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Ling Tan lifted his head. Over the rice field in which he stood to his knees in water he heard his wife's high loud voice. Why should the woman call him now in mid-afternoon when it was not time to eat or to sleep? In the further corner of the field his two sons were bending over the water, their two right arms thrusting together like the arms of one man as they planted the rice seedlings.
"Ho!" he shouted. As one man they stood at the sound of their father's voice.
"Is that your mother?" he inquired.
They listened, two sturdy young men. He felt his belly move with pride at the sight of them. They were both already married, and the eldest, Lao Ta, had two sons, the youngest now only a month old. Lao Er, the second, had been married four months and his wife was beginning to fret. Besides these two, Ling Tan had his youngest son, Lao San, who at this moment was sitting on the water buffalo grazing somewhere on the round grassy foothills along this valley. There were also two daughters in his house, only one of whom was left to be wed. The elder he had given to a merchant's son in the city whose walls could be clearly seen from behind his house.
At this moment his wife's voice came too clearly for any mistaking. She bawled at him heartily over the fields.
"You old bone, where are you? You deaf-and-dumb!"
"It is our mother," Lao Ta exclaimed. All three men grinned at one another, and Ling Tan put into the water the sheaf of rice seedlings he was holding in his left hand.
"It is throwing away money to stop in the middle of the afternoon like this," he said. "You two, do not stop!"
"Free your heart about that," his eldest son replied.
The young men bent again to their work and with each swift thrust of their hands into the muddy tepid water they planted a green seedling. Their feet sank into the rich mud under the water, and upon their dark bare backs the sun was warm. Beneath the wide woven bamboo hats upon their heads they talked.
These two sons of Ling Tan's were good friends and had always been from the moment they could remember themselves. There was less than a year between their births, and they had always told each other everything. Even marriage to two separate women had not separated them. These women they had been discussing when their father called, and to them they returned when he went away. They were still so young, these two men, that their own bodies and what they ate and drank and what came into the day and the night were all stuff for wonder and talk. So far as their thoughts yet went, the world was bounded by the green hills around the valley where their father's land was, which was to be their land, and the center of the world was the Ling village, wherein all who lived and died were their kin and had been for hundreds of years. Even that great city was only their marketplace. When there was a harvest of grain or vegetable or fruit they went there and sold their harvest, and that was all they knew of the city or cared to know. Since their sister, born just after them, was now married to a small merchant in the city, they sometimes blamed themselves and said they ought to go and see their brother-in-law, but they seldom went. There was enough to busy them on the land.
Under their hats they now talked, without abating one whit of swiftness in the thrust of seedling into mud. Behind them was the watery empty field and in front of them the even rows of green seedlings standing firmly upright.
"Can a man tell when what he plants in a woman takes root?" Lao Er asked his brother.
"It is blind planting," Lao Ta said, laughing, "and so it must be done over and over again. It is not like this planting we do in the light of the sun. Does she struggle against you?"
"At first, but now never," Lao Er said.
"Leave her alone for three days and then behave as though it were the first planting," Lao Ta told his brother. He went on in manner of the elder to the younger. "When a man plants his seed, the soil must be prepared. That is to say, the seed must not be thrown down anyhow. All must be made ready and only when it is ready may the seed be cast. Nor must the seed be scattered as the wind blows weeds. It must be thrust deep into the earth, so—and so—and so—"
Each time that he repeated this word he thrust his bare dark arm down into the wet earth and planted a sturdy seedling.
Lao Er listened to this with all his heart.
"I am an impatient man," he said, half ashamed.
"Then it is your own fault if you have no son," his elder brother replied. He threw a sly look at his brother, whom he loved, and his full mouth twisted into a smile. "When you are a year married, you will find the son more important than the mother."
"But how she frets," Lao Er said. "Every month when her flux comes she curses it."
They laughed again, seeing, both of them, the young high-tempered girl who was Lao Er's wife. The elder brother's wife was quiet and plump and if she had a temper, she kept it secret. But Lao Er's wife was like a western wind. Wherever she was she stirred all around her. Lao Er had loved her the moment he saw her.
Lao Ta loved his wife too, but not, he knew, with his whole being. That is, he could delay his going to bed until other and older men had yawned and stretched their muscles and given over their loitering at the tea shop in the village or about the square in front of the small temple. When he came home if his father were still awake he could stand gossiping on the threshing floor in front of the house. There was no haste in the way he loved his wife. She would be there asleep in his bed where she had early lain herself down, and he had only to go to her.
But Lao Er's wife was restless and full of mischief, and Lao Er never knew where she was until he had her safely beside him. Every evening he was torn between the watchful eyes of the other men, ready to laugh at him if he were the first to break away from them, and the desire in him to know where she was. Jade, he called her, though her full name was longer than that. "Jade!" he called the moment he came into their room. Sometimes she was there and oftener not. He seldom found her twice in the same place in the house or out of the house and never waiting for him in his bed. He longed to know if she loved him, but he had not dared to ask her, lest she laugh at him, she whose laughter, like her anger, was always too ready and too clear. He fell silent, wondering where at this moment she was in the house. In the morning she had come out into the fields and she helped him to plant rice, but after the noon meal she would not come.
"I want to sleep," she had told him, and threw herself on the bed in their room and went to sleep before his eyes. He longed to lay himself beside her and dared not, because his father would upbraid him for lying with his wife in the daytime, when rice seedlings were waiting to be planted. So he had gone off leaving her sleeping, her high-cheeked little face as pretty as a child's. But how long did she sleep and then what did she do? He cast a glance at the sun. It was still too high. He sighed, and went on with the planting.
... Under the matting roof which he always put over his courtyard in summer Ling Tan was listening to a stranger. He was a peddler of Shantung silks and grass cloth, one of those men who make their living by travelling south with their goods in spring and selling them to Southerners and then carrying back with them in early summer the thin silks of the South such as are not woven in the North. He had now from the North only a few pieces of grass cloth so coarse that he knew none but a farmer's wife would buy them and so he had left the city to go out among the villages. Thus he had come to this house because it was bigger than most farmhouses and because he saw at the gate a pretty young woman idling.
She seemed unwatched but she was not, for the moment he came up to her and spoke, the mother, Ling Sao, came out from behind the gate and said to him sharply:
"If you must speak to a woman, speak to me and not to my second son's wife."
"I was only going to ask her where her man's mother was," the peddler said hastily. He perceived in one glance of his eyes that this elderly woman was a strong managing mother, and the head of her house. "I am on my way north to my home," he said, "and I have left only a few feet of good grass cloth for summer wear and they told me in the village that you were the most discerning woman in these parts—"
"Put out your cloth and put in your tongue," the wife said.
He hastened to obey her, though he laughed politely when she said this, and in a few minutes they were quarreling heartily over the price of the grass cloth.
"I have put the price at a gift," he argued at last, "because there is to be war this summer in the North."
The cloth fell from her hand.
"What war now?" she asked.
"No war of ours," the man replied. "It is the little dwarfs from the East Ocean, who always like to fight."
"Will they come here?" she asked.
"Who knows?" he replied.
It was then that she went to the door and called for her husband to come.
Now Ling Tan listened to the peddler as they sat at the table under the matting roof of the court. Under his feet the stones were cool. It was a pleasant court, warm with sun in the winter and in the summer cool. An ancestor of his had sunk a small pool in its center and had planted a lotus in a jar. This lotus now bloomed with six flowers, deep red in the center where the yellow hearts were. The table was set here in the summer and here they ate even when it rained, for the matting held off the water. At the table he sat with the peddler while his wife poured them tea and then took her seat on a bench a little to one side. She was making shoes. The sole was thick but she had a long iron needle. When it held fast in the cloth she seized it in her strong white teeth and jerked it through and pulled the hempen thread after it. Ling Tan always turned his eyes away when he saw this for it set his own teeth on edge, though, because he did not know why, he had never told her so.
"You say the East-Ocean dwarfs have killed some of our people?" he now asked the peddler.
"In the North they have killed men, women and children," the peddler said.
He lifted his bowl and drank the tea and stood up. "I must reach Pengpu tomorrow and so I part from you," he said. He was a common looking fellow as peddlers are, his talk worn smooth with much use in many places.
Ling Tan did not stir. "What is the outlook?" he murmured to himself.
But since he asked no one, no one answered him. The peddler shouldered his pack and bowed and went away, and Ling Tan was left alone with his wife in the court. She went on sewing and he sat there looking around at his house. The walls were of ancient brick and the roofs were low and tiled. Inside the house the partitions were of brick laid single between beams of wood and first plastered with earth and then washed white with lime. Here his ancestors had lived and died and he had been born, the only son of his parents, and here his three sons lived and his grandson.
The afternoon was still and hot. The hearts of the lotus flowers quivered. In the silence he heard his grandson cry. Ling Sao rose and went into the house and he sat alone. He had a good life, he thought. He was lucky that his share of the earth was near a great city, near the big river, in a valley set under hills from which the water ran down even in dry weather. There was nothing that he desired that he did not have. He was neither rich nor poor. In his house his only dead child was a girl. He himself had never been ill. At fifty-six his body was thin and strong as it had been in his youth. He could beget sons as well as ever if it had not been that his wife was past it. An old woman in the village teased him often to buy a concubine through her but he would not.
"I have my sons," he had told the greedy old woman only yesterday.
"A man cannot have too many sons in these times," she had said. "What with wars and guns and all these foreign things, who can have sons enough?"
But he had only laughed. Except that she bore no child, his woman was as good as ever and better because she knew him to the core of his being. He was satisfied and he had no wish to begin over again with a young girl. Besides, peace flew out of the house when a second woman walked into the door.
He struck the table with his hand, swallowed the tea that was left in his bowl and stood up and tightened the strip of blue cloth that was the girdle about his waist.
"I go back to my work!" he shouted. No one answered him, but he expected no answer, since they were only women who heard him, and he went his way.
In the field he was pleased to see how near his sons were to the end at which he had been working. Another good hour and by sunset the field would be done. This was the last field and with it all his rice would be planted and his family fed for another year. He bent his back again and saw his own face dimly in the brown water, a thin face square at the cheeks and the jaws. He could always keep his hat on easily because the string caught firmly under his square chin. There were men in the village who had to hold a hat string between their teeth because their chins were slopes. But he was not one of them. And he could close his mouth over his teeth decently and need not always be agape as his third cousin was, who was nevertheless a good man and even a little learned, with sense enough to read the meaning out of the magistrate's proclamations on the city wall.
Ling Tan himself could not read a word. He had never needed to read. Sooner or later, he always said, a man heard everything. If it were good news he heard it quickly, and the more slowly he heard bad news the better. He had not sent his sons to school, either, and for this he had not yet been sorry, no, not even when from the schools in the city the young men and women students came into the villages to preach that today every man and woman should read and write. Looking at those pale students, he still thought to himself that he saw no reason to believe what they said. He had his own ways and he kept them.
Now in the field he did not speak to his sons nor they to him until the work was done and they met at the last seedling thrust down. Then they straightened themselves, the three of them, and pushed their hats off their heads to hang down their backs.
"What did our mother want?" Lao Ta asked.
"There was a peddler from the North and he brought news of a war," the father said. It had been an hour since he had thought of the matter and by now it seemed of no importance to him. The North was far from here. He measured with his sharp eye the lines of the seedlings, green against the brown water. The shadows they cast made a straight black line. His sons' right hands were as steady as his own. He wiped his face with the end of his girdle and said to his second son:
"Go and buy a little pork at your eighth cousin's shop. We will have it tonight with cabbage."
"Let me go for him," his elder son said mischievously.
Ling Tan gazed at his two sons and he saw that Lao Er's face was crimson. "Now what is between you?" he asked. Lao Ta laughed and would not speak, and the younger grinned like a silly boy. Their father smiled. They were still children, these two!
"Keep your cursed secrets," he said, laughing. "Do I care what you do?"
He turned homeward, very content, and a moment later saw his second son slip into the gate of the courtyard before him. Whatever it was that made him hasten from work at least it was in these walls, Ling Tan thought. It did not occur to him that it was his son's own wife that made him so quick.
... Lao Er went into the room that was his with Jade. She was not there.
"Jade!" he called. There was no answer. "Jade" he called again. He made his voice low. Perhaps she was hiding. Sometimes she hid and came out only when he was distracted, to laugh at him. But though he called yet again, she did not come out. The room was empty.
He felt the fear he always did when he could not find her at once. Had she run away from him? He went into the court to find his mother. She was not there and he went into the kitchen. The wooden lid of the cauldron was steaming with the evening's rice and so he looked behind the great earthen stove. There his mother was crouched, feeding the dried grass into the firebox. He could not for shame ask his mother where his wife was, and so in pretense he made his voice angry.
Excerpted from Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1941 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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