By Ricky Altieri
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
The following is a translation from the Chinese of Zhu Ziqing’s “Beiying,” first published in 1928.
I haven’t seen my father in more than two years, but I will never forget the sight of his fading silhouette.
In the winter of that year, my grandmother died, and my father lost his job— misfortunes do not travel alone. I went from Beijing to Xuzhou, planning to return home with my father for the funeral. In Xuzhou, when I saw my father, and the mess of his belongings scattered about in our yard, memories of my grandmother came flooding back, and I could not hold back my tears. My father said to me, “Things are as they are. But don’t despair. There is always a way through the darkness!”
My father sold his valuables to pay off our debts, and then he borrowed money to pay for the funeral. These were grim days for the family, both because of the funeral and because my father could not find another job. After the funeral, my father wanted to go to Nanjing to find work, while I needed to return to Beijing to continue my studies. We left home together.
When we arrived in Nanjing, we spent a day strolling through the city with friends. The next morning, my father and I went by ferry to Pukou, and in the afternoon I intended to take a northbound train toward Beijing. Initially, my father had said he was too busy to take me to the train station, so he asked an acquaintance of his, a porter at the local tea house, to go with me. He gave the porter clear instructions about how he should look after me. But my father still worried the porter might not take good care of me, and he couldn’t decide whether to come home with me himself.
I was already 20 years old, and I had been to Beijing a few times, so my father had no reason to worry. Still, after considering the matter for a while, my father decided to take me to the station himself. I insisted that my father let me go alone, but it was to no avail. He simply said, “It’s no problem. I’d rather you not go with the porter.”
When we arrived at the train station, I went to buy a ticket, while my father watched my bags. I had too much luggage, so we had to pay a fine before bringing it on the train. My father tried to bargain with the train’s porter to lower the fee. At the time, I thought I knew everything. I was embarrassed by my father’s simple way of speaking, and I had to restrain myself from interrupting him as he bargained.
Eventually, my father got a good price, and he helped me find a seat on the train by the door. Then he took out the fur-lined coat he had made for me, and he helped me spread it out over my seat. He told me to be careful at all times on my trip, and to stay alert and warm, so as not to catch a cold. He then asked the porters on the train to take good care of me. I had to restrain myself from chuckling. The only thing the porters cared about was money—they wouldn’t do him any favors. Besides, at 20 years old, couldn’t I take care of myself?
Looking back now, I realize how little I knew then.
I said, “Dad, you can go now.” He looked out the train window for a moment. Then he said, “I’m going to go buy some tangerines for you. Stay here, don’t move a muscle.” I looked out the train window and saw a few vendors selling tangerines on the opposite train platform. To get there, you had to cross the tracks, which meant jumping down from the platform and climbing up the other. My father was fat; getting across the tracks would naturally be difficult. I offered to go myself, but my father refused, so all I could do was let him go. I watched as my father, wearing a black cap, a black jacket, and a dark blue cotton robe, stumbled over to the platform and climbed down to the tracks.
That wasn’t the hard part. He still had to climb up on the other side of the tracks. Hands clinging to the edge of the platform, my father’s legs contracted upward and his heavy body tilted to the left as he struggled to pull himself up. Looking at his silhouette, I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. I quickly rubbed my tears away, worried that my father or others might see.
By the time I looked outside again, he was already on his way back, carrying a few bright red tangerines. As he approached the tracks, my father dropped the tangerines on the ground, then slowly climbed down and collected them again. When he crossed the tracks, I quickly came out to help him up. We went inside the train, and my father placed the tangerines on my coat and brushed the dirt off his jacket, looking satisfied. After a few moments he said, “Alright, I’m off. When you get there, be sure to write.“ I followed him as he began to leave. After taking a few steps, my father turned around and said, “Go back inside, there’s no one there.” I watched him go until his silhouette faded into the crowd of people coming and going. Then I walked back inside the train and sat down. My tears returned.
These past few years, my father and I have gone our separate ways. And our family’s financial situation has gotten worse each day. When my father was young, he left home to find a job and a better life. Through hard work, he supported himself and did some remarkable things. Who could have guessed that he would end up like this? For a while, as he looked back on his life, my father would lose his spirit, and he simply was not himself. He became temperamental, and he would vent his frustration over trivial things. The way he treated me gradually changed.
But in the last two years, he seems to have forgotten my faults. He began to show fondness for me and my son. He wrote a letter to me, saying, “I feel at peace, except that my shoulder gives me sharp pains, so using chopsticks and writing are not easy. I guess my time is probably not far off.” As I read this now, in my shining tears, I see once again the fading silhouette of my father as he left me on the train. I just don’t know when I’ll be able to see him again.