Under the moonlight, it seemed like they were all sleeping.
On October 11th, the village hosted a big show. This was always the most lively time of year in the village. Stalls selling mutton soup, beef meatballs, oil-cakes, and hand-shaved noodles crowded around the stage. The steam swirled and the oil-cakes bubbled in their pot, the mutton soup at a rolling boil. The drums of the opening scene pulled at the villagers’ heartstrings, as the soulful arias of “Orphan Zhao” resounded in the heavens. But old man Liang shut himself indoors.
For many years old man Liang had held back from the village festivities, even though he lived only a dozen meters from the stage. Occasionally, if he walked past the road in front of the stage, the villagers would turn to look back at him, shouting their hellos. He said that he wasn’t willing to participate, but judging by his expression I guessed that it was more likely that he thought that a man of his profession might dampen the mood.
I first saw old man Liang’s ads pasted under the “gonorrea, syphilis” and “cure impotence” ads at the mine. “Corpse preservation.” Followed by old man Liang’s telephone number.
I originally came here to look for Immortal Xia. She was famous in Jincheng for “dressing the dead.” On the phone, when I asked old man Liang about his colleague, he told me, “I think I’ve seen her before; you should come over.” He said that she was the only woman for 100 miles in any direction who “dressed the dead.”
Lu Bo, a reporter from “Eastern Outlook,” had interviewed Immortal Xia thirty years ago. He told me when there was a mining accident, Immortal Xia would dress in a strange robe like a witch or a sorcerer. People called her “Queen Mother Guanyin.” After her husband died in a mining accident 16 years ago, she started bathing and making up the dead miners for a living. Immortal Xia told Lu Bo a lot of stories; for example, the miners loved to bathe in scalding water, because if their pores didn’t open up they couldn’t wash off the coal dust. You could tell the old hands from the new recruits because they were willing to climb into that scalding water.
But no matter how you washed the deceased you couldn’t get them clean, because their blood had stopped circulating and their pores wouldn’t open. Especially around the eyes, the skin was always as dark as if it had been covered in eye shadow. Old man Liang said that they usually used laundry detergent, dipping a towel in a little water to scrub the skin clean. But even if they used a lot of detergent, places like the face, hands and any areas that had been injured or had open wounds would remain covered with coal dust and soot that couldn’t be cleaned away, “not with a lifetime of scrubbing”.
Old man Liang admired Immortal Xia. She had guts, woman that she was. She was meticulous, and was the first to be called for any mining accidents in the area. Lu Bo recalls other people telling him Immortal Xia would often be alone by the entrance to the mine taking care of dozens of corpses. The others had gone off to drink, but she would still be working.
At the time, Immortal Xia had explained to Lu Bo why she wasn’t frightened. She said that the miners’ bodies were good-looking, better-looking than the living men in the city bathhouses. The bodies of the dead miners were intact and their expressions were peaceful. Laboring under the moonlight, Xia Guiying often thought back to times with her husband.
But then, Immortal Xia seemed to disappear from her line of work. Old man Liang asked around, but no one saw her again in the years to come.
Old man Liang entered the profession later than Immortal Xia, and in about seven or eight years he had acquired a reputation in the area for being able to stitch someone back up in a few hours. He could tend miners’ illnesses and treat their ailments. Old man Liang’s hands were rough, they were the same hands that had once extracted coal ore from the mine. His palms and his fingernails were covered in thin lines of black. Old man Liang didn’t turn off his phone all year. The mine gave him his “work” phone and he also brought his motorbike. His black motorbike, his old brown fake-leather bag, and his tawny glasses were as familiar as a death notice or a toe tag.
Old man Liang’s proudest accomplishment was sewing a man back together from five or six pieces in the space of three hours. But he admired retired mortician Liu even more. Seven or eight years ago, he and a partner had fixed up twenty three miners.
I told them that I was a fiction writer. Old man Liang said, “This is even better than the tales those storytellers are weaving. Our stories are all real.” Mortician Liu added, “That’s right.”
They represented life itself. From time to time they would laugh at my trepidation. “You’re a real bookworm,” mortician Liu said.
It was difficult for me to assess whether the stories they told were real or not. Those who perished in the darkness of the mine shaft were now at eternal rest. Whether their bodies were intact or shattered to pieces, their final resting place was a woven plastic bag, the colorful kind that you can see for sale at any street-side shop. Mortician Liu put a piece of clothing inside, saying, “That barely resembles a person anymore, it’s more like a pile of stuff.” The chunks of coal couldn’t be separated out, so everything was just stuffed in together.
Sometimes there wasn’t even a colorful plastic bag. Mortician Liu would pack that “pile of stuff” into the bucket used for coal and haul it up the mine shaft to the ground level. Then he would show the remaining scraps of clothing to the families to identify the body. Mortician Liu said that one time they couldn’t find half of a young man’s left leg. Before the funeral, another miner discovered it when he was digging for coal, and the mine sent someone to carry the leg back to the man’s family.
Mortician Liu remembers the rain the day he took care of twenty three bodies. They built a little shack a ways away from the entrance to the mine. It was hard work to prepare more than twenty bodies. It took the few of them over ten hours to finish. The mine had the canteen send food over for them and mortician Liu just washed his hands and ate, resting a while before he got back to work.
Some bodies were too stiff and they couldn’t be dressed. You had to break the arm or leg before you could put the clothing on and put it in the coffin. Mortician Liu remembered the position of a young man’s leg, raised up so that the lid of the coffin wouldn’t shut. After he talked to the family, he took a hammer to the man’s leg and then turned it so that the coffin could finally shut. Some bodies didn’t have a head, so mortician Liu would use gauze and clothing to wind a fake head for the family, saying “His skull was crushed by the chunks of coal; that coal doesn’t watch where it’s falling.”
So it came to be that mortician Liu saw all the internal organs. The illiterate peasant asked his wife, “Have you seen the most beautiful peach flower? That’s the color brains are, and they’re so slippery you can hardly pick them up.”
Old man Liang said that sometimes, as the corpses slowly hardened, an arm would swing with a smack. Or he would watch as the body or leg slowly rose up. I asked Old man Liang, “Weren’t you scared?”
He responded, “No.” After a while he added, “There was only one time, when I didn’t have enough preservative. I kept thinking about it and I had a dream that he stood straight up.”
Whenever old man Liang returned home from repairing the bodies, his wife would refuse to touch his money. She said “Old Liang is brave, but I’m not! The whole thing scares me.”
The most difficult bodies were the ones that needed to be stitched back together. The leg bone needed to be sewn back into the muscle, or the organs needed to be put back in place and the stomach skin stitched back over them. Old man Liang said that after death your skin becomes very hard, and a normal needle couldn’t pierce through it. He made the big needle that he used himself, grinding down the spoke of a bicycle wheel into a point. He showed the needle to me and I saw that there was already some rust on it. This was his most powerful tool. Most bodies needed a preservative treatment, and he dispensed it himself from a white plastic five liter bucket. This bucket was usually stored under the chicken coop in the yard.
Old man Liang said that when he cleaned the bodies in the mortuary he was often alone, and he’d watch a whole bucket of preservative get used up. At night, there were no lights in the hospital mortuary, and he would usually only light a single candle. Sometimes, if he was in a rush he wouldn’t even bother with the candle, he would just bring a flashlight and under the moonlight he would quietly wait for the dose of preservative to go into the bodies.
Under the moonlight, it seemed like they were all sleeping. Some were very young and handsome. Sometimes you could see the fear of leaving the world in their faces. Some were grieving. Some still had their eyes open and he would use his hand to gently close them.
If you looked in the pockets of their tattered clothing often you would find a string of house keys and nothing more.
Old man Liang said that when he was young and working in the mine, there would be flies and coal dust in his lunch. His two companions might be chatting one moment, but when he turned to look they’d been crushed to death by falling coal. He couldn’t see the blood in the dark, and he lay by their sides for an afternoon nap, thinking to himself, “They are also having a rest.”
“You don’t know how miners’ wives feel every day,” he said. “From the morning when they see their men off, they are waiting, waiting, waiting until the men reemerge out of the mine and come home. Then their hearts can rest and they can close their eyes and sleep. Is there any mining site without widows?”
Old man Liang often worked as a doctor in his wife’s clinic. When I went to visit him the three stools were already taken by patients, and there was also someone lying on the bed getting an injection. Old man Liang beckoned for me to sit on a stack of saline solution bottles, saying, “Have a seat, it’ll hold.”
The room was filled with cures for common cold and diarrhea. That night a miner was dragged over by his wife to see the doctor. He had gone to pick some wild persimmons up in the mountains and was surprised by a hornet the size of a pot-lid that stung him four times on his head, neck and back before he could run away.
“How much does a jin of persimmons cost? Even if it were 10 kuai, it wouldn’t hurt to buy a jin and eat it. But hornets can kill you.” Old man Liang prepared his needle and cupping glass.
The miner from Sichuan, called Xiao Li, smiled sheepishly and said, “It doesn’t hurt now.” His wife had brought a razor blade and old man Liang shaved the hair on the top of his head clean off. When the light reflected off the top of that round head it looked so goofy that the whole room started laughing.
Old man Liang didn’t laugh. He spat on the patient’s head in lieu of antiseptic, then used his cigarette lighter to sterilize the needle and quickly pricked the bump. Xiao Li’s face twitched, and blood ran down his cheeks. Old man Liang burned some cotton over the wound and put the cupping glass on top of it. The swelling gradually subsided. Xiao Li’s wife held his head tightly, tears swimming in her eyes. She used some tissue to wipe off the blood that trickled down his chest. “You big oaf! If we had just bought a few persimmons in the market… Are the wild persimmons in the mountains that much sweeter than the ones you can buy?”
Old man Liang treated the four big welts, and said “40 kuai.” That was about a day’s earnings in the mine. Xiao Li’s wife said, “We came in a rush and didn’t bring enough money with us, you’ll have to put it on our account. We’ll send it to you at the end of the month when they pay salaries.”
Then there was a little pigtailed four-year-old that Old man Liang could never forget. In the summer she wore a white dress and had two little flowers stuck in her hair. “She sang beautifully.” She was always sick and she needed shots often. Whenever she saw him, she would greet him sweetly: “Uncle Liang! Uncle Liang!” There weren’t many little girls who didn’t cry when he gave them a shot. Not only did she not cry, Old man Liang remembered her faint little smile.
It was this summer that the girl was playing on the side of the road and was crushed by a coal truck. At the time her dad was working in the mine, and they only gave her parents 4000 kuai or so in compensation.
“Her mother went mad. She didn’t shed a single tear. She just lay in bed and her belly swelled up like she was pregnant.” Old man Liang removed a lot of excess water from the girl’s mother’s belly, but he could never get it all out. “One day the girl suddenly snapped out of it and rushed to the mine. The guard at the entrance beat her before she could go in… then she got even worse. Who knows if she’s still alive, but she definitely didn’t have the money to go to the hospital.”
“That little girl was so beautiful.” Old man Liang added.
Even in the middle of the night, if the phone rang old man Liang would jump on his motorcycle and be off. He would be paid between 400 and 4000 kuai. When he chatted with his predecessor mortician Liu, he would sigh, it’s getting harder and harder to earn money in this profession.
As the fines for mining accidents got higher and higher, the mines grew more strict. You would hardly ever see the bodies. The bodies would be dragged to another province to be cremated, and the relatives would secretly be relocated to other places without seeing their loved one’s face again. The compensation was higher, “usually people from other provinces were given about 300,000 and locals were given 1,000,000.” The news was always tightly guarded, and it was a long while before old man Liang and mortician Liu would hear that there’d been a death at some mine.
One morning the phone rang just after five and old man Liang took the small fake-leather bag out from under the chicken coop. An old man had passed away. He was doing more of this kind of regular death. As he prepared his preservative, his wife asked, “Don’t you want to eat something before you go?”
“I’ll eat when I get back. They’re waiting for me.”
Old man Liang rode his motorcycle quickly to the small neighboring village. The man had suffered from cancer for most of the last year, and he was lying quietly in his coffin, his clothes already undone. His face was covered by a blue cloth, and the fresh coat of black lacquer on the coffin still hadn’t completely dried. There was no IV drip in the room, so old man Liang moved a chair over and the deceased man’s son found a carrying pole. Old man Liang hung the white bucket from the carrying pole and inserted the his thick needle in the man’s stomach, releasing a dull rush of air.
“Don’t mind me. I’ll just be forty minutes or so.” Old man Liang said.
The man’s son asked, “Which medical school did you graduate from?”
Old Liang smiled, “I only made it through junior high, the rest I taught myself.”
“And you’re not afraid?”
“What do you believe in?”
The preservative was working quickly, letting out an occasional gurgle from time to time. After a while, old man Liang moved the needle. The man’s two daughters knelt by his feet weeping.
Old man Liang was quiet, and the preservative gurgled in the IV. He sprinkled the little bit that was left on the blue cloth covering the corpse’s face.
“That’ll keep a week?” The son asked.
“It would keep two years.”
Old man Liang washed his hands, and brought me back to his place on his motorcycle. The mountain air was cold and the morning fog still enveloped the small mine in the distance. It was only six, but the trucks piled with coal hurtled past, raising tall clouds of dust behind them.The early risers waved a hand at Old man Liang from the distance, lifting their chins.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Old man Liang replied, without slowing his motorcycle. The rising dust made him cough, and in the distance the sun was slowly ascending, but it wasn’t strong enough to pierce through the thick fog. The crows caws echoed in the ravine.
A street cleaner hummed by, and the dust raised by the coal trucks gradually settled. Old man Liang said, “By the time the sun rises, it will be just like nothing happened.”
This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.