Xu Sanguan worked in the silk factory in town, distributing silkworm cocoons to the spinners. But today he was out in the country visiting his grandpa. His grandpa's eyes had dimmed and blurred with age, and he was having trouble making out who it was standing by the door. He called for Xu Sanguan to stand a bit closer, looked him over for a moment, and then asked, "Son, where's your face?"
Xu Sanguan said, "Grandpa, I'm not your son, I'm your grandson, and my face is right here in front of you." He pulled his grandpa's hand over to his face, let him pat it, and then put it back in his lap. His grandpa's palms felt like raw silk yarn.
His grandpa asked, "Why doesn't your dad come and see me?"
"Dad died a long time ago."
His grandpa nodded, and a string of saliva slipped out from between his lips. He tilted his head and sucked until some of it came back in. "Son, how's your health?"
"Good," Xu Sanguan said. "Grandpa, I'm not your son."
His grandpa continued, "Do you sell your blood too?"
Xu Sanguan shook his head. "No, I've never sold my blood."
"Son," Grandpa said, "you're telling me that you're in good health, but you've never sold your blood. I think you're trying to make a fool of me."
"Grandpa, what are you trying to say? I don't understand. Grandpa, are you senile?"
Grandpa shook his head.
Xu Sanguan added, "Grandpa, I'm not your son. I'm your grandson."
"Son," his grandpa continued, "your dad wouldn't listen to me. Fell for some 'flower' or other in town."
"Golden Flower. That's my mom."
"Your dad said he was old enough. He told me he wanted to go into town and marry some 'flower' or other. I said, 'Your two older brothers haven't gotten married yet.' If the eldest hasn't even gotten married yet, how could I let the youngest go ahead and take a wife before him? Around here, that's not how you play by the rules."
xu sanguan sat on his fourth uncle's roof gazing at the horizon. The sky was a wash of crimson that seemed to emanate from the muddy paddies in the distance, shining across the fields, transforming the crops into a vast tomato-red expanse. Everything was bright red--the little streams and paths that crawled across the land, the trees, the thatched cottages and the fishponds, even the streams of smoke that poured crookedly out from village chimneys.
Xu Sanguan's fourth uncle was spreading fertilizer across the melon patch beside the house as two women, one older, one younger, walked past. Xu Sanguan's uncle said, "Guihua looks more and more like her mama."
The younger of the two women smiled, and the older one caught sight of Xu Sanguan sitting on the roof. "Who's that sitting on your roof?"
Xu Sanguan's uncle said, "That's my third brother's son."
The three people below all glanced up at Xu Sanguan. Xu Sanguan chuckled as he looked down toward the young woman called Guihua. Guihua lowered her eyes to the ground. The older woman said, "He looks just like his dad."
Xu Sanguan's uncle said, "Guihua's getting married next month, isn't she?"
The older woman shook her head, "Guihua's not getting married next month. We've broken off the engagement."
"Broken the engagement?" The fertilizing trowel in Xu Sanguan's uncle's hand dropped to the ground.
The older woman lowered her voice. "The boy's health is no good. He can only eat one bowl of rice at a time. Even Guihua can eat two bowls of rice at a time."
Xu Sanguan's uncle lowered his voice as well. "How did that boy go and ruin his health?"
"I really don't know how it happened. First I heard people say he hadn't gone to the hospital to sell blood for almost a year. That got me wondering if maybe he had some kind of problem, so I sent someone to invite him over for dinner, just so I could see for myself how much he could eat. If he could eat a couple big bowls of rice, I figured I could set my mind at ease, and if he could eat three, well, Guihua would have been his. He ate one bowl, but when I went to get him some more, he said he was full, said he couldn't eat any more. Imagine a big strong man like that not even being able to eat a little more. Well, I figured there's something wrong with him for sure."
Xu Sanguan's uncle nodded his approval. "You're a thoughtful mother."
The older woman said, "That's what mothers are for."
The two women glanced up once more toward Xu Sanguan, who was still chuckling as he looked at the younger woman. The older woman said once again, "Looks just like his dad."
The two women walked away, one in front of the other. Both of them had big rears, and as Xu Sanguan looked down on them from above, he had trouble distinguishing where their buttocks ended and their thighs began. When they were gone, Xu Sanguan watched Fourth Uncle continue to spread fertilizer across the melon patch as the sun set and his body grew increasingly indistinct in the haze of dusk.
"How much longer are you going to work, Uncle?"
"I'll be done pretty soon now," his uncle said.
"Uncle, there's something I don't understand that I want to ask you about."
"Is it true that people who sell their blood are really healthy?"
"That's right," Fourth Uncle said. "Didn't you hear what Guihua's ma said just now? Around here the men who haven't sold blood can't get themselves a wife."
"What kind of rule is that?"
"I don't know if there's a rule or not, but everyone who's strong enough goes to sell his blood. You get thirty-five yuan a shot. That's more than you make in six months in the fields. And blood's like well water. If you never go to the well, the source dries up, but if you use it every day, there'll always be just as much water as there was before."
"But Uncle, if what you say is true, then selling blood's a real money tree."
"That depends on whether or not you're in shape. If you're not in shape, you might as well sell your life away when you go sell blood. When you go sell blood, the hospital has to check you out first. First they take a tube of blood and check to see whether or not you're healthy. They'll only let you sell to them if you're healthy."
"Fourth Uncle, do you think I'm in good enough shape to sell blood?"
Fourth Uncle looked up at his nephew on the roof, who looked back at him, torso bared and grinning. The flesh on his arms looked solid, so Fourth Uncle said, "You could sell blood."
Xu Sanguan grinned to himself until another thought crossed his mind, and he looked down at his uncle. "Fourth Uncle, I want to ask you something else."
"What is it?"
"You said that when they check you at the hospital, they take a tube of blood, right?"
"Do they pay you for it?"
"No," Fourth Uncle said, "you give it to them for free."
the three of them walked down the road. The oldest was in his thirties, the youngest only nineteen. Xu Sanguan, who was walking in between them, was somewhere in the middle. He said to the two men walking beside him, "You're carrying watermelons, and you've both got a big bowl in your pockets. Are you planning to sell watermelons in town when you're done selling blood? One, two, three, four--you each have four watermelons. Why so few? Why not bring in a hundred pounds each? What are those bowls for anyway? Why didn't you bring any food? What are you going to have for lunch?"
"We never bring anything to eat when we're going to sell blood," the nineteen-year-old, Genlong, replied, "When we're finished selling blood, we're going to go to a restaurant to have a plate of fried pork livers and two shots of yellow rice wine."
The man in his thirties was called Ah Fang, who explained, "The pork livers build up the blood, and the rice wine gives it life."
Xu Sanguan went on, "You said you sell four hundred milliliters each time. How much is that really?"
Ah Fang took a bowl from out of his pocket, "See this bowl?"
"Two bowls at a time."
"Two bowls?" Xu Sanguan sucked in a breath. "They say it takes a whole bowl of rice just to make a few drops of blood. So how many bowls of rice do you have to eat to make two bowls of blood?"
Ah Fang and Genlong chuckled. Ah Fang said, "It's no use at all if you only eat rice. You have to eat the pork livers and drink some rice wine."
"Xu Sanguan," Genlong went on, "didn't you say just now that we don't have enough watermelons? I'll tell you something. We aren't planning to sell any watermelons today. These melons are gifts."
Ah Fang added, "These melons are for Blood Chief Li."
"Who's Blood Chief Li?"
They had arrived at the head of a little wooden bridge. A stream stretched into the distance, widening and narrowing as it flowed through the fields. Green weeds poked out above the surface of the water, clinging to the banks of the stream and climbing up the edges of the surrounding rice paddies.
Ah Fang stopped and said to Genlong, "Genlong, we'd better drink some water now."
Genlong put down his melon-laden carrying pole and shouted, "Time to drink!"
They took their bowls out from their pockets and clambered down the embankment. Xu Sanguan crossed to the middle of the wooden bridge, standing to watch as they dipped their bowls into the stream, waving them back in forth in the water until they had swept away all the weeds and debris from the area directly in front of them. This accomplished, they noisily gulped down bowl after bowl of water--four or five bowls each.M
Xu Sanguan, still standing above them, called out, "Did you two eat lots of salted pickles for breakfast?"
Ah Fang looked up. "We didn't have any breakfast. We drank eight bowls of water though. And besides what we just drank, we still have to stop in town and have some more, until our stomachs are so swollen that it hurts and the roots of our teeth start to ache. Because the more water you drink, the more blood there will be. The water sinks into the blood."
"When the water sinks into the blood, does the blood get watery?"
"Sure. But there's more of it."
"Now I know why you brought the bowls along," Xu Sanguan said, as he too climbed down the embankment toward the stream.
"Will one of you lend me a bowl? I'll drink some too."
Genlong handed him his bowl. "Take mine."
Xu Sanguan took hold of the bowl and squatted down by the stream.
Ah Fang said, "The water on top's dirty, and the stuff on the bottom is too. You want to drink from the middle."
When they had finished drinking from the stream, they continued down the road. This time Ah Fang and Genlong walked next to each other while Xu Sanguan walked to one side, listening to the rhythmic squeaking of their carrying poles.
Xu Sanguan said, "You've been carrying those the whole way. Let me take one."
Genlong said, "Take Ah Fang's for a while."
Ah Fang said, "A few watermelons don't bother me. When I go to town to sell melons, I usually carry a hundred pounds at a time."
Xu Sanguan asked, "Just now you mentioned Blood Chief Li. Who's he?"
"Blood Chief Li," Genlong explained, "is the bald man who's in charge of buying blood for the hospital. He's the one that decides who gets to sell blood and who doesn't."
"And that's why you call him Blood Chief Li," Xu Sanguan concluded.
Ah Fang continued, "Sometimes there's a lot of people who want to sell blood, but not very many patients in the hospital who need it. At times like those, everything depends on whether or not you're on Blood Chief Li's good side. Because the people who are on his good side are the ones who'll get to sell their blood."
Ah Fang added by way of explanation, "And what exactly does it mean to be on Blood Chief Li's good side? In Blood Chief Li's own words, 'When someone remembers me even when he doesn't need to sell any blood. When he remembers me from time to time.' And what does it mean to remember him from time to time?"
Ah Fang pointed at the watermelons dangling from the carrying pole, "This is what it means to remember him from time to time."
"We're not the only ones who remember him either," Genlong added. "That girl named Ying something or other remembers him all the time."
The pair burst into broad grins. Ah Fang told Xu Sanguan, "She gets on his good side under the covers. If she wanted to sell some blood, everyone else would have to stand aside, no matter who it happened to be. And if somebody should offend her, well, it wouldn't matter if his blood belonged to an Immortal, because Blood Chief Li wouldn't even let him give it away."
They arrived at the edge of town as they spoke. As soon as they got into the city, Xu Sanguan took the lead, because he was from town and knew his way around. They told him they wanted to find a good place to drink some more water. Xu Sanguan said, "Once you get into town, you shouldn't drink stream water anymore. It's dirty here. I'll take you to drink well water."
The two followed Xu Sanguan's lead as he guided them down a twisting narrow lane, saying as he went, "I can't hold it in anymore. Let's find somewhere to pee."
Genlong said, "You can't pee. If you pee, all that water will go to waste. And you'll have less blood to spare."
Ah Fang said to Xu Sanguan, "We drank a lot more than you, and we're still holding it in." He turned to Genlong. "His bladder's small."
Xu Sanguan, brows furrowed against the pain of his swollen bladder, began to move more and more slowly down the lane. "Can it kill?"
"What do you mean can it kill?"
"Kill me! I mean, could my stomach burst?"
"Do the roots of your teeth ache?" Ah Fang asked.
"My teeth? Let me check....No, I guess they don't."
"Then there's nothing to be afraid of. As long as your teeth don't ache, there's no risk of the bladder bursting," Ah Fang affirmed.
Xu Sanguan brought them to a stone well near the hospital, which stood under the canopy of an old tree, its sides carpeted in green moss. A wooden bucket with a length of neatly coiled hemp rope tied to its handle lay to one side of the well. They threw the bucket into the well, where it hit the water below like a resounding slap in the face. When they had drawn a bucketful of water, Genlong and Ah Fang each drank two bowls. Ah Fang handed Xu Sanguan his bowl, and he too drank a bowl of water. Ah Fang and Genlong urged him to drink another, but after Xu Sanguan poured the water into the bowl and took a couple of sips, he poured what was left back into the bucket. "My bladder's too small. I can't drink any more."
From the Hardcover edition.