Going to Tang Village to Build a Coffin

Figures in a Landscape

Illustration by Dongmei Chen

It was completely dark by the time he reached Tang Village. The massive trees lining both sides of the road made it feel like a cave. He couldn’t see the trees clearly enough in the darkness to tell what kind they were. Probably birches, he thought. There are so many birch trees around these villages, it’s like they’re the only tree that grows here. Like they’re the only tree in the world. But he could still make out the gravel road ahead of him, a white ribbon snaking back and forth through the particular glow of a rural twilight. Hurried walking over a distance caused the ribbon to begin to float, making him feel a little dizzy. It’s all right, he reassured himself. It’s just because I haven’t eaten. Once I get to the house, they’ll have food for me. He picked up his pace. The sound of his steps alarmed a few dogs. They were the timid kind, and barked at him from inside their house. The spotty chorus of their barking was all too familiar to him. It happened to strangers in every village. Several villagers opened their front door and stuck their head out—which was ridiculous, because of course the light shining out from behind them obscured the traveler to their eyes, while making their gilded silhouette easily visible to his. The people inside knew this well enough, but sticking your head out to look was a habit. No one knew where it came from, and so quickly pulling your head back inside and closing the door had become a habit as well. The opening and closing of doors made him feel less like he were walking into a cave, and the doors themselves caught his attention. He noticed gaps between door and frame, frame and wall, and between slats of the doors, which let light through. A detail that would only be noticed by someone who looked closely. Looks like Tang village really doesn’t have a carpenter, he thought, or else there wouldn’t be so many gaps. Either that, or their carpenter isn’t very competent. At least he himself wasn’t that bad; he wouldn’t leave space between boards so that light fell needlessly out into the outside world. That’s just a waste. All these shoddy doors and wasted lamplight made him think that he might find himself welcomed here, and respected.

That’s right: he was a carpenter, come to complete a job. The villagers had a death here recently, and invited him to build the coffin. But he didn’t know the deceased, or any one of the relatives. You might say that Tang Village had been nothing more than a place name to him for a very long time. He had been invited by a man named Zhang Degui. As he understood it, Zhang Degui was not from Tang Village, either. Zhang was a tile roofer that he had worked with last spring in another village. They had worked well together; they frequently sat beside the skeletal, half-formed house to smoke and talk. Zhang Degui had told him that if he ever found more work, he would call him in. Sure enough, after a little more than a year, Zhang Degui sent someone named Liu Yutang over with an invitation. But why hadn’t Zhang Degui come himself, instead of sending Liu Yutang? It made him a little uncomfortable; maybe Zhang Degui didn’t care as much about friendship as he thought. Of course, there was no guarantee Zhang Degui considered him a friend, just as he had gone more than a year without thinking of Zhang Degui—which was to say that he hadn’t considered Zhang Degui to be a friend, either. Liu Yutang had stopped by after lunch. He gave Zhang Degui’s name, then said that someone had died in Tang Village, and they want you to make the coffin. Liu Yutang’s tone of voice surprised him: he spoke like a stranger, not like a long-time neighbor. Liu Yutang had always been a pretty good neighbor, straightforward and honest, though not much of a talker. They had never had any conflict between each other. But he was surprised that Liu Yutang knew Zhang Degui. So he invited Liu Yutang to sit down and have a cigarette. He asked him, So how do you know Zhang Degui? I don’t, Liu Yutang replied. Wang Guilan told me. Then how does Wang Guilan know Zhang Degui? You’ll have to ask him that, Liu Yutang said, laughing. Although Liu Yutang really didn’t talk much; he laughed a lot, and loudly when he did. He had a peculiar kind of laugh in which he exposed his lower teeth but kept his upper teeth firmly behind his lip. It was the kind of laugh that surprised and sometimes confused people at first, though you stopped paying attention once you got used to it. On another level, he may have been laughing for a reason: the widow Wang Guilan knew an awful lot of people, almost like she knew everyone, and people often chuckled when they spoke of her. So the carpenter laughed along with him, then tossed his cigarette butt on the ground and stamped it out. Instead of going back home, Liu Yutang followed him around his own house, hanging out until the very moment he set out for Tang Village, as if afraid he might pretend not to have heard correctly and refuse to go, leaving the dead body lying there in the house for days. Liu Yutang watched the carpenter pack his toolbox, watched him stuff a pair of blue sleeve protectors in his pockets, and where the sleeve protectors made his pockets bulge, Liu Yutang reached out and pressed them down for him. As the carpenter locked his door, Liu Yutang finally spoke, You don’t have to lock it. I’ll watch the house for you, and I can help feed the chickens in the evening. To which the carpenter gratefully replied, Thank you, but I’ll be back tomorrow morning. The chickens won’t get that hungry.

Pitch-black Tang Village was brightly lit at its center by a thousand-watt flood light hanging from a pole above one family’s courtyard. It threw a confused mess of human shadows onto the leafed canopy above; the flickering movement of the shadows made the trees look like their leaves were fluttering in a strong wind. This had to be the dead person’s house, without a doubt. Still, it was better to be circumspect, so he stood in front of the main courtyard door and looked around for a long while. Yet most of the comers and goers simply passed by him on their own business like they didn’t even see him there. One young lady even stood inside the courtyard door and stared silently down at his toolbox for a very long time until he figured out her intention and swung the toolbox back to let her through. Finally, he saw a young man wearing a pair of extremely white sneakers pass by. The sneakers were just too white to be real. They attracted his attention, and he stepped forward to accost the young man: I’m the carpenter Zhang Degui sent for. Excuse me, is this the house that needs work done? To his surprise, the question elicited a look of happiness from the young man, who replied energetically: It sure is. What took you so long? His reply sounded overly welcoming, as if they knew each other well, and it caused several passersby to turn to look at the carpenter, which was rather embarrassing. The carpenter said that he hadn’t stopped anywhere on the way, but it had gotten dark as he walked over. As he spoke he lowered the heavy toolbox from his shoulder; it had been biting into his shoulder the whole way, and he’d been meaning to broaden the back strap. But the young man stopped him, saying: Come with me. So he had to hitch the narrow strap back onto his sore shoulder and follow that pair of white sneakers onward. They didn’t go inside, but circled around to the east. Lots of people looked at him, and he returned their gazes with a bashful smile. He had to keep shrugging to ensure the strap didn’t slide off completely, though this made him look as if he were full of energy and ready to work. They passed several rooms to the east of the main room. One that gave off a foul odor was probably the outhouse. Another room further to the east smelled of braised fatty pork; that must be the kitchen. The scent of meat reminded him of how hungry he was. But White Sneakers didn’t stop next to the kitchen, but passed by it on the way to another room behind the main hall, a separate room at the southern end of the courtyard. This small room was lit by a single two-hundred-watt bulb, dazzling in its limited space. The room had been recently cleaned, and contained nothing beyond two wooden stools and a pile of unrecognizable somethings in one corner. Is this it? he asked. Yup, this is it, the young man replied. As he put down his toolbox, he asked, Where’s the material? You mean the wood to make it with? the man asked. It’s under the old lady’s bed. It’s been there for years. He watched the carpenter rub his shoulder, and added: There’s no rush, we can go get it in a bit. The carpenter really was tired; with his toolbox finally on the floor, he pulled a wooden stool over and sat down. The young man dragged the other stool across from him and sat as well, then offered him a cigarette. You thirsty? he asked. No, the carpenter replied as he gratefully lit the cigarette. He wanted to say, I’m not thirsty, but I’m starving, but was embarrassed to do so. The young man nodded slightly, but didn’t ask if he had eaten. The carpenter smoked in unspoken agony for a while before breaking the silence with a question. So what’s your relationship to the deceased? Nephew, the young man replied. It’s my uncle’s wife who’s died. How old was she? Sixty-something, I think, the young man replied before nodding, then shaking his head. Then what about her family? The carpenter immediately regretted asking the question, and immediately explained: I mean, did she have sons or daughters? Do you mean my cousin? Yeah, what about him? Her husband died several years ago, and they only had one son. He’s sleeping. This information was surprising. What was he doing asleep? He expressed his surprise by raising his head to glance out the window. Though the night was already horrifically dark, and made darker still by the glare of the flood light, he looked outside anyway, as if to say, He’s already asleep at this hour? He’s exhausted, the nephew said. He hasn’t slept for two days. I came just this afternoon from work, and I have to go back to work in the morning, so I’ll need a few hours of sleep tonight too. But don’t worry—the nephew noticed the carpenter’s curious expression—I’ll wake up my cousin at midnight. It seemed a bit ridiculous to the carpenter that they should work in shifts like this, but he didn’t dare say so. Just as he hovered at the edge of another question, the young man was called outside by someone. They called him Zhang. Zhang made an apologetic gesture to the carpenter and stepped outside the door, where he held an unintelligible conversation with someone in the thick darkness. It made no sense that such a bright floodlight couldn’t illuminate the ground below. Zhang and the person outside talked for a while, then Zhang came back inside to ask: Should we go get the wood? The carpenter stood up and left the room with them, but instead of going to collect the wood, he tugged on Zhang’s shirt and said very timidly, I haven’t had anything to eat yet.

They fed him in the kitchen. The clay oven, coal stove, and gas oven were all working at once. A rattan frame used as a bed during the summer months was covered with plates of untouched food. Clearly, there would be plenty of guests eating here tomorrow. Everyone here must have eaten already. Otherwise, Zhang wouldn’t have forgotten to ask the carpenter; now, the carpenter and a tall, big-boned cook in an apron and white sleeve protectors were the only two people in the kitchen. The cook sat by the clay oven, a large pot of something boiling furiously in front of him. He seemed unhappy at the amount of steam that came out, and did his best to cover the gap between pot and lid with wet rags. As these were not enough to cover every crevice through which steam could escape, he was continually nudging the rags around with two fingers. He only looked back at the carpenter once, and didn’t meet his eyes again. One look was enough for the carpenter to remember his face, however: his eyes were set very closely together, and there seemed to be no bridge of the nose separating them. He had what they called a “button nose,” or a “garlic nose.”

Zhang gave a few brief instructions to the cook and walked out, leaving the carpenter in the kitchen. The carpenter followed Zhang with his eyes into the central dwelling in the courtyard. The cook did not bring him bowls of rice and different dishes, as one would a guest. He simply filled a ceramic bowl with rice, then pressed the snow-white grains forcefully to one side with a creosoted metal spatula to make space in the bowl, before carrying it over to his steaming pot. He had been doing his best to keep this pot covered, and he hesitated before lifting the lid, obviously unhappy to do so. An overwhelming excess of white steam leapt immediately from the pot and filled the room, obscuring everything and diffusing the light. Inside was the braised fatty pork the carpenter had smelled earlier. The cook lifted two huge pieces out with a pair of oversized chopsticks and deposited them in the empty space in the bowl. But the two pieces were all he took out before he put down his chopsticks and asked, Is that enough? That’s fine, that’s fine, the carpenter anxiously responded. Do you want some gravy on the rice? Yes, yes please, the carpenter replied.

As the carpenter ate, the cook sat across from him and smoked a cigarette. At the outset, a kind of anger prompted the carpenter to shovel his rice into his mouth and chew with an exaggerated ferocity. When the cook noticed and responded with a look of disdain, the carpenter stopped, and ate more slowly. He was like a runner with no endurance who is still too eager to win, sprinting out of the gate but soon forced into a slower and slower jog. When he paused, the cook asked, Is the food not good? It’s great, it’s great, replied the carpenter, but I was eating too fast, and got some stuck in my throat. Do you have any broth? Apologies, replied the cook, no broth. You must have hot water, though? The cook said nothing, but cast his close-set eyes downward and gestured toward the carpenter’s crotch with his chin; it turned out that a red plastic water bottle stood just behind his leg. The carpenter didn’t like soaking rice in hot water, but he had no choice but to pour some onto the remaining rice in his bowl. Leftover grease from his meal floated to the top immediately; he coaxed it into a single globule with the tip of his chopsticks. He frowned, realizing he really had no idea how to eat this. At that moment, someone entered the kitchen—a woman, Wang Guilan. She and the carpenter greeted each other with a brief smile. Though the two of them lived in the same village, he rarely said hello to her; strange, he thought, to exchange a smile with her now. And a surprise that she should show up here. What could have brought her this way? But then, he reconsidered, it wasn’t strange at all. There was nowhere she couldn’t go, she knew so many men, and even this cook seemed to be on good terms with her. It was totally normal that she should show up here. And no wonder Liu Yutang said Wang Guilan had sent him with the invite to Tang Village. If Wang Guilan was helping out here, then she probably was the one who recommended him—more likely her than his old friend Zhang Degui. Yet Liu Yutang had mentioned Zhang Degui’s name when he came by, so perhaps it happened that Wang Guilan, who was here to help out, recommended him as the right man to build a coffin, and Zhang Degui, hearing his name, remembered their experience working together two years ago, and endorsed the idea to the head of the household. Yes, it had to be that way. Otherwise, why would the family waste so much time getting him all the way out here? He had passed through seven or eight villages on his way out here, each of which would have had a carpenter. Tang Village must have had a carpenter, too. He just didn’t know who he was. Still, this was kind of a roundabout answer to the question; Zhang Degui should know better than anyone who had invited him—Zhang Degui or Wang Guilan. If it had been the former, where was he now? It obviously wasn’t an important question, one you could safely ignore, but, still, the carpenter thought as he downed the last mouthful of water and pork grease, questions are questions. Knowing is better than not.

Looking up from his empty bowl, the carpenter found that Wang Guilan had disappeared, along with the cook. He couldn’t help thinking of a fairly well-traveled rumor about the looseness of Wang Guilan’s belt buckle.

Zhang led the carpenter, along with another middle-aged man, to the room where the wood was stored. The man, who introduced himself as neighbor, shook his head and sighed over the old lady’s death. He said she had been a wonderful old auntie. Once, her dog killed one of his family’s chickens, so she compensated him with one of her own family’s chickens that was basically the same. Yet it was a weirdly nostalgic chicken; it found its way back to her house every night to roost and lay. She didn’t drive it out, but simply fed it as usual, and carried an egg back to his family every morning. Then, when the Lunar New Year came around, she nabbed the chicken and sent it over for his family’s banquet. Tell me, where you gonna find that kind of good people now? The middle-aged man asked this loudly and with a touch of anger, as if he were asking the whole world and not just the carpenter. To this the carpenter could only nod assiduously and reply, No doubt, no doubt, truly a good person. But did you actually kill the chicken? At this, the man stopped and gave the carpenter an incredulous look. What’s that supposed to mean? The carpenter came suddenly to his senses, and realized he shouldn’t have asked the question. So he patted the man’s broad shoulder and gave him an ingratiating smile. Nothing, nothing, he said. Let’s get this wood out.

The good woman the middle-aged man remembered so fondly lay in the main hall atop a door, her hands crossed over her chest. Dressed entirely in brand-new clothes, including hat and shoes, she looked as if she were about to set out on a long trip, and she were just resting here for a moment, lying as still and orderly as possible to keep from wrinkling or disordering her new outfit. In a chair beside her sat a young woman in a white mourning robe; the carpenter guessed this must be her daughter-in-law. This daughter-in-law seemed tired: her head hung to one side as she periodically drifted into sleep. She must have registered a change in temperature behind her eyelids when the three men entered, because she raised them briefly to look; the sight of them aroused no special reaction, and she closed her eyes again. So they went around her and entered the dead woman’s old bedroom.

The bed inside held a sleeping person: the cousin that Zhang had spoken of earlier, and the somnolent, white-clad young woman’s husband. The blankets, pillows, and mosquito netting all appeared to have belonged to his mother; their colors had faded, and they bore the kinds of patterns and floral embroidery that old peasant women liked. Of course, the carpenter considered, old peasant women might not actually like such patterns and embroidery; they might simply be used to them. Or they were simply what the people who made bedclothes thought they liked. A young man sleeping deeply amid such colors and patterns looked even more exhausted and mournful. Of course, the man sleeping here now most likely slept on this bed when he was very young, the only difference being that, back then, he was a small body wedged between his parents’ bodies. Now he was an adult, his head heavy on the pillow, a stream of drool sliding over his unshaven chin. This gave the impression that he had never actually left the bed, but simply lain here, growing steadily larger like a vegetable (because he wasn’t moving), until he pushed the other vegetables (his parents) off the bed. Zhang gestured to the carpenter and the middle-aged man not to disturb his cousin, then tiptoed carefully to the edge of the bed and bent down to lift up the dangling coverlet.

Sure enough, a small pile of timber lay beneath the bed. The carpenter could tell from the bark and grain that it was birch wood. Zhang stuck his torso underneath the bed, then came out and signaled the two other men to come help him. The carpenter squatted down next to him and inserted himself under the bed. They each grabbed one side of the timber and pulled hard, but the boards stayed as motionless as if they were glued to the floor. Harder! The middle-aged man urged from behind them. Harder, pull harder! The intensity of his repressed whisper made it sound like he was exerting himself more than Zhang and the carpenter. Finally, after five or six attempts, the timber came free and began to slide. But the carpenter had pulled so hard he lost control for a moment and crashed up against the base of the bed. He immediately shot a frightened look at Zhang, as if he’d done something wrong; Zhang looked back at him, wide-eyed, before leaving him under there while he checked above. He came back a moment later, however, and said: Don’t worry, my cousin’s really passed out. The carpenter let out a sigh of relief, then inhaled a deep breath of the damp, mildewy air beneath the bed and whispered: One, two, three! The timber finally slid out from underneath the bed.

The carpenter examined the timber: it was at least twenty years old, good wood for a coffin, with plenty of length and width to it. But a problem stood out immediately. Did you treat this? He asked Zhang. I wouldn’t know, Zhang replied. The middle-aged man stuck his head in for a closer look, then pinched off a piece of bark from one corner; it turned to powder when he rolled it between his fingers. He made no comment, but looked at the carpenter as if waiting for him to speak. Looks like it wasn’t treated, the carpenter said. What does that mean? they asked him. The carpenter straightened up with the intention of brushing the dust off his pants, but then he thought of something, and elected to rub his hands together instead. As he did so, he explained: If it hasn’t been treated, it’ll rot easily. Look at this. He pointed with one rubbed-clean hand at the spot where the middle-aged man had pinched off the bark, exposing rotten wood underneath. It’s rotten, he said. So what? the middle-aged man asked somewhat indignantly. You can’t rip rotten wood into boards, the carpenter explained. It makes building a coffin with it risky. Then he added: It’s been here awhile, yeah? I mean, it’s been under the bed for a while? Zhang shook his head. He looked imploringly at the sleeping man on the bed, but didn’t move to wake him. I expect it’s been no less than ten years, and what’s more—the carpenter turned to the middle-aged man—the floor is really damp. Maybe the other pieces are still okay, the middle-aged man suggested, and he moved his lips in a gesture toward the bed. They won’t be any different, the carpenter replied with a professional air. Zhang was still looking at the sleeper as if pleading for help; glancing sidelong at the carpenter, he asked: So are you saying that we can’t make the coffin? The middle-aged man chimed in: And where are we gonna find dry, treated lumber? Their questions seemed to imply that everything was the carpenter’s fault, which was irritating, and the carpenter responded resentfully: If you think it’s okay, I’m fine with it, but don’t blame me if it doesn’t come out. Hearing this moved the middle-aged man to tug Zhang into a corner to talk. They discussed for a while, in tones so low the carpenter couldn’t make out what they were talking about. Finally, the middle-aged man came back over to the carpenter and said, This is the wood we’ve got, let’s do it. The carpenter wanted to say that doing it this way might be a bit disrespectful toward the old lady, but that seemed unnecessary; he too looked imploringly toward the sleeper on the bed. He was sleeping too soundly, so much so that you lost the courage and confidence to wake him. All right, the carpenter said with a hint of resignation. Then get a few more people to carry it over. I’ll get my tools ready. He headed out of the room as he spoke. By this time, the drowsy young wife guarding the body had already collapsed on her arms, down by the corpse’s feet. In the courtyard, several people squatting on the ground beneath the floodlight’s glare stood when they saw the carpenter appear, but no one spoke. They simply watched the seemingly disgruntled carpenter walk to the empty room at the south end.

Several hands carried the lengths of rotting wood to him; instead of leaving, they stood or squatted by the doorway and watched him work. In the carpenter’s eyes, this amounted to a criticism, as if to say, We got all this shitty timber for you, just to find out if you can turn it into a coffin or not. His mood had worsened, and he didn’t even look at them. From a professional perspective, coffins and marriage beds were not that different, both needed to be well made. The marriage bed had to withstand the weight and intense movement of a new couple, and would frequently last an entire lifetime—that was a basic requirement. And while one couldn’t measure a coffin’s use in lifetimes, and it would end up underground, it still ought to be sturdy and visually pleasing. The precondition there was having good timber. Even a clever wife cannot cook without rice, as the saying goes. But doing a bad job of either a marriage bed or a coffin angers the client and ruins one’s reputation. Yet the master of this house was sound asleep in bed, and Zhang constantly reminded everyone not to wake him up. Why was Zhang looking after his cousin so assiduously? The two of them couldn’t be as close as brothers, could they? The likeliest possibility was that Zhang feared a scolding from his cousin that would interfere with his own sleep later that night. That had to be it, thought the carpenter. Amazing how selfish people can be, only looking out for themselves the whole time, even when their close relatives are dead. The carpenter felt like dragging the cousin out of bed, or questioning the young wife sleeping by the body: Do you really want to use this rotten timber to make your mother’s coffin? But then, what did any of this have to do with him? He was just a carpenter, a carpenter invited in by his old friend, Zhang Degui (who knows if he really was a friend or not), or invited based on the recommendation of Wang Guilan and endorsed by Zhang Degui. Whether it was Zhang Degui who sent Wang Guilan, who then asked Liu Yutang to invite him over was not that important; what was important was that he should have someone standing on his side, opposing the use of these rotten old boards to make a coffin. Instead he had a crowd of standing or squatting onlookers watching him work, no man and every man having an opinion, and it was hard to bear. Zhang Degui might possibly understand him, sympathize with his point of view, and perhaps even help him. They had worked together before, and though the saying is that “different trades are like different worlds,” after their pleasant experience working together, he ought to understand somewhat. Yet, that being said, Zhang Degui had no real connection to this business anyway. Every tradesman, carpenter and roofer alike, knows that you change your methods to match your environment and get your material as locally as you can. Besides, the quality of the timber didn’t reflect on the carpenter. He just had to rip the timber into planks, mortise the ends together, and assemble a coffin, that was all. Didn’t matter if it was good or not—wasn’t it going into the ground either way? So he raised his tools to his chest like he were setting his jaw, and went to work under the crowd’s idle gaze.

The rot made working the boards into shape simple and expedient. Zhang stood beside him and did cleanup work, which sped up things even more. It took very little time to shape and cut all the boards to size; all that remained was to mortise and connect the ends. As the evening advanced, the crowd dwindled, until there were only a few people walking back and forth in the courtyard doing heaven knows what. Looking through the open door of the main hall, one could see that the young wife who had been sleeping by the dead woman’s feet had woken again, and once more sat dumbly in her chair. Her hair looked disordered, but from this distance, he could only see that it was disordered, not how it had got that way. Nor could he tell if she were looking through the main hall and courtyard directly into his eyes, or overseeing his work. In any case, she was facing in his direction. At times, when he let his imagination unfold, the way she sat there like a zombie, motionless beneath the bright lights in the main hall, was terrifying, even more so than the dead body beside her. Dead people should be lying down, not sitting up; a person who sat unmoving and ramrod-straight under brilliant light was a frightening sight indeed. Why didn’t she ever move? Was she really that filial? Could she have shared an unusually deep connection with her mother-in-law? The carpenter suddenly felt that Wang Guilan was such a warm-hearted woman; he was lucky that she smiled at him. All kinds of stories followed her around: stories of her winking at so-and-so, of getting caught naked in a haystack with so-and-so else, of taking and losing fistfuls of hair from a fight with so-and-so’s wife… With a sudden surge of feeling, he thought that if she appeared before him right now, and smiled at him once more, then he would marry her, and not judge her at all for being a slut.

But none of this mattered. To a carpenter, nothing could be more painful than doing shoddy work. The quality of the timber was such that the boards he made were incredibly light, like they weren’t made of wood at all. What were they like? He didn’t know. He feared that the entire coffin put together wouldn’t even weigh as much as the body, or that after the family put the body in the casket, it would snap the wood and fall through the bottom as they carried it down the road. The saddest part was that as he locked the ends together, the weakness of both mortise and tenon caused all kinds of breaks and cracking. He had to compensate by securing the ends more tightly with nails. Yet the nails poked their sharp ends through the wood into the interior, so he turned them all down with an iron mallet, to make sure they didn’t catch and tear the corpse’s new clothing, or its frigid skin. More traumatic to him than all of this was the fact that when he had connected all the boards together, so that the coffin finally began to look like a coffin, he found that crevices remained between the boards through which lamplight penetrated like leaking water. This naturally reminded him of the doors he saw on his way into the village. Those doors also seemed to be leaking light into the outside world. Such miserable luck, that the people of Tang village should live their whole lives in houses that leaked light, only to lie in caskets of the same quality once they had died. The discovery made the carpenter feel sadness, followed by despair: he would get no respect in Tang Village for want of good carpentry there. It had been pointless to invite him here; it was likely that Zhang Degui or Wang Guilan had caused it to be so. Why did the residents of Tang Village have to live so crudely? Harvesting a bunch of birch wood without treating it in water, then tossing it under a bed over a wet floor and letting it sit for ten years without thinking twice about it.

The carpenter felt angry about this weightless and poorly joined coffin he had made. He stood, tools gripped in unmoving hands, chewing painfully over all these questions. Should I tear it apart and start over? he asked himself. Or should I stop for now and wait until the client, the dead woman’s son, climbs out of his mother’s old bed, and ask him? If he did that, his estimated work time would likely more than double. And in that case, he wouldn’t make it home by tomorrow morning, which meant he wouldn’t be there in time to feed the chickens. Had he known, he would have accepted Liu Yutang’s kindness and left the door unlocked, or locked it and given him the key, then asked him to take a few ears of dried corn from the burlap sack by the clay oven to feed the chickens with. If Liu Yutang really were a good neighbor, he’d notice that the carpenter hadn’t come home or fed his chickens on schedule, and he ought to give the chickens a little corn to eat, just like this considerate, dead old lady would have. Liu Yutang wouldn’t do it for nothing; when the carpenter got home, he would give him a few extra ears of corn as compensation, perhaps even twice as many. But he knew that Liu Yutang wasn’t the dead old lady; he wasn’t that kind, which was to say that his long-held belief that Liu Yutang was a straight- up guy and a pretty good neighbor was nothing more than his own imagination at work. Such a disappointing thought.

Oh, you’re done! Zhang, who had woken himself by nearly falling off his stool from drowsiness, interrupted his wild train of thought with this positive appraisal. He looked into Zhang’s bloodshot eyes and said with difficulty: It’s basically there, it’s just— It looks great, Zhang interrupted him. Let me go get the paint. The enthusiasm in his tone appeared to bear some connection to the shallow sleep he’d just gotten. The carpenter sighed. He knew that Zhang knew nothing of carpentry, and had no idea what he was looking at. And Zhang wasn’t the only one: everyone in this village was that way; they couldn’t see the quality of a good job or the flaws of a bad one. To them, craftsmanship was entirely meaningless. They deserved nothing more than to live behind leaking doors for the rest of their lives, then be buried in cheap coffins. The thought drew him out of the embarrassment he had felt before. He comforted himself: This is what we’ve got. What else am I going to do about it? But when Zhang came back with a can of paint, he snatched it from his hand and said, I’ll paint it. Here he was squarely facing reality for the first time. On the very good chance that, when the villagers carried it to the graveyard the next day, someone of his trade saw the coffin, he would fill in the crevices now with a little extra paint in order to hide the poor quality of his work. This was the last thing he could do to patch up the problems.

Zhang was perfectly happy to resign the work of painting the coffin to the carpenter. He did not sit down, but, like most people who’ve woken from a nap, paced energetically around the room. He lifted an arm to look at his watch and announced: It’s almost twelve. This scared the carpenter so fiercely that his hand shook, and he swiped the brush in air without touching the wood. The master of the house would soon be up. It inspired a strange anxiety. The man had been sleeping there this whole time. The carpenter had only been able to see half of his face by the edge of the bed, and his eyes had been closed the whole time. A man’s face while sleeping is always very different from when he is standing upright, and since the carpenter did not know how he blinked or looked at people, he had no idea what the man really looked like. When we cannot get a clear picture of someone’s face and haven’t looked him in the eye, it can be very hard to guess what kind of person he may be, as we have nothing to examine, recognize, or relate to. This made the carpenter anxious; moreover, he also worried that the man might know something of his trade. If that were the case, the carpenter would have to undergo the worst moment of his career so far; his reputation and everything he had built over the years would be destroyed in a single evening.

He couldn’t stop his hand from quivering. Drops of paint fell from the brush onto the floor. Zhang noticed his condition and inquired curiously: Sir, is your hand okay? Beads of sweat were already forming on his forehead; he wiped them off with the wrist of the hand holding the brush, and replied weakly: I’m fine, it’s probably just fatigue. That’s no surprise, Zhang replied. Why don’t you rest? There’s no rush. I’ll take over for a while. Zhang moved to pick up the paint can, but the carpenter wouldn’t allow it. He moved the can over to the far side of his body, saying: It’s fine, it’s fine, allow me. Then he began painting furiously, swirling the brush over the wood until Zhang walked to the other side of the room. He raised his eyes once more to the chair in the main hall where the young wife had been sitting stock-still, but she was no longer there. Had she gone into the bedroom to wake up her husband? Was her husband already awake, and now face-to-face with his wife? Perhaps he was already sitting up in bed, and feeling over the damp floor with his stocking feet, looking for his slippers? The carpenter had moved that pair of slippers to one side before they pulled out the timber, a good three feet away from the bed. Had someone put them back after Zhang sent people in to carry the timber out, so that he could put his feet right into them as soon as he sat up in bed? He had probably already pulled the slippers over his heel and stood up to adjust his feet inside them. He was coming out.

A new sound did reach his ears—not from the main hall, but from the northern courtyard door. Everyone heard the clash of metal against metal, followed by a man coughing and spitting onto the level ground. The dark stillness of the courtyard made these noises seem distinct and sonorous. When Zhang heard them, he leapt happily off his stool and said: That should be my old man coming home! Then he ran into the courtyard, his overly white sneakers fading like meteors into the darkness. The carpenter also put down the paint can, and walked around the half-painted coffin and out the door, still gripping the brush in one hand. A few beads of paint ran down the brush handle, across the back of his hand and onto his sleeve protectors. He saw his old friend Zhang Degui turn a corner and walk into the flood-lit courtyard, shouldering that steel hoe of his, still spotted with wet clay.


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