After the Qingming Festival, Old Geng from Dongzhuang Village went from alley to alley with his bicycle. He was a chicken vendor.
There were three baskets tied to the back seat of his bicycle. One was standing on it; the other two were hung on each side. They seemed to be made of willow twigs, but were not, according to my Mom. “To weave a basket, there is no material better than bamboo strips, which are light, airy, and just perfect for chicken to walk on, lie down in, hop around on, and sing inside.”
At the intersection of the alleys, Old Geng parked his bicycle, lit up a cigarette, and stretched out his neck, hawking towards the alleys, “Who wants some chicken?”
Our village was quite large with long, narrow alleys. Shortly after Old Geng stopped hawking, a group of buddies and I would squat around his baskets, rubbing steamed bun crumbs above them, trying to feed the chicken. In the bright sunshine, the gentle and shrill chirping of the chickens, accompanied by their light yellow and white appearance, emerged from the baskets like streams of pearls.
Old Geng turned around, patting his butt and yelling at us, “Oh good heavens! You can’t feed the chicken that way!” It turned out that chicken do not know when they are full, and so they eat as much as you feed them. As a result, they might eat themselves to death.
We still squatted there, and kept sticking the bun crumbs in the basket when he wasn’t looking.
Old Geng then put on an angry face to scare us, “I’ll take whoever doesn’t listen to me and sell him.”
I grinned, not afraid of him. I was bold as a child, not afraid of any stranger. But back then, there seemed to be few strangers around. Even if there was one in the village, you would find out immediately that he was a remote cousin or a remote aunt of someone living in our village. Mom and aunties made out all these relationships clearly by counting on their fingers, just like combing threads on a loom. Once it was clear, the visitor would be invited to our home for he or she was also a relative of my family. What kind of relative? Brother of the wife of the brother-in-law of my mom’s aunt. It took several turns. But to my mom, a relative was a relative, no matter how remote it was. This explained why Granny invited Old Geng to her home every time he came to our village: he was the nephew of a neighbor of Granny’s parents.
To us, Lian Qiao was a relative via many turns. Her family migrated to our village from Henan, another province far from ours. Which place in Henan? She told my mom the name, but my mom soon forgot it. But mom just knew one thing: Qiao was a fellow villager of the sister-in-law of her sister-in-law. So in a strange new place, we were kind of related to her.
Mom asked me to call Qiao to buy some chicken on credit.
However, Old Geng was reluctant to sell his chicken on credit to Qiao. He had his own misgivings as Qiao was not a local and might leave our village any time she wanted to. In this way, his money would be lost. Traditionally, villagers would not pay for the chicken they bought in spring immediately, instead, they paid for them later in winter, and only for those still alive and only for hens. Old Geng was good at discerning which chicks were hens and which were roosters. In winter the same year, people would pay him according to the number of the hens alive. What if people lied to him about the number? My mom frowned, “How can anyone lie about this? People have eyes!”
Old Geng told my mom, “There’s not much profit in my small business, you know, I only sell them to make a living.”
Mom comforted Old Geng that Qiao was a relative of hers and asked him to trust her.
Unfortunately, things went the way Old Geng said. In late autumn, Qiao moved away. Where did she move to? She told my mom, and my mom held her hand and asked her to come back to visit if she did not fit in there in the new place on the hill.
My mom said, “It’s nice to live here with relatives and acquaintances around. How would you make do in a strange village on the hill?”
In winter, when Old Geng came to get his money back, suddenly my mom realized that she forgot to ask Qiao to leave the money before leaving. But where did Qiao move to? Mom only remembered it was on the hill, but which village on the hill? She did not remember it at all.
Then what now?
My mom said since Qiao was her relative, she would pay for her, and asked Old Geng to name the sum. Old Geng warned that Qiao might never pay her back. My mom said, even so, she would pay since Qiao was a relative.
At the end of the year, Qiao asked an acquaintance to send the money plus a big patterned steamed bun to my mom. Mom showed the money and the bun to all my aunties and uncles in the village, saying that there were still more kind people out there in the world. She was as joyful as if she had found money lying on the street.
YUAN SHENGMEI is a writer with the Baihuayuan magazine. Her works have won many prizes.