soaked from head to toe. The uncut hair plastered to his face, making him seem even smaller.
Xu Zheng started screaming out of shock.
The kettle in the kitchen started making bubbling sounds.
Xu Chuan shouted while he held on to his son’s wrist. “Xu Ping, turn the stove off and pour the water into the thermos and bring one over here.”
Xu Ping answered and got up from his seat in the living room.
The two green and red plastic thermos with grey innards were part of his mom’s dowry. The couple had lived in run-down farmer housing in the nearby countryside during the toughest years of their life. There was no toilet, no kitchen, and they even had to go all the way to work if they wanted clean, boiled water.
Xu Ping filled up the thermos and plugged them with the wood corks before taking one to the bathroom.
He saw his dad attempting to rub soap on Xu Zheng while his brother was fighting back like his life depended on it.
“Xiao-Zheng! What are you doing, Xiao-Zheng! You’re a good boy. Daddy’s just trying to get you clean. Now behave!”
The moment the soap bar touched Xu Zheng, the boy let out a piercing shriek.
Xu Chuan grabbed his son by the shoulder. “What’s wrong, Xiao-Zheng? You love to be clean, don’t you? Who do you think I am? It’s Dad. Take a good look. It’s Dad!”
The man’s reply was a fist to his eye.
He stayed crouching, holding his eye, unable to get up for some time.
Xu Zheng took the chance to escape, leaving a trail of wet footprints.
He passed by his brother like the wind, not even sparing the other boy a glance.
Xu Ping put down the thermos and stood outside the bathroom for a long time.
His dad still had his back turned to the door. His shoulders were trembling and his hair was sprinkled with grey.
Xu Ping gently closed the door for his dad.
He followed the footprints to the master bedroom. There was a large wood closet against one wall, of which the doors were tightly shut.
It was dark outside and the curtains were not drawn. The stars were peaking in through the glass.
The room was dim save for the light from the living room that shone a little bit past the doorway only to be swallowed by the darkness before it reached the bed.
“Anybody there?” Xu Ping knocked the closet door.
Not a sound came from the closet.
Xu Ping pulled on the handle only to find it held close by the person inside.
“Are you there, Xiao-Zheng?”
No one answered.
Xu Ping closed the room door and drew the curtains.
It was pitch black now except for the slit of light under the door.
The darkness was usually a source of horror, but Xu Ping somehow found himself at ease.
He had a lot to say to his brother – the things that had been weighing on his mind and the dreams that stole sleep from him – and he wanted to tell his brother that he was sorry. But when it came down to it, he was scared. He was scared of seeing his brother’s indifferent face. He was scared that his courage would disappear under the cold gaze.
Xu Ping stood before the closet, not knowing how to start.
Xu Zheng was once so close to him that he had trouble keeping the younger boy away. Now his brother wouldn’t even answer a call of his name.
“Xiao-Zheng, are you not talking to me because you don’t like me?
“Where have you been all this time? Dad and I had been looking for you. Dad posted an ad on the newspaper. He was really worried about you.
“I brought your bucket and shovel back and they’re under the table now. Let’s go to the sandbox tomorrow, okay?
“I’m sorry I was late that day and got mad at you. You were really angry, weren’t you? I’m sorry, Xiao-Zheng, I won’t ever do that again. I’ll be sure to come home on time everyday….
“Are you listening, Xiao-Zheng?
“How’s your leg? Does it still hurt where Lu Jia hit you?
“Dad was really mad. He slapped me for the first time ‘cause I lost you. He said I’m not a good brother.
“I probably am a terrible brother, aren’t I?
“You know, Xiao-Zheng, I think you got stronger. You hit Dad on his eye just now, and it hurt so much he was crying.
“You probably don’t know what pain is, do you? The human body is really fragile and it would hurt with the smallest scratches or bumps, or when you trip and fall and bleed. And sometimes even when the body is fine, your heart hurts because of things in the world you just can’t overcome. And when the pain’s too much, you cry and this watery thing comes out from your eyes. So when someone’s crying, he must have been through a lot of tough stuff and we should feel sorry for him.
“Dad’s hurting so much he’s crying, Xiao-Zheng. Why don’t we go cheer him up later?
“Are you listening, Xiao-Zheng?
“Mrs. Zhang said you ran away from their house yourself. Why did you…why did you run away?
“Are you mad at me, Xiao-Zheng? Did my words hurt you so much that you don’t want to see me again?
“Hah…. What am I saying? Of course you’re mad.
“You remember Mom? Mom was pretty and quiet, and your eyes look like hers. They all say Mom was stupid but I never thought so. She never got angry for no reason, and she made yummy mantou and baozi. When you smiled at her, she would smile back. She was so pretty, too. She was the best mom.
“You know, Xiao-Zheng, Dad made me take off the hat that Mom made before he beat me. They love each other so much, Dad doesn’t want her to be upset in heaven. I’m really glad, Xiao-Zheng.
“What does it really mean to be a smart person or a retard? Mom could make buns and knit, and she’d smile at everyone. She wouldn’t hurt a soul, but because she had trouble reading and writing and interacting with people, they called her stupid. And then there’s assholes like Lu Jia who doesn’t know how to do anything other than bully and terrorize people weaker than them. Yet they think people like him are smart. If this is the world we live in, then I’d rather be stupid.
“Did you hear me, Xiao-Zheng?
“After you went missing, I kept thinking, trying to figure out how you see this world. Do you really not understand what other people are saying, or do you just shut your ears and not listen to what you don’t want to hear? Do you really not feel pain, or are you in so much pain that you can’t even begin to describe it?
“I’m sorry, Xiao-Zheng. I promised Mom that I’d be a good brother.
“And I didn’t do that. I did a lot of horrible things and said a lot of hurtful words, and I really hurt you.
“I’m sorry, Xiao-Zheng, I’m sorry. I’m a terrible brother.”
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The kind of thermos that people used in China back in the days XD my grandparents have one of these and still use them!
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ayszhang: We are reaching the end of Book One!!! How do you guys like the story so far? :D
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.