I do not ask to walk smooth paths
Nor bear an easy load.
I pray for strength and fortitude
To climb the rock-strewn road.
–Gail Brook Burket
Xu Ping sprawled on his bed and fell asleep.
There were two single beds side by side in the room. Every winter, their dad would push the two together and the brothers would huddle together for warmth on the cold nights.
Xu Ping had bad circulation and his hands and feet were always icy to the touch in winter; Xu Zheng was smaller in size but radiated heat like a fire.
Snowy nights up north meant that the coal furnace couldn’t make the room more than a few degrees warmer. The moment you go under the freezing covers, you must have a tremendous amount of willpower not to jump out shivering like a fish in broiling oil.
On these nights, Xu Ping would pretend to have a lot of homework and delay going to bed. Only when Xu Zheng had warmed the bed would he quickly strip off his winter coat, jump under the covers and hug his brother tight.
Xu Zheng wouldn’t complain even if he was woken up, and would turn around to pull his brother who was a head taller than he into his arms.
And Xu Ping would ask every time, “Are you cold?”
Xu Zheng would nod honestly but still stick his brother’s cold hands under his own winter pajamas.
Warming his brother’s hands and feet was one of li’l Xu Zheng’s jobs.
His brother might have been impatient with him during the day but would always be very gentle on cold winter nights. His brother wouldn’t tell him to go away or call him stupid. Even if he made some mistakes, he would be quickly forgiven. If the older boy was in a good mood, he might even ask the younger boy about his day at school, what he did, whom he met, what he had for lunch and such. Xu Zheng always took a long time before he came up with his answer, and by then, Xu Ping was likely nodding off. His breaths brushed Xu Zheng’s neck like the itchy swipes of a dog’s wagging tail, making an entire side of his body tingly.
That was a Xu Zheng that his brother never knew, one who would tuck the taller boy in snugly with clumsy hands so that he may have a toasty dream.
It was already dark by the time Xu Ping woke up. Someone had taken his shoes off and pulled the covers over him so that he managed to find some sleep after days of insomnia.
None of the lights were on in the house.
He couldn’t hear anything except the ticking of the clock in the living room.
Dad was probably out.
The spot where he had been slapped was still stinging but he let out a sigh of relief.
He gulped down a glass of water from the kitchen and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He felt revived.
He glanced at the clock when he went back to the living room. Under the dim moonlight, he saw the hands point to eight-thirty.
He had slept for nearly nine hours!
Whiff. A red dot lit up in the dark only to disappear in the next moment.
Xu Ping stopped dead in his tracks.
The master bedroom door was not fully shut, and he could see the large, still figure that was his dad seated deep in the weave chair. His back was slightly hunched as though something heavy was weighing down on his spine. He had his arms rested on the knees while a lit cigarette rested between his left index and middle fingers. Its feeble red light winked in and out of existence.
Something about this picture made Xu Ping’s heart ache.
Lazy smoke slithered up into the dark air like an ugly beast preparing its attack. The red light glowed at the lift of a hand, and the white paper turned into bleak ash only to fall down without a sound.
Xu Ping turned around, wanting to pretend like he had not seen anything and walk away.
“Xu Ping?” Xu Chuan asked with his back to the door.
Xu Ping could only stop and answer, “It’s me.”
The two fell quiet.
They were the two closest people, yet they couldn’t find the words to hold a conversation.
Xu Chuan killed the smoke and, along with it, all his dark emotions.
“Hungry? I’ll fix us something.”
Neither of them said a word during the meal.
The tomatoes were a bit burnt and the omelette had bits of eggshell in it. Xu Ping spat out the chewed shells and continued eating his rice.
“Have more veggies.” Xu Chuan put some chives into his son’s bowl.
Xu Ping glanced up. “Thank you, Dad.”
Clunk. The clock hand jumped to nine-thirty. Normally, Xu Zheng would be in bed at this time.
The father and son stopped eating at the same time, and a heavy silence hovered in the room.
“I’ll clean up. You go to bed; you have school tomorrow.” Xu Chuan pulled back his chair and stood up to tidy the dishes.
Xu Ping had just come out from the bathroom after brushing his teeth when he heard a knock at the door.
There was the splish-splash of water coming from the kitchen with the occasional clinking of dishes and chopsticks.
Xu Ping opened the door to find a plump middle-aged woman with long permed curls standing in the lightless hall. She was wearing a blue satin one-piece while carrying a plastic net bag in one hand.
Xu Ping found her familiar but couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Who are you looking for, ma’am?”
The woman pulled a smile and asked, “Is Lao-Xu in?”
Xu Ping nodded and turned around to get his dad.
Xu Chuan dried his hands and went to see the visitor while Xu Ping dried the clean dishes and placed them back into the cupboard.
He could hear quiet voices from the doorway. His dad was probably having small talk with the visitor. Their voices were too low and he couldn’t make out the words.
In less than five minutes, he heard the door close and the lock clinking into place.
Xu Ping walked out of the kitchen to see his dad placing the bag full of canned fruits on the dinner table.
“Who was that?”
Xu Chuan didn’t answer.
Xu Ping rummaged through the bag; peach, pineapple, mandarin orange, and even two jars of lychee which was hard to find even if you had the money to buy it.
At that time, canned fruits were a rare delicacy.
Xu Ping instantly became curious of this generous madam. “Who was that? Why did she give us so much canned fruit?”
Xu Chuan replied, “You’ve seen her before. She’s the commissar of the Cultural Troupe, your classmate Lu Jia’s mom.”
“Better that he dies! His mom’s half a retard, and his dad wasn’t clean either. That’s why they got married, and their kid, Xu Zheng, turned out a retard, too! My mom said so, that’s what everyone at work says! Retard is in the genes! So when Xu Ping gets married, his son’s gonna be just like his brother, all retards!”
Xu Ping stared at his dad.
Xu Chuan stayed mute.
Xu Ping asked, “And you took it, Dad?”
Xu Chuan said, “Yes, I did.”
Xu Ping nodded. “Good.”
He pushed open the living room windows. A round moon hung in the sky and a cool breeze blew in from afar.
He spotted Lu Jia’s mom walking out from his building, her high heels knocking sharply on the concrete. The faulty streetlights were flashing on and off as clouds of moths fluttered about.
Xu Ping didn’t know where he got the strength to hurl the dozen or so jars out the window.
BANG! CRACK! The glass shattered into a million pieces, scattering across the concrete. The sweet stench of fruits could be smelled from where he was.
The startled woman turned around.
Xu Ping shrieked out the window. “We don’t want your fucking fruit! Give me back my brother! Give ‘im back!”
The lights of the homes in the complex turned on and the residents were poking their heads out to see.
Xu Ping was jumping in fury as he held onto the windowsill. “So what if he’s a retard?! What right do you have to bully him?! Tell Lu Jia to come! Why didn’t he come to school?! He was fine beating me with a brick, wasn’t he?! You stinkin’ moneybags think you can do anything! He should come to finish the job, then! Get him here! Imma kill him! Imma–”
Xu Chuan grabbed his son by the waist and pulled him away from the window.
The boy’s nail broke on the windowsill and began to bleed.
The neighbours were talking and even the houses on the other side had their lights on.
The woman scurried off, not even looking at where she was going, and the sound of her clattering heels faded away.
Xu Chuan closed the windows.
His son was sitting on the floor, crying with clenched teeth.
“Why did you accept her gift?!”
“She came to apologize.”
“Do you know what she says about us behind our backs?! She said you married Mom because of your status. She said retard is in the genes. She said Xu Zheng’s a retard because Mom was a retard!”
“What they choose to say is up to them.”
Xu Ping questioned with eyes red with fury. “Are we your sons or not?!”
Xu Chuan really wanted to slap the boy, but he stopped himself.
He pulled his son off from the floor, barking, “What do you want me to do?! Beat them up to exact revenge?! You want me to go beat up Lu Jia and his mom?!”
Xu Ping was dumbfounded. He knew that it was not the right thing to do, but he was in so much pain. It felt like he was walking barefoot on the scorching road to hell, and he just wanted to drag everyone who had hurt him along with him.
After a long pause, Xu Chuan finished, “Sorry, but I can’t do that.”
Xu Ping cried, “I hate you, Dad!”
Xu Chuan grabbed his son’s shoulders. It took all his will to stop the rage from taking over.
He had always thought that being a father was one of the most difficult things in life, but never had he ever wanted to explode with anger.
“You look down on Xu Zheng. You think he’s stupid and clingy. You think he’s always holding you back and making the classmates bully you and laugh at you, don’t you?! And when I don’t exact revenge like the way you want, you think I don’t care about you, don’t love you, so you hate me. Is that right?!”
Xu Ping just kept sobbing.
Xu Chuan thought he must have been a failure of a father. How did he raise a son like this? The boy understood nothing. This was nothing compared to the hardships that life had in plan.
He said to Xu Ping, “Your brother can see no one else. He’s slow to feel pain. He can’t feel anything when people bully him or ridicule him. There’s only one person in this world who can hurt him. Now tell me who that is!”
Xu Ping was crying so hard he could not breathe.
He knew. He had always known. His brother had gone missing because he told him to go die. It was his sin and it trapped him in like a tar pit, suffocating him.
Xu Chuan let go of his son.
“I am a failure of a father, and you are a failure of a brother! I’ll say this once. Never hold someone else responsible for your own responsibilities! You think life is unfair. Life is unfair to each and every person. What you must do is to shoulder the responsibility that belongs to you. You must not fear and run away, and do not blame someone else!”
Xu Ping was gasping for air while he said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry….”
He had been waiting, waiting for the chance to apologize to his brother and to beg for his forgiveness.
All his hate and anger was not aimed at others but rather a reflection of himself.
He hated himself more than anyone else.
Xu Chuan pulled his son close. “You’re a man! And men don’t cry!” He wiped the boy’s face clumsily. “Just remember to say sorry to your brother when he comes back.”
Xu Ping nodded as he choked on his tears.
“Don’t use the word ‘hate’ so easily again. You’ll find out when you grow up that there is so much hate in this world that two strangers could murder each other in cold blood over disputes about money or differences in values. If you hate your family, then you have no reason to keep living. Don’t talk about dying so easily, either. Dying is nothing; everyone dies. But living is much harder. Remember, Xu Ping, you will only have one brother, Xu Zheng, and Xu Zheng will only have you as his one brother. I will die too one day, so if you really feel sorry, you must live on for his sake!”
Xu Ping nodded as tears trickled down his face.
Xu Chuan didn’t know how much of this the young boy understood. No one knew better than him how heavy a burden it was.
But Xu Ping was still young and Xu Chuan could still support them for now.
He really wanted Xu Ping to promise him that he would never abandon his brother after their dad died, but in the end, he couldn’t say it.
Xu Chuan sighed and brought his son in for a hug.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
ayszhang: I didn't even realize it was Valentine's!!! That's why I'm releasing this before any proofreaders has worked on it <3 Wish y'all a happy Valentine's and remember it's also Single's Awareness Day :'D
Brother - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.