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By Pearl S. Buck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1948 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
In their despair men must hope, when a promise is given, though it be only a promise. Thus, though his second son always shook his head when Ling Tan spoke of the promise, still the old man believed in it. The truth was that Ling Tan, as many did, believed the men of Ying and Mei to be the strongest and fiercest of all men on earth, and he and all others in this enemy-ridden land daily hoped that by some provocation the enemy would overstep themselves and enrage those foreigners across the sea and force them to come into the war, and thus bring an end to it. For, evil and strong as the enemy was, none believed even this enemy could conquer the foreigners, the hairy men of Ying and Mei.
Nor would Ling Tan listen to his sons when they told him that these foreigners were not so strong as they had once been. Thus in the city one day where Lao Er had gone to sell some salted duck eggs, he saw an enemy guardsman spit into the face of a foreigner, and the foreigner did no more than wipe it off with a white cloth he took out of his pocket.
"He keeps that white cloth in his pocket, doubtless," Lao Er said to his father when he came back, "and he keeps it just to wipe off enemy spittle from his face. All we who saw it were amazed, and a man who stood near me to sell his dumplings to those who passed said that he would never have believed it. He said that it used to be when a foreign man or even a foreign woman was given an insult, or so much as what they thought an insult, men with guns came down from foreign warships that lay always ready in the river."
"Where are those warships now?" Lao Ta asked. "There are only enemy warships in the river these days. And one day when I went into the city gate from the river side, I saw foreigners stopped even as we are stopped and their clothes taken off and their bodies searched by the enemy guardsmen, and they were as meek and helpless as we are, having no guns. Do not hope too much now, old father."
Thus his two sons begged Ling Tan lest he be too grieved for his own good when the promise the foreigners had made was not kept. But he still hoped, for where was there hope in any other place?
All through that evil autumn, though the skies were so tranquil and clear above the harvest fields, the times grew steadily worse. The village of Ling lived as though it were in the middle of a silent world. No news came in from the outside except such as could leak in by the whispers of men hastening through on plans of their own. From these Ling Tan and his sons heard that the war still went on in the free land. They heard, too, that though the capital of the country was moved far inland, even there the enemy went and sent down the great bombs which had torn up the earth near the village, a single bomb strong enough to make the large pond. That hole was full of water now, and on the day that Ling Tan heard how the inland capital was bombed he went and looked at the hole and thought to himself how it would be if great pits like that were dug into a city and what of the people? Even if they hid in the rocky hills, as it was said they did, could it go on forever? He was compelled the more to hope that from the world outside there might come help against this bitter enemy.
And again in the eighth month of that year Ling Tan and his sons heard that outside in the free land there was now war made on the enemy in five provinces at once, and this was the first time they heard of Lao San. The word came through a traveling priest, who said that all young and strong men were gathering together for that new war. Then he took out a paper from his gray robe, and in the paper was a piece of black hair that lay in a curl and he said, "This was given to me by the tallest young man I have ever seen, and he told me to go out of my way to pass this house and that you would give me food when you saw this piece of hair which he cut from his own head as he stood before me. He took his short sword and cut it off and gave it to me."
Now when Ling Sao heard the priest say this she cried out that this was surely her third son's hair who had gone away many days before this and with him some of the hill men whom he led.
"Whose hair curls like this except my third son's?" she cried. "I never saw any hair like it, and I always said it was because when he was in my womb I craved eels. Do you remember how I ate eels when I carried your third son, old man?"
"I do remember," Ling Tan said, "and when he was born we were all grieved at the way his hair was. It curled on his head, like eels, as you say, old woman. But it was too late then. And it has always grown out of him like that. Where did you say you saw him, good priest?"
"Near the city of Long Sands," the priest said.
"Was he in rags?" Ling Sao asked anxiously.
"No, he was in whole cloth," the priest said, "and he looked full fed and happy enough. But he was on the way to battle, as all young men were in those parts, for it is expected that the enemy is gathering itself for a new attack upon that city."
Ling Sao took the hair from the priest's hand and wrapped it in a bit of red paper that she had kept in a drawer of the table in her own room, and Ling Tan told the wife of his eldest son to prepare food for the priest, as much as he could eat, and then more to take with him. This the woman did, for she had become in this house a willing, faithful soul whom all called upon and she never said she was weary. Even the work that Jade once did this woman now took for her own duty and if Jade mentioned it, she laughed and said, "If you suckle those two boys of yours what else can be asked of you?" And it was true that Jade's twin sons were always hungry, and it seemed however much Jade ate and however she drank rice gruel mixed with red sugar and however she supped broths and ate eggs boiled in tea she could never turn the food fast enough into milk for those two thirsty boys at her breasts.
That day after the priest had gone, his belly swelled under his girdle with what he had eaten and his basket full of food for tomorrow, they all sat and wondered about the third son and whether he would be killed in the battle or not, and what would become of him.
It was not long after this that Jade had a letter and when she opened it she found it was written by Mayli, and it came from that province which is called Yünnan, or South of the Clouds, and it was from the city of Kunming. There Mayli had told Jade she would go, and there she was. It was a short letter, seemingly full of playful talk and yet it ended with this question, "How is it your husband's younger brother has not brought me back my little silk flag?"
Now none but Jade and Lao Er knew about that small silk flag or how Mayli had given it to Jade to give to Ling San as a sign that she was going to the free land if he cared to follow her. So now when Jade was reading the letter to them aloud as they sat in the sunshine in the court one day in the autumn of that year, she saw that question ahead and did not read it aloud to them, lest they press her with questions she could not answer. But afterward when she was in their own bedroom she told Lao Er about it and he smiled.
"He will be there one of these days," he said.
And so it was that something more than a month later there was another letter to Jade and this time Mayli said, "Tell your parents that their third son has come here to this city, and he has fought in the battle of Long Sands, and he is full of the great victory we won there against the enemy."
More than this Mayli did not say, but so much they all heard and were greatly cheered to know that somewhere there was a victory and that Lao San was alive. Only Ling Sao fretted because there was not more in the letter to tell her whether her third son and this Mayli were to be married or not. But no, there was not a word of marriage, not in this letter or another that came afterward, and Ling Sao grew angry and said:
"I wish I had that third son of mine here and I would jerk his ears! When did a son of mine ever go smelling around a woman when she was not his wife? If he is hungry for her, why does he not marry her? And she is worse than he is, to let him come near her, the bold daughter of a rotten mother—"
"Give over cursing, woman," Ling Tan said. "Why is it that women will curse each other so easily?"
"Perhaps she will not marry my brother," Lao Ta said. "You must remember, mother, that she is full of learning, and my brother does not know even his name on paper when he sees it."
But Ling Sao flung up her head at her son. "If she has her belly full of ink, she is not the woman for him anyway," she said, "and all the more he ought not to go near her."
By this time they were all laughing at her and she seized one of the twins from Jade's arms, and bore him away to comfort herself in the kitchen. For this woman could always be comforted by one of her grandsons. Her older children she could find fault with but the little ones were perfect in her eyes.
These were the small things of Ling Tan's house, and somehow the house went on, even though the countryside was under the heavy rule of the enemy. Somehow they got enough food out of the earth for themselves, and Lao Ta and Lao Er grew clever in ways of deceiving the enemy. Since he had married the woman he found one day in his trap, Lao Ta had ceased to set traps any more, for she loved him beyond all reason, and she would not have him risk his life. So she wept until she had made him come home and live in his father's house again, and till the fields, and be once more a decent farmer. Yet though this family seemed nothing but a common family such as in any country may be found upon the soil, they never for one moment gave up their hatred of the enemy nor their will that, when Heaven set the day, all the people, and they among them, would sweep the enemy into the sea.
To himself Ling Tan always said that the day would be that one when the men of Mei could be made so enraged that they, too, would join this war.
"On that day," he said to his sons one night, "when we hear that the men of Mei have come into this war on our side, we shall all be given strength to rise up and fall upon the enemy and drive them out. Each man in his place will rise and fall upon the enemy next him, even though he has only his bare hands to put at the enemy's throat, and then we shall all be free."
It was on a cool night at the end of that month when he said this—so cool that Ling Sao had bade her two sons move the table from the court and set it inside the main room, so that they could eat their night meal in warmth. There had not yet been frost, but she lifted her head and sniffed the night air before she shut the door.
"I smell winter tonight," she said.
"The fifth winter of this war," Ling Tan said gravely. "But next winter we shall be free again."
None spoke when he said this, not wanting to take away hope from him. He had come to believe too much in that day of his hope, plucking his belief out of the air, for there was still not one word of news from the outside world to tell him that the promise would be kept by the men of Mei and Ying. Even the random news they had been used to hearing from their old cousin who had lived in the city was now gone. For that old scholar had one night taken too much opium and had not waked again. The man who owned the poor room where he slept his life away found him dead the next morning, and was about to throw his frail body outside the city wall, for in these times the dead were not valuable as they once were. There were too many dead bodies in the streets each dawn, some starved and some diseased and some stabbed by who knows what dagger? Then the man saw that the dead one wore a good cotton vest under his ragged scholar's robe, and so he thought he would take the vest off for himself, and then he found tied to it with a bit of thread a command from the dead man. "Should I be found dead," the old scholar had written, "take my body to my wife who lives in the village of Ling outside the south wall of the city."
This the man had done, wishing a reward for it, and Ling Tan gave it to him, be sure. But what a day that had been, when at last the cousin's wife got back her old man! It was a day of mixed rage and sorrow, for she was so vexed that she could not mourn properly because however she scolded her old man could not hear her as he lay in the coffin Ling Tan gave him. It was Ling Sao's own coffin, for both Ling Tan and Ling Sao had their coffins ready in an outhouse, and this had been done in the summer when Ling Tan was sixty years old. It was a comfort to them both to know that should death come down upon them, unseen, their coffins were ready and waiting for sleep.
But now Ling Sao let the cousin's wife have hers. "I can get another the next time my sons go into the city," she said, "and let the old scholar's bones rest at last."
So they did as she said, and the cousin's wife wept and grew angry by turns. First she wept and moaned and then when she fell to thinking of those many months this old corpse had hidden himself in the city and how he had put all he earned into opium she grew angry and she stopped weeping and washed her face and combed her hair and cried out that she was glad he was dead, for he had been no use to her alive, and then she would remember that now indeed she was a widow and so she wept again, and all in all she made such commotion in the village that all were glad to have the old man under ground.
Once during the day before he was buried, Ling Tan looked down into the coffin and smiled. The old scholar, though wasted to his skeleton with opium, looked so peaceful that Ling Tan knew he was pleased as he lay there. He told Ling Sao that night, "I swear I believe the old rascal knows that he has the best of it because she cannot make him hear any more."
Still, after the dead scholar was under ground, there was no other way of knowing what was going on beyond the seas, and Ling Tan had now only the promise to hold to, for hope.
How then could he be ready for that most evil day which came down upon them from heaven? On that day the enemy took by surprise the men of Mei. They fell upon the foreign ships as they lay side by side in a foreign harbor, and they set fire to the airplanes, resting wing to wing upon the ground. And those who had the keeping of these ships of sea and cloud were sleeping or finding their pleasure on a day when all were idle. Be sure that the enemy made known everywhere their victory. They cried it upon the streets and it was written upon the walls in great letters, and voices took it over the land faster than the winds could carry it. So the news reached the village of Ling. It was a clear cool day, such a day as in better times Ling Tan would have cried out to Ling Sao to make him noodles of white wheat flour. He had smelled the frost at the door that morning and he looked out and saw it white on the threshing ground.
"If it were the real times," he said to her, "I would eat wheaten noodles today."
"There is only the same millet," she said, "but it is hot."
So he ate his hot millet and the day went as it always did, his sons busy with their tasks, and he sitting in the sun to smoke his water pipe. Then suddenly one came running toward the house. It was a young fellow, the son of a neighbor in the next village and he came to Ling Tan first. He was weeping as he ran, and Ling Tan shouted at him.
"What now? Can there be anything more than what has happened to us already?"
"There is worse and it has happened," the lad said, and then gasping and sobbing he told him. In the early morning of that day the enemy had fallen upon the ships and the airplanes of the people of Mei, thousands of miles across the sea, and had destroyed them utterly. The men of Mei were full of rage—but helpless.
Ling Tan sat, his water pipe in his hand and heard this black news. "I will not believe it," he said.
But his mouth went dry. For the young man went on with such a close story that Ling Tan saw it might have happened thus to a people unwatching. If the men of Mei were unmindful, it might have been so. And well he knew the cunning of this enemy. He called the young man in and before his sons he made him tell the story over again. Then he sent his sons for the other men in the village and they all came into Ling Tan's court, and once again the young man told his story. Each time it seemed more possible.
When it had been told for the third time, Ling Tan knocked the cold ash from his pipe which he had forgotten to smoke. Then he turned to Ling Sao.
"Get my bed ready," he said. "I must lie down, and I do not know whether I shall ever get up again."
Excerpted from The Promise by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1948 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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