Wang Lung, sitting at the threshold of his door, said to himself that now surely something must be done. They could not remain here in this empty house and die. In his lean body, about which he daily wrapped more tightly his loose girdle, there was a determination to live. He would not thus, just when he was coming into the fullness of a man’s life, suddenly be robbed of it by a stupid fate. There was such anger in him now as he often could not express. At times it seized him like a frenzy so that he rushed out upon his barren threshing floor and shook his arms at the foolish sky that shone above him, eternally blue and clear and cold and cloudless.
“Oh, you are too wicked, you Old Man in Heaven!” he would cry recklessly. And if for an instant he were afraid, he would the next instant cry sullenly, “And what can happen to me worse than that which has happened!”
Once he walked, dragging one foot after another in his famished weakness, to the temple of the earth, and deliberately he spat upon the face of the small, imperturbable god who sat there with his goddess. There were no sticks of incense now before this pair, nor had there been for many moons, and their paper clothes were tattered and showed their clay bodies through the rents. But they sat there unmoved by anything and Wang Lung gnashed his teeth at them and walked back to his house groaning and fell upon his bed.
They scarcely rose at all now, any of them. There was no need, and fitful sleep took the place, for a while, at least, of the food they had not. The cobs of the corn they had dried and eaten and they stripped the bark from trees and all over the countryside people were eating what grass they could find upon the wintry hills. There was not an animal anywhere. A man might walk for a handful of days and see not an ox nor an ass nor any kind of beast or fowl.
The children’s bellies were swollen out with empty wind, and one never saw in these days a child playing upon the village street. At most the two boys in Wang Lung’s house crept to the door and sat in the sun, the cruel sun that never ceased its endless shining. Their once rounded bodies were angular and bony now, sharp small bones like the bones of birds, except for their ponderous bellies. The girl child never even sat alone, although the time was past for this, but lay uncomplaining hour after hour wrapped in an old quilt. At first the angry insistence of her crying had filled the house, but she had come to be quiet, sucking feebly at whatever was put into her mouth and never lifting up her voice. Her little hollowed face peered out at them all, little sunken blue lips like a toothless old woman’s lips, and hollow black eyes peering.
This persistence of the small life in some way won her father’s affection, although if she had been round and merry as the others had been at her age he would have been careless of her for a girl. Sometimes, looking at her he whispered softly,
“poor fool—poor little fool—” And once when she essayed a weak smile with her toothless gums showing, he broke into tears and took into his lean hard hand her small claw and held the tiny grasp of her fingers over his forefinger. Thereafter he would sometimes lift her, all naked as she lay, and thrust her inside the scant warmth of his coat against his flesh and sit with her so by the threshold of the house, looking out over the dry, flat fields.
As for the old man, he fared better than any, for if there was anything to eat he was given it, even though the children were without. Wang Lung said to himself proudly that none should say in the hour of death he had forgotten his father. Even if his own flesh went to feed him the old man should eat. The old man slept day and night, and ate what was given him and there was still strength in him to creep about the dooryard at noon when the sun was warm. He was more cheerful than any of them and he quavered forth one day in his old voice that was like a little wind trembling among cracked bamboos,
“There have been worse days—there have been worse days. Once I saw men and women eating children.”
“There will never be such a thing in my house,” said Wang Lung, in extremest horror.
There was a day when his neighbor Ching, worn now to less than the shadow of a human creature, came to the door of Wang Lung’s house and he whispered from his lips that were dried and black as earth,
“In the town the dogs are eaten and everywhere the horses and the fowls of every sort. Here we have eaten the beasts that ploughed our fields and the grass and the bark of trees. What now remains for food?”
Wang Lung shook his head hopelessly. In his bosom lay the slight, skeleton-like body of his girl child, and he looked down into the delicate bony face, and into the sharp, sad eyes that watched him unceasingly from his breast. When he caught those eyes in his glance, invariably there wavered upon the child’s face a flickering smile that broke his heart.
Ching thrust his face nearer.
“In the village they are eating human flesh,” he whispered. “It is said your uncle and his wife are eating. How else are they living and with strength enough to walk about—they, who, it is known, have never had anything?”
Wang Lung drew back from the death-like head which Ching had thrust forward as he spoke. With the man’s eyes close like this, he was horrible. Wang Lung was suddenly afraid with fear he did not understand. He rose quickly as though to cast off some entangling danger.
“We will leave this place,” he said loudly. “We will go south! There are everywhere in this great land people who starve. Heaven, however wicked, will not at once wipe out the sons of Han.”
His neighbor looked at him patiently. “Ah, you are young,” he said sadly. “I am older than you and my wife is old and we have nothing except one daughter. We can die well enough.”
“You are more fortunate than I,” said Wang Lung. “I have my old father and these three small mouths and another about to be born. We must go lest we forget our nature and eat each other as the wild dogs do.”
And then it seemed to him suddenly that what he said was very right, and he called aloud to O-lan, who lay upon the bed day after day without speech, now that there was no food for the stove and no fuel for the oven.
“Come, woman, we will go south!”
There was cheer in his voice such as none had heard in many moons, and the children looked up and the old man hobbled out from his room and O-lan rose feebly from her bed and came to the door of their room and clinging to the door frame she said,
“It is a good thing to do. One can at least die walking.”
The child in her body hung from her lean loins like a knotty fruit and from her face every particle of flesh was gone, so that the jagged bones stood forth rock-like under her skin. “Only wait until tomorrow,” she said. “I shall have given birth by then. I can tell by this thing’s movements in me.”
“Tomorrow, then,” answered Wang Lung, and then he saw his wife’s face and he was moved with a pity greater than any he had had for himself. This poor creature was dragging forth yet another!
“How shall you walk, you poor creature!” he muttered, and he said unwillingly to his neighbor Ching, who still leaned against the house by the door, “If you have any food left, for a good heart’s sake give me a handful to save the life of the mother of my sons, and I will forget that I saw you in my house as a robber.”
Ching looked at him ashamed and he answered humbly,
“I have never thought of you with peace since that hour. It was that dog, your uncle, who enticed me, saying that you had good harvests stored up. Before this cruel heaven I promise you that I have only a little handful of dried red beans buried beneath the stone of my doorway. This I and my wife placed there for our last hour, for our child and ourselves, that we might die with a little food in our stomachs. But some of it I will give to you, and tomorrow go south, if you can. I stay, I and my house. I am older than you and I have no son, and it does not matter whether I live or die.”
And he went away and in a little while he came back, bringing tied in a cotton kerchief a double handful of small red beans, mouldy with the soil. The children clambered about at the sight of the food, and even the old man’s eyes glistened, but Wang Lung pushed them away for once and he took the food in to his wife as she lay and she ate a little of it, bean by bean, unwilling except that her hour was upon her and she knew that if she had not any food she would die in the clutches of her pain.
Only a few of the beans did Wang Lung bide in his own hand and these he put into his own mouth and he chewed them into a soft pulp and then putting his lips to the lips of his daughter he pushed into her mouth the food, and watching her small lips move, he felt himself fed.
That night he stayed in the middle room. The two boys were in the old man’s room and in the third room O-lan gave birth alone. He sat there as he had sat during the birth of his firstborn son and listened. She would not even yet have him near her at her hour. She would give birth alone, squatting over the old tub she kept for the purpose, creeping about the room afterwards to remove the traces of what had been, hiding as an animal does the birth stains of its young.
He listened intently for the small sharp cry he knew so well, and he listened with despair. Male or female, it mattered nothing to him now—there was only another mouth coming which must be fed.
“It would be merciful if there were no breath,” he muttered, and then he heard the feeble cry—how feeble a cry!—hang for an instant upon the stillness. “But there is no mercy of any kind in these days,” he finished bitterly, and he sat listening.
There was no second cry, and over the house the stillness became impenetrable. But for many days there had been stillness everywhere, the stillness of inactivity and of people, each in his own house, waiting to die. This house was filler with such stillness. Suddenly Wang Lung could not bear it. He was afraid. He rose and went to the door of the room where O-lan was and he called into the crack and the sound of his own voice heartened him a little.
“You are safe?” he called to the woman. He listened. Suppose she had died as he sat there! But he could hear a slight rustling. She was moving about and at last she answered, her voice a sigh,
He went in, then, and she lay there upon the bed, her body scarcely raising the cover. She lay alone.
“Where is the child?” he asked.
She made a slight movement of her hand upon the bed and he saw upon the floor the child’s body.
“Dead!” he exclaimed.
“Dead,” she whispered.
He stooped and examined the handful of its body—a wisp of bone and skin—a girl. He was about to say, “But I heard it crying—alive—” and then he looked at the woman’s face. Her eyes were closed and the color of her flesh was the color of ashes and her bones stuck up under the skin—a poor silent face that lay there, having endured to the utmost, and there was nothing he could say. After all, during these months he had had only his own body to drag about. What agony of starvation this woman had endured, with the starved creature gnawing at her from within, desperate for its own life!
He said nothing, but he took the dead child into the other room and laid it upon the earthen floor and searched until he found a bit of broken mat and this he wrapped about it. The round head dropped this way and that and upon the neck he saw two dark, bruised spots, but he finished what he had to do. Then he took the roll of matting, and going as far from the house as he had strength, he laid the burden against the hollowed side of an old grave. This grave stood among many others, worn down and no longer known or cared for, on a hillside just at the border of Wang Lung’s western field. He had scarcely put the burden down before a famished, wolfish dog hovered almost at once behind him, so famished that although he took up a small stone and threw it and hit its lean flank with a thud, the animal would not stir away more than a few feet. At last Wang Lung felt his legs sinking beneath him and covering his face with his hands he went away.
“It is better as it is,” he muttered to himself, and for the first time was wholly filled with despair.
The next morning when the sun rose unchanging in its sky of varnished blue it seemed to him a dream that he could ever have thought of leaving his house with these helpless children and this weakened woman and this old man. How could they drag their bodies over a hundred miles, even to plenty? And who knew whether or not even in the south there was food? One would say there was no end to this brazen sky. Perhaps they would wear out all their last strength only to find more starving people and these strangers to them as well. Far better to stay where they could die in their beds. He sat desponding on the threshold of the door and gazed bleakly over the dried and hardened fields from which every particle of anything which could be called food or fuel had been plucked.
He had no money. Long ago the last coin was gone. But even money would do little good now, for there was no food to buy. He had heard earlier that there were rich men in the town who were hoarding food for themselves and for sale to the very rich, but even this ceased to anger him. He did not feel this day that he could walk to the town, even to be fed without money. He was, indeed, not hungry.
The extreme gnawing in his stomach which he had had at first was now past and he could stir up a little of the earth from a certain spot in one of his fields and give it to the children without desiring any of it for himself. This earth they had been eating in water for some days—goddess of mercy earth, it was called, because it had some slight nutritious quality in it, although in the end it could not sustain life. But made into a gruel it allayed the children’s craving for a time and put something into their distended, empty bellies. He steadfastly would not touch the few beans that O-lan still held in her hand, and it comforted him vaguely to hear her crunching them, one at a time, a long time apart.
And then, as he sat there in the doorway, giving up his hope and thinking with a dreamy pleasure of lying upon his bed and sleeping easily into death, someone came across the fields—men walking toward him. He continued to sit as they drew near and he saw that one was his uncle and with him were three men whom he did not know.
“I have not seen you these many days,” called his uncle with loud and affected good humor. And as he drew nearer he said in the same loud voice, “And how well you have fared! And your father, my elder brother, he is well?”
Wang Lung looked at his uncle. The man was thin, it is true, but not starved, as he should be. Wang Lung felt in his own shriveled body the last remaining strength of life gathering into a devastating anger against this man, his uncle.
“How you have eaten—how you have eaten!” he muttered thickly. He thought nothing of these strangers or of any courtesy. He saw only his uncle with flesh on his bones, still. His uncle opened wide his eyes and threw up his hands to the sky.
“Eaten!” he cried. “If you could see my house! Not a sparrow even could pick up a crumb there. My wife—do you remember how fat she was? How fair and fat and oily her skin? And now she is like a garment hung on a pole—nothing but the poor bones rattling together in her skin. And of our children only four are left—the three little ones gone—gone—and as for me, you see me!” He took the edge of his sleeve and wiped the corner of each eye carefully.
“You have eaten,” repeated Wang Lung dully.
“I have thought of nothing but of you and of your father, who is my brother,” retorted his uncle briskly, “and now I prove it to you. As soon as I could, I borrowed from these good men in the town a little food on the promise that with the strength it gave me I would help them to buy some of the land about our village. And then I thought of your good land first of all, you, the son of my brother. They have come to buy your land and to give you money—food—life!” His uncle, having said these words, stepped back and folded his arms with a flourish of his dirty and ragged robes.
Wang Lung did not move. He did not rise nor in any way recognize the men who had come. But he lifted his head to look at them and he saw that they were indeed men from the town, dressed in long robes of soiled silk. Their hands were soft and their nails long. They looked as though they had eaten and blood still ran rapidly in their veins. He suddenly hated them with an immense hatred. Here were these men from the town, having eaten and drunk, standing beside him whose children were starving and eating the very earth of the fields; here they were, come to squeeze his land from him in his extremity. He looked up at them sullenly, his eyes deep and enormous in his bony, skull-like face.
“I will not sell my land,” he said.
his uncle stepped forward. At this instant the younger of Wang Lung’s two sons came creeping to the doorway upon his hands and knees. Since he had so little strength in these latter days the child at times had gone back to crawling as he used in bis babyhood.
“Is that your lad?” cried the uncle, “the little fat lad I gave a copper to in the summer?”
And they all looked at the child and suddenly Wang Lung, who through all this time had not wept at all, began to weep silently, the tears gathering in great knots of pain in his throat and rolling down his cheeks.
“What is your price?” he whispered at last. Well, there were these three children to be fed—the children and the old man. He and his wife could dig themselves graves in the land and lie down in them and sleep. Well, but here were these.
And then one of the men from the city spoke, a man with one eye blind and sunken in his face, and unctuously he said,
“My poor man, we will give you a better price than could be got in these times anywhere for the sake of the boy who is starving. We will give you…” he paused and then he said harshly, “we will give you a string of a hundred pence for an acre!”
Wang Lung laughed bitterly. “Why, that,” he cried, “that is taking my land for a gift. Why, I pay twenty times that when I buy land!”
“Ah, but not when you buy it from men who are starving,” said the other man from the city. He was a small, slight fellow with a high thin nose, but his voice came out of him unexpectedly large and coarse and hard.
Wang Lung looked at the three of them. They were sure of him, these men! What will not a man give for his starving children and his old father! The weakness of surrender in him melted into an anger such as he had never known in his life before. He sprang up and at the men as a dog springs at an enemy.
“I shall never sell the land!” he shrieked at them. “Bit by bit I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth!”
He was weeping violently and his anger went out of him as suddenly as a wind and he stood shaking and weeping. The men stood there smiling slightly, his uncle among them, unmoved. This talk was madness and they waited until Wang’s anger was spent.
And then suddenly O-lan came to the door and spoke to them, her voice flat and commonplace as though every day such things were.
“The land we will not sell, surely,” she said, “else when we return from the south we shall have nothing to feed us. But we will sell the table and the two beds and the bedding and the four benches and even the cauldron from the stove. But the rakes and the hoe and the plow we will not sell, nor the land.”
There was some calmness in her voice which carried more strength than all Wang Lung’s anger, and Wang Lung’s uncle said uncertainly,
“Will you really go south?”
At last the one-eyed man spoke to the others and they muttered among themselves and the one-eyed man turned and said,
“They are poor things and fit only for fuel. Two silver bits for the lot and take it or leave it.”
He turned away with contempt as he spoke, but O-lan answered tranquilly,
“It is less than the cost of one bed, but if you have the silver give it to me quickly and take the things.”
The one-eyed man fumbled in his girdle and dropped into her outstretched hand the silver and the three men came into the house and between them they took out the table and the benches and the bed in Wang Lung’s room first with its bedding, and they wrenched the cauldron from the earthern oven in which it stood. But when they went into the old man’s room Wang Lung’s uncle stood outside. He did not wish his older brother to see him, nor did he wish to be there when the old man was laid on the floor and the bed taken from under him. When all was finished and the house was wholly empty except for the two rakes and the two hoes and the plow in one corner of the middle room, O-lan said to her husband,
“Let us go while we have the two bits of silver and before we must sell the rafters of the house and have no hole into which we can crawl when we return.”
And Wang Lung answered heavily, “Let us go.”
But he looked across the fields at the small figures of the men receding and he muttered over and over, “At least I have the land—I have the land.”