Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Monday, November 10, 2008 at 8:52 AM
Below is an extract from a book called Harvest Season. Set in the mountains of southwest China, it is a novel, by Chris Taylor, in search of a publisher.
Taylor was coordinating author for Lonely Planet's China, Japan and Southeast Asia books, and the author of the guidebook publisher's Tibet and Tokyo books. His writing has appeared in Salon, Time, and The Wall Street Journal, among many others.
Excerpt from Harvest Seasonby Chris Taylor
I passed A-hong’s shop, and caught a shadowy glimpse of her seated in the back. A little farther up the street, the Lizard was opening up for the early drinkers, and I waved at Chris, who was putting out the ‘Party Tonight’ sign – as he did every afternoon.
Lao Duan’s shop was opposite, a few doors up the street. To enter was to be vaulted back into the Middle Ages – an apothecary shop – cramped, dark, the walls lined with teetering wooden chests of draws laden with herbs and berries and obscure and endangered animal parts.
It did very little business, but it was an effective front: Lao Duan had made himself rich — at least by local standards — selling weed and locally produced charas and pollen, first to foreigners and more recently to a generation of alternative Chinese, who placed ever-bigger orders for fast-growing markets in Beijing and Shanghai and the hinterland metropolises like Chengdu.
We sat down. Lao Duan poured some hot water from a thermos into a tiny earthenware teapot. ‘Have you eaten yet?’ he asked. It was a polite Chinese courtesy. I said I had. Truth was, I’d barely eaten in two days – I was on a permanent comedown from the previous night, and the effort of chewing and swallowing solids had become a chore. I wanted to eat again, but I knew it would take me some time to wean myself back into the habit.
I watched him busy with the tea, pouring viscous, almost black pu’er into two delicate earthenware tumblers. His hands were dark and sinewy, and his jet-black, cropped hair was flecked with grey. Like many Wu, his nose was sharper than those you saw elsewhere in China, and his eyes – shrewd, calculating and yet somehow permanently amused – had a hint of amber in the dark irises. Not for the first time, it struck me his demeanour concealed something dark, sinister, menacing, and the feeling was with me now more than ever before.
‘How have you been lately?’ he asked.
‘Not too bad,’ I said. ‘A little tired. Too many parties.’
‘At your age you shouldn’t be going to parties and drinking too much. You should get married, have a family.’
I shrugged. The conversation was hollow courtesies aimed at filling the time while we both prepared ourselves for what we really needed to discuss. ‘I tried marriage once. It didn’t work so well for me.’
‘Find yourself a nice local girl,’ he persisted. ‘They’re simple girls, and they know how to look after a man.’
I nodded politely. ‘Perhaps you can arrange an introduction one day.’
‘Yes, yes. We’ll find you a nice Shuangshan girl, and you can take better care of your health.’
‘It’s a deal,’ I said. I frowned and looked around the shop. ‘You know … I’m here because I need to ask you something.’
The smile didn’t melt from Lao Duan’s face, but it assumed a change of meaning, as if he’d made a conscious decision to fix it in place, and his eyes narrowed.
‘It’s about Brett. You know, up at the Cormorant Lodge.’
Lao Duan stood up to fetch the thermos, and said, ‘Bu-let-ter’. When he sat down to pour more water into the teapot, the smile had made way for a look of controlled vexation. ‘This person is trouble. He’s brought a lot of problems to Shuangshan. It was simpler here before he came.’
‘I know how you feel about Brett; you’ve told me. You know how I feel about Brett, But, A-hong just came to see me, and she’s worried. She hasn’t seen him for two days, and his phone’s turned off. She says he never turns it off.’
‘A-hong smokes too much ganja.’
‘You sell it to her.’
‘I sell it to anyone who wants to buy it. But it’s not good for a girl her age. It makes her think too much.’
‘Anyway, she’s worried about Brett.’
‘I told you. You know how I feel about Brett, but I don’t like seeing A-hong worried.’
We both sat back, appraising one another, and I struggled to master my emotions, to not give way to the fear. I recalled our earlier conversations and realised Lao Duan was holding me to something.
‘A-hong is beautiful in her way, a wild beauty, like the Yi Minority girls,’ he said carefully. ‘But she smokes too much and thinks too much. Her mind is unhealthy. You should be careful of women like that.’
‘I know, but I still care about her.’ I almost said, ‘I love her,’ but I knew I’d said enough, and Lao Duan was shrewd enough to guess at my feelings anyway.
He sighed and poured more tea into our cups. I took a sip. The musty, slightly acrid taste of pu’er becomes more palatable after the pot has been refilled a few times. The locals claimed it was good for your health.
‘You know, I told you before that Brett would come to no good in Shuangshan. He’s disrespectful, and not …’ Lao Duan searched for a word: ‘Discrete.’
I took the Honghe cigarette he offered me, and waited for what he had to say next. We smoked in silence and sipped on our tea. The evening rubbish van trundled down the street to the accompaniment of a screeching folk melody, alerting the neighbourhood it was time to lug out the bags and buckets of slops and floor sweepings. A faint thump of reggae drifted from the Lizard. My mobile beeped a text message. It was from A-hong: ‘Where are you?’
When I looked up from the phone, Lao Duan’s expression was aggrieved, as if he resented not having my undivided attention. I decided to cut to the quick of it: ‘Do you know if anything’s happened to Brett?’
Lao Duan shook his head in frustration. ‘Something was always going to happen to Brett. Have you forgotten? I told you that. I thought we understood each other. I thought we had an understanding.’
‘Neither of us like Brett,’ I said slowly, trying to buy some time to think. ‘But I thought everything would be okay.’
‘You thought everything would be okay?’ Lao Duan snorted two plumes of cigarette smoke through his nostrils, and threw me a look of disgust.
‘Yes, that’s what I thought. I mean, some of those parties were risky, but everything here in Shuangshan has been risky for a long time, and the police have never made any trouble.’
‘The police never made any trouble because everybody knew the rules, how it worked,’ said Lao Duan in a hiss, leaning in close so that his face was just inches from mine. Like most people, the police just want quiet lives. But if you push at the limits too far, you force them to do something. And that’s what’s happened. The only question now is whether the damage is permanent. You know what I mean?’
I knew. I was just fed up of being confronted with it, and now the to-and-fro of the conversation had brought us this far, I felt I didn’t want to know any more, even though I had come to Lao Duan for the knowledge in the first place. Lao Duan poured more tea and leaned back slightly on his stool, as if he was gathering himself, mastering his annoyance.
‘I don’t think you and I have much more to talk about,’ he said. ‘You’re confused about where your loyalties lie. Your mind is clouded by desire for a woman, and you’re too close to people here who cannot see the situation for what it is.’ His eyes flicked the length of his herbal cabinets thoughtfully, and he sniffed thoughtfully. ‘Let me put it like this. It’s as if you’ve been sleepwalking and you’ve woken up in a place that frightens you. But there’s no need to be afraid. All that’s happening is … how can I put it? Perhaps there’s been an accident. Accidents happen, right?’ He blew on his tea and took a sip. He shrugged, and said, ‘I don’t know anything about Brett, but I’ll tell you this: Brett’s no longer a problem for Shuangshan.’ He frowned thoughtfully. ‘You might want to go down to the lake, to Shigu Village. I heard just this afternoon the police were there, investigating something, and the villagers will know what’s going on. Someone will want to talk about it, even if they’ve been told not to.’
It was the end of the conversation. I’d been dismissed, and more than that, I sensed I’d been banished.
‘Should I take A-hong down there with me?’
‘I don’t think that would be a good idea,’ he said, with a weary shake of his head that told me he thought I’d asked a stupid question. ‘She’s a high-strung young woman.’
I considered it, and realised I’d had enough. I said, ‘I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t know why I’m going down to the lake, but I just want to tell you, I’m feeling like I’ve taken the wrong side. I should have put her first, not this place. Like the shaman told me, I’m an outsider here. It’s your place not mine. And she’s more important to me than all this …’ I switched into English: ‘Bullshit.’
Lao Duan folded his lips dismissively and waved a hand loosely in my direction.
I put out my cigarette and thumbed a message on my phone: ‘Give me one more hour.’ I thanked Lao Duan for the tea, said goodbye and left the shop.
It was close to nightfall, and the bars and restaurants were flicking on their lights. I waved down a five-kuai taxi at the top of the street, and told the driver to take me to Shigu Village. He looked at me quizzically in the rear-vision mirror, and said, ‘It’s a bit late to be going down to the lake, isn’t it?’
‘I have to see someone,’ I said, and pretended to check text messages on my phone. I wasn’t in the mood for explanations.
The taxi took a right off Dongfeng Lu, and we cruised down Shuangshan’s main boulevard and through the East Gate. A tourist had set up a tripod on the roof of the gate’s arch, waiting for the town to light up. He was in the wrong place; the South Gate was the best place for the lights. We crossed the highway that travelled the length of the valley, intersecting the mountains and the lake, and took a narrow, two-lane road – paddy fields punctuated by skulking stone homesteads on either side. We’d left the walls of Shuangshan and were back in China.
China was another world. For the first few months I lived in Shuangshan, I got outside on a regular basis – hikes in the mountains, cycling trips to far-flung untouristed Wu villages. But as the days dripped by, Shuangshan became an increasingly enervating influence, and one day you woke up and realised that months had passed smoking spliffs, drinking Tsingtaos and spreading neighbourhood gossip without once passing through any of the town gates. It was a kind of institutionalisation, and it did strange things to your sense of reality. In the cocoon of Shuangshan, it was easy to forget the vast swelling tide of a rising China – Party Plenums and five-year plans, toxic spills and Shanghai celebrity galas –existed at all.
We pulled up in the village square, a littered expanse of cobblestone. I asked the driver to wait for me, and walked over to the sole shop on the square. It sold Chinese cigarettes, Shuangshan Beer, baijiu – Chinese rice wine – and instant noodles, and in Chinese style it was more a stand than a shop, its counter facing directly onto the square. I bought a packet of Honghe, and said to the elderly man behind the counter, ‘I heard the police were down here today.’
He gave me a sharp look, simultaneously digesting the fact a foreigner was speaking to him in Chinese and was also in possession of local information. ‘Where did you hear that?’
‘I live up in Shuangshan. You know how it is. Things get around.’
He took this with the air of a man who did know how it was, and then leaned in close across the counter and whispered, ‘I heard they found the body of a foreigner in the lake. One of the cormorant fishermen found it, and reported it to the police. They were down here for hours this afternoon.’
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