By SU TONG
THIS love story I tell here may disappoint some readers, but after the telling, I believe some of you may be quite strongly moved.
On our street – Xiangchunshu Street – back in the 1970s, lived an elderly couple in their sixties or seventies. The wife – tall, with white skin and big eyes – looked like she had been beautiful in her youth; the husband, while not exactly ugly, was a bit of a shortarse. When they appeared on the street, at first glance you’d think they were mismatched; but on closer inspection you could see they were a match made in Heaven.
What makes me say that? Well, this old couple were the mirror image of each other, despite being of opposite genders. They had the same expression in their eyes and their faces were so similar that they both had symmetrical moles – one on the left cheek, and the other on the right: a perfect match. When going to the shop to buy coal, they were clearly different from other married couples. Carrying a basket slung from a pole across their shoulders, the man walked in front, and the wife behind. They weren’t trying to start a new trend; it was just because the husband was so short and comparatively weak that the wife was forced to play the man’s role.
The couple had a grown-up daughter and she left her child at her parents’ house. Who knows whether she did that for her parents or for her own benefit. She herself only visited them once a week. It was a Sunday afternoon and the daughter knocked – bang bang bang – on the door. Immediately, footsteps sounded inside the house and the old couple simultaneously appeared in the doorway with joyful smiling faces. When smiling, the corners of their mouths appeared to curve crookedly to the right.
The daughter never had a smile for her parents when she came round. She seemed to be on a mission to blame and reproach her parents. She loudly spouted a list of all the things her parents had got wrong, like leaving too much water on the floor after mopping... And she accused them of spoiling her child: giving him too much food, making him wear too many layers. While guzzling the jujube soup her parents had made for her, she moaned at them: “It doesn’t matter how many times I tell you; it’s useless. You’re practically senile.”
The old couple hurriedly removed their grandson’s extra clothes. They didn’t dare argue and even seemed to accept that this was indeed the case, that yes, they were old, and yes, they probably were a bit senile.
A bit later, as the old lady was clearing away her daughter’s soup bowl, she suddenly clutched at her middle and collapsed on the floor, dead. It was said that the cause of death was a heart attack. The old lady had been very popular and as soon as the neighbours heard the news, they came to pay their respects. Now to their surprise, they found the daughter, who wasn’t normally very filial, crying buckets of tears. Well, it would be really odd if she didn’t cry at the death of such a wonderful mother, wouldn’t it!
But what was really odd was the old man. Sat by the side of his dead wife, his face expressionless, he seemed to be at complete peace. His grandson, rather thoughtlessly, asked: “Grandpa, why aren’t you crying?”
The old man said: “Grandpa won’t cry. Grandma is dead and Grandpa is going to die too. Grandpa will die today.”
The child said: “You liar! There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not going to die.”
The old man shook his head, saying: “Grandpa is not a liar. Grandpa will also die today. You see, Grandma died without closing her eyes. She didn’t want to lose me, and I don’t want to lose her either. I want to go with your grandma.”
Everyone who heard this was even more determined to look after the old man, but he showed no indication of trying to kill himself. He just sat there, still and quiet, keeping watch by the side of his dead wife. Just sat there on a chair. In the middle of the night, the people at the wake heard a rattling sound of phlegm emerge from the old man’s throat, and before anyone could react, he keeled over, collapsed and died right next to his wife’s deathbed.
Just then, the clock in the hall chimed continuously – dong dong dong – and everybody saw that it was exactly 12 o’clock, midnight.
Just as he had said, the little old man’s wish came true, and off he went together with his wife. If people hadn’t seen this with their own eyes, who would believe it? But this is a true story, and those two mismatched old people, they were real people. They were my neighbors, and they died on exactly the same night at the end of the 1970s. That old clock froze at 12 o’clock as if it had rusted, and no matter what anyone did, it never moved again.
This story I’ve related seems so simple. I don’t know how you feel about reading it, but I’ve always thought that this was the most touching love story I have ever told in my life.
SU TONG is a contemporary Chinese writer whose works include Gardening, Pink, Riverbank, and Binu. His novella, Wives and Concubines, ranks among the top 100 Chinese novels of the 20th century and was adapted into Raise the Red Lantern which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1992 Academy Awards.
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