Ma Ha was lying in a hilltop meadow, staring off into the distant sky. Near him was his herd of sheep, nibbling away at the grass. The life of a shepherd is quite a solitary one. Normally he might sing or whistle to his sheep, but today, he wasn’t quite in the mood for that. He was just lying in the meadow, staring blankly into the vast blue skies above.
Suddenly he seemed to hear footsteps of a person approaching him. He ignored it. Being neither a man of riches or power, he was certain he would be the last person on earth to be looked for. But the footsteps came closer and closer until they stopped at his side. Unwillingly, he tilted his head back to see who was there. It was Liu Mei! Startled, he quickly rose to his feet.
Actually, Ma Ha knew that Liu Mei would come to find him. Not too long before this he had made great promises to run away with her to make her happy. But then he got cold feet at the railway station, and left without saying goodbye. This behavior would have been questioned by anyone else, but Liu Mei didn’t say a word. Ma Ha knew she hated him deep down inside, for sure. Now she came to find him, perhaps because he had saved her the other day.
About half a month before, one day Ma Ha was driving his sheep home. As he walked passed Liu Mei’s house, he saw her writhing and moaning in agony in the courtyard. Liu Mei’s husband, Sun Er, was a bricklayer who worked in town. Every day he got up early in the morning, and returned home late at night, leaving all the farm work to Liu Mei. Now, she was ill, but no one knew it. Seeing this, Ma Ha quickly ran over to her and asked what the problem was. Liu Mei was sweating heavily due to the great pain she was in. But when she saw Ma Ha, in an angry but weak voice she said, “Go away, it’s none of your business!” Ma Ha did not listen to her. He picked her up and directly carried her to the hospital, leaving his flock behind.
Liu Mei had an acute appendicitis, but fortunately for her she was sent to the hospital in time. Ma Ha called Sun Er, who came to the hospital from town. As soon as Sun Er arrived, Ma Ha left the hospital. He didn’t see Liu Mei through the operation.
Upon returning home, even from the front door of his house, Ma Ha could hear Ju Ying yelling at him and calling him names from inside. Seeing him back, she picked up the broom from off the kang (a traditional heatable brick bed in North China) to beat him with, while still scolding him, “Liar, you’ve promised not to see her again!” Ju Ying’s reaction reminded Ma Ha of the glower which Sun Er gave him at the hospital. He knew that he was misunderstood. “It’s unexpected. I happened to see her,” Ma Ha said as he tried to explain himself. But Ju Ying did not believe a word he said, and continued to fume and rage. Ma Ha stopped explaining himself and went out to look for his sheep.
Rumors began to circulate again in the village, but there was nothing Ma Ha could do. The best way to stop rumors is to keep quiet, so he did just that. Every day he carried on his work as usual, not caring a whit about what others were saying.
Liu Mei’s surgery was quite a success, she recovered very well, and soon was discharged and returned home… Ma Ha heard all this from others. He did not go visit her. He did not want the rumors of what happened to become any more detailed than they were already. But more importantly, he did not want to let Liu Mei’s son down – after the 15-year old boy had chased him all the way to the railway station, Ma Ha had promised the boy that he would never visit his mother again, nor take her away from him. So, now, no matter how much he was worried about Liu Mei, he did not go to call on her. He wanted peace. He needed peace now.
But now Liu Mei came to find him. Liu Mei had become thinner and paler. Everyone who has been knocked down by an illness needs time to recover, and Liu Mei was no exception. But even though she hadn’t fully recovered, her act of making the long way to find Ma Ha so anxiously was proof that the question could not be left unanswered any longer.
At the sight of Liu Mei, Ma Ha did not try to hide. There was no hiding from her, nor her eyes. Liu Mei stared at Ma Ha and said, “I just want to know one thing, at the railway station that day, why did you leave without saying goodbye?”
Ma Ha knew Liu Mei would ask that question, and he also knew he couldn’t tell her the truth. And sure enough, he heard himself say, “After I came out of the restroom, my stomach suddenly began to growl. I then suddenly realized that I was missing the fried leek dumplings that my wife makes. I’ve told you, Ju Ying makes really scrumptious leek dumplings, better than yours.” Ma Ha spoke so earnestly that even he himself began to believe what he was saying was true. Suddenly, Liu Mei began to cry, tears silently flowed down her face, just like the first time he saw her cry. Ma Ha’s heart was also filled with pain. He wanted to dry her tears, hold her in his arms, and tell her, “Silly, I’m just kidding.” But he didn’t. He stood there motionless, as if indifferent to Liu Mei’s tears. Then he told her in a cold tone, “Don’t cry anymore, or you might have to go to the hospital again, with your body weak enough as it is.” Liu Mei turned her head, and left as quickly as she had come without even once looking back.
Staring at Liu Mei’s receding figure, Ma Ha couldn’t help but shed tears. He had told many lies throughout his life, but his heart never ached so much as this time. However, Ma Ha didn’t regret what he had done. He would answer her a thousand times with such an answer if Liu Mei asked him the same question a thousand times. He knew, only in this way, everyone, including his child and Liu Mei’s child, could live in peace.
The sheep were still grazing nearby, and the sky was so blue. Ma Ha looked in the direction of Liu Mei for a very long time.
LI LINGLING is a writer from Liaoning Province. She has published many works.