Final version posted!
Inspired by China’s poorer villages and people, ‘There is No God in China’ will be serially written and posted Sundays.
Under the famine sun, my uncle squatted to dip his hands into a murky pit. Dirt suspended in water, he said to me with a smile, is his secret kind of soap. He rinsed underneath his fingernails, between the creases of his palms.
Then we were off to see his land. We arrived, I for the first time and he for the first time since planting. We walked through a pale, scabby place. I would learn later that the sprouts of corn had butted against a hard roof, beneath our feet, and died in neat, plowed rows.
Yesterday, over dinner, my uncle had put his forearm next to mine and said we were two different species. I was a bean sprout, pale and lanky. He was a sweet potato, dark, fat, and affectionate on the inside. He spent the years working the soil with a towel to shade his face.
Now his potato skin oozed tears. They ran down his face to blend with the sweat around his neck.
I held my uncle in my bean sprout arms, his sweat mingling with mine, his tears on the tips of my fingers and soaking the coarse fabric of my sleeve.
I remember the soil being too soft, a false cushion of Mother Earth, for the ruin it hid and the heat of the sun, which seemed to evaporate all spirit from my uncle’s body. He was still, save for the tears dripping through his mustache and down the side of his chin.
When my legs had become numb and then beyond numb, my uncle pushed himself up with an elbow in the dirt. We had trouble walking, I for kneeling and he for the loss of something mortal.
Returning to the house, which he had built as a bulwark against all that would plague my aunt and cousins, he managed to straighten a little, though he still hiccuped every so often.
“Tang Sichun!” he yelled, standing on the brick porch, erect in the heat.
He called my aunt’s full name, all three characters, and whatever she was doing she dropped, and emerged into the sunlight. She wore a single piece of clothing, a full-length dress that could function as pajamas and work clothes solely in rural China. It was bright yellow, emblazoned with an outstretched phoenix, and a mockery of the garments of the ancient emperors.
My uncle took her into his arms. My aunt, sweat-stained, made no sound or movement, and my uncle whispered in her ear of the occurrence in their lives.
Then my aunt pulled away, wrinkles deep, smothered phoenix diminished, and returned inside. My uncle and I followed after exchanging our dust-coated shoes for plastic slippers.
“Uncle,” I said. The image of their stone and tile house straightened itself in my mind. “I’ll talk to my family and we’ll be able to help you. Renminbi converts from dollars – ”
My uncle shook his head. He took my shoulder and told me with grave eyes that I should never tell my mother of this matter.
I shook my head. “I’ll do anything for you both, uncle, and if that means – ”
My response was cut short by the crashing of cooking pots from the kitchen, followed by a shriek.
My uncle and I ran into where my aunt kneeled, sobbing, a flopping fish close to the stove, garlic and carrot and eggplant scattered, glistening. My uncle tried to make her stand up, but she threw herself away, close to the stove’s roaring flames.
“Aunt!” I yelled. I grabbed her dirty yellow dress and pulled her back. To my horror it came loose.
Stunned, I watched my aunt repeat her cries. She seemed mad, her hair undone, her dress ripped. My mother often talked about women occupying a place lower than dirt in the villages of China.
While my uncle busied himself with sounds of soothing, my aunt leapt up and ran on lithe feet into the bedroom, where she slammed the door. My uncle, who had not moved, gazed after her with an expression of unbearable sadness and helplessness.
The bedroom door stayed shut for the rest of the day. Something heavy blocked it from the inside. My uncle knocked, I knocked, but she made no response, no sound. Later my uncle told her she was being a bad host to me. I protested. Something like bedding rustled inside, but we heard nothing human.
At sundown, my uncle brought two peaches from the pantry. They were giant, white, and hard.
“I know you are Christian,” my uncle said to me. “But still, you are my nephew.” He explained that he wanted me to sacrifice the two peaches with him to the god of money, of whom a china figurine was displayed conspicuously on a ledge next to the dining table.
I could not respond. I recalled saying to my uncle that I would do anything to help him.
“Please,” my uncle said. The word frightened me. Something was heaving up my chest, rendering me helpless for the first time in my life. I took the peach in a daze and kneeled next to my uncle before the smiling god of money. The god’s long beard flowed, the coins in his arms shined. I did not close my eyes or bow my head as my uncle touched his forehead against the floor. He muttered for the god to forgive his failure to provide for my aunt and cousins, who would now all have to live lives of hardship and suffering unless the god saw fit to give him a second chance.
While he spoke, I tried to pray, pray to my God, but found I could not. I felt dry, but even worse was that the dryness did not come from my uncle and aunt’s ruined land.
We left the two peaches before the god of money’s luminous feet. I did not meet my uncle’s gaze, and he said nothing, even when I turned and left. I wished he would have thanked me for what I did, but I did not want his thanks.
His disregard for my faith hurt me. But then, perhaps he was secretly hurt that I had come to Longmu Village not for him and my family, though they were part of it, but because of my faith. Perhaps he secretly wished to reclaim me, his nephew, and viewed my belief in serving in the poorest of places I had access to as a peculiar fad, something that could be grown out of.
How much did my uncle love me? He had taken my head with both hands and kissed me at the train station. Then I felt ashamed for asking such selfish questions.
After a fitful sleep, I woke at dawn and decided to walk outside to settle my thoughts. I found my uncle curled up, snoring softly under the dining table.
Longmu Village was a place where the sun-scorched sweated among buzzing cicadas while worshipping ancestral bones in piles of dirt. I stepped outside, into its early morning fold, its wetness in the air, the cicadas faint but still buzzing, the sun strong for its hour-long day.
Farmers were already bent over among the freshly turned earth. They worked from four in the morning to noon. For the rest of the day, they took naps, played cards, and sat outside their huts smoking pipes and chewing sugar cane.
I walked underneath a row of rustling trees planted as windbreakers. A man was in the fields, guiding a donkey which pulled a steel blade that sliced mountains through the soil. As I passed, he straightened and waved. Soon he was walking towards me, leaving his donkey in the field.
As he got closer, I saw he was slightly older than me. He wasn’t sweaty, despite the dirt which streaked his arms, shorts, and bare feet. Thick, yellow cotton bandages were wrapped tightly around his calves all the way to his knees. I would learn later that he had a leg abnormality and the wrappings helped him plow and hoe. He walked jerkily, and smiled with teeth that could use braces.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, in English.
I asked if he spoke English, and he replied he knew a few phrases. His name was Lin Hao. He was the son of Mr. Lin, who lived across the sea of dirt from my uncle, and he had immediately recognized me from my American gait and height.
He was most interested in my studies in America and my opinion of rural people like him. He spoke the Longzhou dialect better than my uncle, his hands and eyebrows doing more of the talking than his lisping, high-pitched voice.
I answered his questions carefully, and when he asked why I had come and I replied that it was for teaching English and talking about God, he seemed impressed, and paused his questioning to consider the ascending sun and his donkey in the field.
He said he wanted to offer me something to eat. Unfortunately, it was nothing compared to the food in America, but he said he had picked and made the food himself, and wanted to eat with me because I reminded him of someone very special.
From a cloth knapsack hanging from a tree, he revealed two lumpy yams, a bowl of cold porridge, and a small pear that was the sharpest green I had ever seen. He noticed my look and put the pear in my hand. I said I couldn’t accept his nourishment for work, but he just smiled and closed my fingers around the cool roundness of the fruit. I bit into it and smiled broadly, which seemed to please him.
He stood up and retrieved his canteen, which dribbled water to rinse away the dirt on his hands and forearms. He wiped them on his shirt before sitting back down. Then he returned to asking questions.
“Do we see our loved ones upon death?” he asked.
Taken aback, but also happy to talk about my faith, I told him what Christians believed about heaven, and the sacrifice of God which took away all wrong. He listened with a frown.
“But if God is God,” he asked, “why does he have one and only one son? The son thing seems like a very human construction.”
I told him that God’s love manifested itself in the form of one because of the precious and sacred meaning of love. He replied that love was indeed precious and sacred.
“It’s also not good to distinguish between human and divine. We believe if we were truly human, we would also be divine, in God’s image,” I added.
That seemed to move him a great deal. Surprised, I asked what had happened. He shook his head.
“Is it peculiar that I’m asking you these questions?” he said. I told him not at all, that I was happy to talk about such things, and that it was even my duty to do so.
“So in Christian terms, one would see one’s beloved after death?” he repeated the question.
“Christians will be reunited in heaven,” I said, feeling odd. I had long finished the pear and its core was moldering in my hand.
“And those who are not Christian?” he asked.
I looked at him. He seemed sad, so I did not say what my doctrine compelled me to say.
He stood up, looking at the ground, the sun in his dark hair. “I should continue my work,” he said, and turned to leave.
I leapt from the dirt and the remnants of our meal.
“Lin Hao,” I said, taking his arm. “I want you to know me for my heart, before you know me for anything else.”
He was still before a smile spread across his cheeks.
“You remind me of my didi*,” he said, before kissing my hand with a soft brush of dry lips. When he was finished with his work either today or tomorrow, he said, he would come by my uncle’s house, where I was staying.
As he turned again to go, I was moved by a sudden burning in my chest, the same place I had felt a heaving before the money god.
“Wait, Lin Hao,” I said. “Let me help you with your work. I don’t teach today so I can help you. Let me help you.”
His eyes widened. “You wouldn’t know what to do,” he said. “I would feel ashamed to have an American in the dirty fields with me.”
I did not relent, and finally he let me guide the donkey, while he took a hoe and followed us, shoveling dirt. The sun rose, and he begged me to go back. I did not relent, though the work of bending down and weeding, which I did with him after a while, really was brutal. Sweat dripped into our eyes. Each weed, no matter how thin and silky, had to be pulled up carefully, lest it break and sprout new roots.
He folded his cloth knapsack in a way that could shield a human neck from the sun. He gave it to me, and refused my protests utterly. He said he did not mind the sun.
The work provided a release for the events of yesterday. When Lin Hao asked about my family, I told him of their plight. He nodded sympathetically. “They must have chosen bad land to invest in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I asked about his family. He said his father did not work, and he had no mother.
“What about your brother?” I asked. “The one I remind you of?”
He paused his weeding. “My brother was like you,” he said. “He talked about the divinity of humanity. He was into those types of things.”
“Is he still?”
“My brother is dead.” Lin Hao said. “A mad dog bit him.”
I was too stunned to say anything, but immediately I understood Lin Hao’s solitude, when all other families farmed together, and I understood his friendliness towards me.
His eyes had tears in them. We were both filthy, and sweltering, our fingernails blackened from the dirt.
He lowered his head, as if ashamed. “He did not know of your God when he died,” he said.
Then I was ashamed, at the arrogance and presumption of how I had lived my faith.
* 弟弟, younger brother
He remained motionless, looking at the dirt, his eyelashes shining with sweat and tears.
“I’m sorry, Lin Hao,” I said. “You don’t have to say more.”
He raised his eyes, and my shame was lessened by the kindness of his pain. “I want to tell you his story,” he said.
“What was his name?”
He took a deep breath. “I see him in my mind, talking, while he hoes, about humanity in the crop fields. His studies are not so good, but he talks about history, the ancient masses of peasants, they who fight the wars, suffer the plagues, gruel their lives away, are beaten, scarred, stamped out. Our history is one of emperors and sages, but nowhere are the billions who come and go illiterate mentioned. He says they are the divine heroes for living how they did. One day, he fastens a chair to the back of the truck that takes us to school. The children take turns sitting and pretend they are emperors.
He is feeding the neighbor’s yellow dog, as he always does, forbidden food for a lowly animal, and it is our secret. Father does not know, and when he is bitten neither of us say anything, for nothing is wrong until a week later, when the dog is dead, the government’s doctors are too late, and he dies, just like the dog, and I am stupid, stupid, so stupid, stupid, stupid –”
Lin Hao kneeled to pound his fists on his bare knees.
I was helpless, again, and that paralysis with the most pressing need enraged me. I put my hands on Lin Hao’s shoulder, closed my eyes, and asked God to please, please help him.
“So you tell me, does God exist in China as he does in America?” he asked, by this time crying.
“No, and I do not claim to understand God,” I answered desperately. “I know not where the dead are, but I can show you what love I have, what love I can, but I am a worse person than you, Lin Hao, and Christians are not worth a single fleck of dust more than those who have died like Lin Han.”
Lin Hao nodded. After a while, he wiped his eyes, then stood up.
“Back to work,” he said, and we returned to weeding, he at a ferocious pace. Soon he was far ahead of me in his row.
Later, when the sun was high, my uncle’s voice shouted my name. I stood up, hurting my back.
“What are you doing?” my uncle yelled. He ran up to me.
“I’ve met a friend, Lin Hao, and I’m helping him,” I replied. My uncle stared dumbly at the filth covering me as Lin Hao greeted him.
“I’ve been looking all morning for you,” my uncle said. In a low voice, he told me that my cousins were due at the train station in two hours. They had been called home early from Hefei, the big city of ten million ten hours away.
I looked at Lin Hao. The tears had dried now, and on his face was nothing but dirt and sweat.
He smiled. “Thank you, Pu, for your kindness today,” he said. “I’m the luckiest for meeting you.”
“Will I see you tomorrow?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied with a bow. “If you are not busy.”
After washing and changing clothes, I piled into the tractor with my aunt and uncle. We would rumble our way for an hour through cropland, to the train station. My aunt’s eyes were red, and she was silent for the journey, except to apologize for yesterday and ask if I had been eating well.
“He was talking to the Lin eldest son,” my uncle said. The tractor was slow, so his steering was exaggerated compared to what I was used to in America. “He was helping him weed.”
My aunt raised her eyebrows. “Do you know what happened to their family?” she asked me.
“Everyone was shaking their head when they found out,” she said.
There was a pause. “What are you going to do about your land?” I asked.
My uncle nodded. “Your cousins are home to help me and your aunt replant. We’re going to redo the land.”
“But the season is late,” I said.
“It’s no big deal.”
At the train station, we embraced my two cousins, Hua and Ming. They had taken leave from their jobs as cashiers, and were going to be home until the autumn harvest, when I would long be back in the States.
“You’ve grown skinnier.” Ming pinched my arm. “Your preaching,” she said. “How has that been?”
I shook my head slowly.
“I told you,” she said. “Nobody in Longmu will take you seriously. They have none of your God.”
I did not ask my cousin what she meant, nor did I correct her of why I had shaken my head. If anything, Lin Hao had educated me more than I did him. My preaching had failed.
Ming continued. “When these people aren’t farming, they’re sleeping and eating, and when they aren’t sleeping and eating, they’re sitting around doing nothing. They’d laugh in your face if you approached them about Americans’ God. I hope you haven’t been doing it.”
Her features conveyed a concern for my dignity, her naïve American cousin, talking nonsense to dirt-streaked peasants.
I nodded, looking away from her intense eyes and around at Longmu Township train station. It was a single room, the air did not circulate, and I could smell the kneeling cesspools in the bathrooms even though they were on the other side. Brown men slept with their bundles of belongings in a corner on the floor.
“Oh, his mother also came.” Ming said. “She met us on the train.” I looked back at her, but she was talking to my uncle and aunt.
“Who?” My uncle’s eyes fixed on Ming.
She inclined her head toward me. “His mother.”
My uncle and aunt stared at Ming, then they turned to Hua, who avoided their gazes altogether. Hua had not a said a word to any of us.
“Is this true?” My uncle asked me.
My mother was back home in America, I thought.
“Did you tell her about the land?” My uncle asked. Then he stopped, realizing that even if I had, my mother could not cross the Pacific in twenty-four hours.
“By all the demons in hell,” my uncle breathed. We looked behind us, and there was my mother, here in China. She had kissed me goodbye at the airport in America, and now she was here in rural Anhui Province. She wore American clothes, had unbraided her long black hair, and walked fast. I realized what Lin Hao meant when he saw me walking in the fields, my American height and gait.
My mother embraced me first, despite not seeing my uncle since we departed China fifteen years prior. Her clothing was cool from the air conditioning on the train.
“Didi.” My mother turned to her brother.
“Jiejie.” My uncle nodded. “I was not expecting you today.”
“The day after Pu left, I was sorry I did not go with him. Do you have room for me to spend two weeks here?”
My uncle hesitated, then nodded. My aunt was pale.
Instead of driving the tractor back, my uncle called a taxi. My aunt made an attempt to protest, but my uncle shook her head.
“Let her speak, brother,” my mother said. My aunt, flustered and red, kept silent.
“America has treated you well these years,” my uncle said. My mother smiled.
The taxi would only take us two miles from the village, as the driver was afraid it would run out of gas. There was little conversation the walk back.
“Things have been better ever you since you left, sister,” my uncle said finally. His words were soft. “The women share the retirement funds of their husbands. China is no longer what it once was.”
My mother nodded.
“The one thing I have not budged on, however,” my uncle continued, “is the marriage of Hua and Ming to the village men of my choice in the next few years.”
My mother nodded again. She did not say any of the things she had told me in our fifteen years away. In America, she talked little of her younger brother in Longmu Village. My father did not mention it, and after middle school, neither did I. We always knew she had family, invisible save for the cards every New Year and a gloominess of our memory.
We reached the rusted metal gate that was the entrance to the courtyard. A dog began barking. My uncle paused.
“I . . . am pleased you chose to return with Pu, sister.” My uncle said.
My mother smiled. Inside, she had brought gifts of Hershey’s Kisses and clothing. My aunt and cousins tried on the clothes for the rest of the evening. The chocolates they saved to be cherished one by one.
My uncle told my cousins to be ready very early in the morning to replant the fields. He told them quietly, but Hua complained, and my uncle raised his voice. I was helping my mother unpack in another room. She paused and left, I following after a moment.
“Ma,” I said. “I have to tell you something. Uncle and Aunt lost a lot of money because a famine killed their sprouts.”
I explained the rest quickly as my mother listened. Hua yelled something. My mother gave me an embrace, and then we entered the room. Chocolates and clothing were scattered on the table.
“Brother,” my mother said. She was so white in the bright electric light. “Why did you think not to tell me of such a momentous matter?”
Hua ran out, a silk dress my mother had brought trailing in her hand.
That night, before going to bed, my mother said to me, “Your uncle is so stubborn. That is the quality I have always disliked in him, and I would be justified if not for the fact that I am the same.”
I woke early the next morning. My mother was folding clothes from her suitcase; she seemed out of place in the shabby bedroom. She saw my open eyes and sighed.
“I was afraid I would wake you, Pu.” She said. “But I could not sleep, and I have nothing to do.” She sat on the edge of my bed. “Have you slept well here?”
I nodded, my eyelids still half shut.
“I can see you’re still tired. Go back to sleep.” My mother made a move for the door.
“Wait, Ma, I want to tell you something . . .” I said, sitting up. “The day before you came, when Uncle and Aunt found out about the ruined land, I prayed with Uncle to the money god.”
She looked at me strangely for a moment.
“You mean that little figurine next to where they eat?”
My mother saw the expression on my face and started to laugh. “Pu, my son, why are you concerned about that? You did a good thing by helping your uncle. It is your heart that counts most.
“Have they been treating you well? Have they said anything about God?”
“They . . . seem to think it’s funny.” I said.
“Good.” My mother nodded. “It is funny because it is so unexpected. When the time is right, your faith will not seem a laughable matter anymore.” She hesitated. “I came in such a hurry, Pu, as your plane departed I went home to cry, and that night I booked a ticket. I hope you can forgive me for being unable to relinquish you. I’m learning, just very slowly.”
Shrugging, I told her I did not mind. In truth, I was quite happy she was back.
“Good. Go back to sleep then.” She dragged her suitcase out the door. I lay in bed but did not close my eyes, instead staring at the purple dawn that was brightening the curtains.
Soon I heard my uncle’s voice, a rumbling from the walls of the house he had built himself. I heard my mother too, and her inflection awakened memories of past Sundays, when I had slept in, and lain in a different bed.
I leapt up and put on clean clothes before going into the kitchen. As I expected, my uncle and my mother were talking about Hua. They stopped as I entered.
“I’m sure Pu would like to help you with the work,” my mother said, taking my shoulder. “Please, brother, give Hua some space to herself. The way you called her back from town must have been hard.”
“Absolutely not. I’ll not have her laying in bed, sleeping herself flat while her family’s livelihood is threatened. Pu got up. I’m going to rouse them both right now.”
My mother grabbed my uncle’s arm. “Brother, please, think of Hua and Ming when they were young, how they toddled about, before the new house. Look at yourself. They just came back. It should be a happy occasion. Anyway, I woke Pu accidentally, the foolish mother I am . . .”
They argued until Aunt broke out breakfast, hot tea and biscuits and other gourmet items my sisters had brought back from Hefei. “They are tired from the long train journey,” she said to my uncle. “Let them have a break today.”
So we let Hua and Ming sleep for the rest of the morning. After eating a couple bites my uncle immediately took his hoe and disappeared into the fields. My aunt soon followed. I asked my mother to stay inside and rest, and by mid-morning I had joined my aunt and uncle in the fields with a rusted hoe I found in the back of their shed.
The sprouts were as we had left them. My uncle dug some up, fingered them for a moment, and then threw them away. My aunt did no such thing, but worked tirelessly, for two hours her back was bent, and she never stood up straight. Her large knees seemed to collect themselves into battering rams when she squatted, the faded towel draped over her forehead against the morning sun.
Slowly, we dug up the dead sprouts. From the cracked webs of soil, spiders that seemed to sprint emerged. I wondered if they were creatures that thrived in famine, for besides them there was no life in the yellow powder under our feet.
We were going to loosen up the soil and then haul in dirt from a field far away. The project would take a month to complete. I realized my cousins would lose their jobs in the city if they stayed until the autumn harvest.
When we took a break, my mother emerged with a plate full of onion pancakes. As I ate, I thought of Lin Hao and wandered the way I had gone the previous morning. He was not in the field. The sun shone down on rows of freshly turned earth, the corn sprouts green and healthy in miniature. I did not think much of it. But Lin Hao had said he would visit me today, and I felt disappointed that he had not.
We stopped in the afternoon. My cousins were still sleeping in some corner of the house. My uncle and aunt retired to nap, and for an hour my mother and I were alone.
“Ma,” I asked. “What do you think of Uncle?”
She did not immediately respond. Her family had always been a subject we avoided in America, but this was China, in my Uncle’s household, and after the events of the past couple days I felt I deserved the truth about my own family.
“He is my brother, of my own blood, our parents have died and we must support each other. That’s what I realized when you left for China. Frankly, I did not expect your uncle to take you for the summer. Maybe a week perhaps, but when he offered to take you for the summer, Pu, I was so surprised, and I felt at long last that it was time to go back to pay a visit. And you were here, of course. I knew your presence would make a difference.”
“Do you love Uncle?” I asked.
“Yes, and I will love him more as time goes by.”
“Ma, look at me,” I said. She turned, her heavy eyebrows tilted up. “Was Uncle ever mean to you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “He was controlling, but that was when we were both young. He would flaunt himself, and he was tyrannical at times, but I was also hot-headed. Anyway, Pu, we’re in his household now. You are grown up. I’ve put many of these things behind me. Let’s not talk about it too much, okay?”
I hesitated. “What does he think of Christianity?”
She waved a hand. “Let him think what he will. I cannot predict what will happen years from now. But I am glad you are back this summer, Pu. You should know how happy I am.”
I wanted to ask her more, to break open her secrets, to tell her it was absurd that we were living in America while my cousins had lost their jobs in the big city, and would be here plowing dirt until autumn.
Feet shuffled behind me. It was Ming, rubbing her eyes. She wore nothing but loose dress, wide and heavy. Her skin was even darker than my uncle’s.
“Good morning, auntie. Good morning, cousin.” She said.
I was about to ask her how she had slept when a dog began barking outside and I heard Lin Hao’s voice in the courtyard calling my name. He was standing in the sun. The bandages wrapped around his calves had been cleaned, but they drooped and flung about as he walked. He was panting, and looked to be in great need of a drink of water.
“Come inside.” I said.
“Pu,” he said, coming close and taking my arm. “I . . . need your help. My father is not well. You are an American university student, right? How do you treat a sick man?”
“Your father is sick? Have you called the doctors?”
“My father does not take well to the village doctor. We are different from the village, if you didn’t know. My father has been sick for some time, but this morning . . .” He choked, shook his head, and swallowed hard. “Pu, he has been defecating in his bed. Do you know anything about this?”
“Do you have Internet access?” I asked. Lin Hao shook his head.
I ran back into the house. “Ming,” I said. “Tell me how to get online.”
We worked frantically at my uncle’s laptop computer, the cheap one he had bought secondhand. It was next to where the god of money perched.
Finally, the three of us, Ming, my mother, and I burst into where my uncle and aunt slept next to each other in their big room, curtains drawn. Ming shouted my uncle upright.
“We no longer have Internet access.” My uncle said solemnly. “I canceled it.”
“Why?” Ming yelled. “When?”
“Yesterday. It was something we can no longer afford.”
“Lin Hao’s father is sick and you are talking about Internet money,” I screamed at all of them. I ran out.
“Take us to your father.” I said. Lin Hao, who had been sitting on the dirt, stared at my mother and Ming, who had followed.
We ran. Lin Hao and I left my mother and Ming behind. He did not ask me who they were, though I guessed he already knew.
Lin Hao’s house was not as nice as my uncle’s. In fact, my uncle, in spite of his complaints, could be counted a rich man in comparison with Lin Hao’s family. There was grass growing on their porch. The house had no door, but instead plastic beads on strings that clattered against sod bricks. I briefly wondered if the whole thing was made of mud.
Then we tunneled through the beads and into a hall. Faded newspapers covered the walls. What Lin Hao had said about his father being incontinent struck home then, as the unmistakable, pungent scent of human feces filled my nostrils.
He was not an old man, Lin Hao’s father. He lay on his mattress. For a moment I could not find his excrement, but then I realized the color of his sheets and his clothes and even his arms was all the same, a sick, smeared yellow, think like tissue paper.
“Have you seen anything like this?” Pu asked.
I shook my head. “You need to call the doctor.”
Lin Hao’s father seemed to hear. He stirred in his bed, and turned to stare a red eye at me. “Fuck the doctor.” He said. “Who are you? Who have you brought into your home, Lin Hao?”
“Father, this is my brother Pu.” Lin Hao said. “He is from America. He knows a lot about God and things that matter.”
I shook my head at him.
“Pu,” the man in the bed said. He raised a hand. “From America? God? Pu . . .” And he threw a yellow clod of poop at me. It landed on my shoe, then bounced to break apart like yellow dirt from the field. I stared at it.
Lin Hao screamed “Father!” He turned to me, his eyes welling with tears, shaking his head violently. “Please forgive me,” he managed to say. “I am so, so sorry.”
“Lin Hao,” I said. We heard my mother and Ming coming in through the beads. “Your father is ill. He needs help.”
“I’m so sorry . . .” he said.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. Your father is ill. Do not blame him.”
Ming screamed when she entered behind us. The old man in the bed seemed desperately alive now. The sheets twisted like a yellow root.
Lin Hao became an orphan two days later. Though we called the village doctors, Lin Hao’s father simply laughed in their face as he died.
I was the only one he threw his excrement at. Lin Hao, who seemed to take his father’s death with numb vagueness, had apologized over and over again. “Please forgive him, he had a heart of bitter poison.” Lin Hao regretted mentioning God to his father, who had often in his final moments declared from his bed of disease “there is no God in China.”
“I wanted him to see you, a true and wonderful professor of the American God, was all,” Lin Hao said.
As they were carting away his father’s body, Lin Hao turned and told me my reaction to what his father did was proof of my character.
I wanted Lin Hao to stay in my uncle’s house, with us. I hated the thought of him in his dank house, alone, alive with the imprints of horrible suffering. But he was composed, did not cry, and talked little of his father.
He told me there were family savings in a bank with interest. It would be enough for the rest of his life.
He cried for his brother though. Two days after they buried his father in the dirt, where the rest of his family was, he came to my uncle’s house. He said he remembered the times and places where he and his brother had embraced. He had written a poem.
I close my eyes. Wherever God has hugged and kissed me
Glows in the blackness. He has clothed me
With soft affections since the day I was born.
It is then that his love, which forms all the
Background of the world, all the
Important, becomes simple enough for me
To understand. His exceedingly lavish portions overwhelm all my
Norms. Leaving my selfish ways behind,
I follow all that is real,
All that is good in the world.
Every day for the rest of the summer, my mother and I helped my uncle, aunt, and cousins redo the field. We got up early in the morning, and Lin Hao was always already in his land. He would lend us and our land his strength in the afternoon, which we urged him not to do. We ate big dinners every day for the rest of the summer, until one morning in late August, when the morning dew was cold, and Lin Hao decided he wanted to become part of my family.
He had taken my uncle aside. He wanted his own house sold, he said, so he could live with them and me when I came back in the future. Half of his savings would become shared. Mostly though, he said to me as we sat by a pond one night in August, he wanted to become my brother.
“You are already,” I said to him. “The money doesn’t mean anything. Christians are all each other’s families automatically.”
“I feel I have been missing something,” he said. “My life has been filled with death. And I perceive in your religion the very definition of life.”
He said he would eventually become a Christian, but wanted to become part of my family here and now. I was still troubled by the role money always seemed to play. With the threat of famine past, and my uncle’s and Lin Hao’s land bundled together, it seemed everything would be alright. But the money god was still there, corporeal in its porcelain.
So in this way Lin Hao became my brother, in money, in family, and eventually, in faith. And when I left China for school, returning during breaks, I knew this was only a beginning.
Henry Li (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Fiction & Poetry editor for the Ichthus and part of Harvard College Faith and Action (www.harvardfaithandaction.com)