China Memories: The Water Buffalo and an Old Man’s Bride
Just outside the metropolis of Chongqing in southwest China, our student bus overheated. Radiator cooked dry. We disembarked to escape suffocation in the 100 degree heat with 90% humidity and waited for the university-contracted tour company to replace our conveyance, wondering about things like luggage transfer and itinerary and how much water we had between us. Western world college girls complained about melting mascara and flat hair while fanning wet shirts away from tan and clammy skin, careful not to show too much.
Bivouacked roadside as we were, a stone’s throw from the confluence of the almighty Yangtze and the lesser Jialing rivers, rice paddies and the rising mist of baking rivulet humidity stretched before us like a portrait of a dream. Rocky protuberance of ancient stone upheaval dotted the otherwise level delta landscape, jutting vertically out of the earth like fingers of the gods reaching desperately to escape unsanctimonious interment in the clinging loamy soil. And everything festooned in deepest green, as if dipped in liquid jade and hung in a gallery, still wet.
To our left a hundred yards, an old man and water buffalo traversed a length of flooded rice terrace with methodical resignation. A bundle of rice shoots laced over the old man’s back dwindled one at a time as he placed the green slivers of rice grass between the first toes of his right foot and plunged beneath water and mud, planting them in the traditional, dexterous, one legged flamingo ballet that spoke both of practiced sinew and weariness of years.
The sun baked down.
Noticing neither canteen nor satchel among the farmer’s accoutrements, I went to the onboard bus cooler and grabbed two bottles of water and a cellophane wrapped pastry filled with a tender paste of purple yam and sweet red bean. A commoner’s dessert cake that had saved me from privation on long train journeys across mainland China where our only food was a meager rice and spoiled fish gruel known as congee, cooked thin as water and mostly sharp bone in the train’s galley car and sold at a dollar a bowl, a price still beyond the means of the sardine packed passengers in the seated cars who sat bolt upright days and nights on end, carrying live chicken cages and parcels on their slim laps while we dozed and read paperbacks and shuffled poker comfortably, rocking as if at sea in our private air conditioned sleeper berths, four people to a compartment.
Provisions in hand, I jogged easily without notice or permission to cross distance from bus to the old man in the rice paddock who was just about to make his turn under a sternly pitched coolly hat which tied beneath his chin with a faded tan cloth.
“Ni Hao,” I called to him, hailing his attention and extending sweated water bottle and snack in his direction. After pausing slightly, he smiled and jabbered a lazy talk Mandarin reply and looped his bamboo basket of rice shoots onto the back his patient and calm, if bony and angular water buffalo. Neither man nor animal suffered from an overabundance of nourishment to be sure. Both seemed in roughly the same season of life. The wiry old man waded a few gushing muddy steps and climbed to meet me at the roadside dike wall that retained the pristine lookingglass pool of his painstakingly terraced field dotted with the newest sprouts of the ricebowl of the world. “It’s lunchtime on a hot day,” I said in his native tongue. “I have these to give you.” “Wo bu zhidao ni shifou xiang yao,” (I didn’t know if you might want these) I said.
“It’s lunchtime on a hot day,” I said in his native tongue. “I have these to give you.” “Wo bu zhidao ni shifou xiang yao,” (I didn’t know if you might want these) I said.
Without word and with shaking hands, he clasped an already open bottle of water and lifted it to his lips, drinking for long moments in a slow way that bespoke unfamiliarity with clear plastic bottles of anything. After final breathless swallows, he thanked me, informing me that he normally drinks the water from his field when he gets thirsty enough but that on that day he had forgotten a tin mug or drinking ladle before coming to the paddy and could only sip badly from his cupped palms. He’d been distracted he said because his wife had been ill and was still sleeping soundly when he left their house that morning and he hadn’t wished to awaken her. Very sick, he said. Though all of at least his 65th year, he used the word, “xinniang” rather than the customary, “qizi” to reference his wife, calling her his “young bride,” in a way that left no doubt that she was still the very center of his heart. Very sick, he said. So sick that he had considered taking his aging water buffalo to the market sale to get some money for a doctor. But alas, the beast was too old and tired to fetch a good price. $20 on a bad day. $50 at most.
Swiping a hand across his sopping brow, the old man thanked me again for the drink, carefully retaining his hold on the bottle as if I might decide to take it from him. Looking across the road at our bus and the hapless huddle of our group, he inquired of our troubles, asking first if we had run out of fuel. “No,” I replied. Radiator. Overheat. Maybe some vapor lock of the fuel line to boot.
At that, the old man lifted his tired eyes to mine and then to the cool bottle of water in his right hand. “My young friend,” the old man said. “For you. For you. You need. You need. Put the water in the radiator and fix yourself,” he stammered quickly, gesturing earnestly, suddenly embarrassed that a stranger had crossed a busy road to bring him a cool drink rather than attending to the boiling radiator of a stranded vehicle.
“No worries, my friend,” I replied. “The bus is old and is still boiling hot. On a day like this, you know it’ll be two hours before we could open that radiator without steaming our faces like a basket of dim sum,” I said. We both laughed in agreement, as the old man knew the truth and seemed relieved to enjoy his water without guilt. As he drank again, emptying the first bottle, I reached into my traveler’s money belt and retrieved a few sweaty pieces of Chinese currency from inside. A younger water buffalo’s ransom in full. With a handshake goodbye, I placed the money in his damp palm and placed my hand on his shoulder.
He grasped the money with both hands and stared at it, barely nodding and without speech as I turned to cross the road again to the waiting gaggle of melting foreign exchange debutantes and a future Minnesota Governor tour director, visibly peeved that I had wandered away unannounced.
“Wei ni mieli de xinniang,” I called to the old man over my shoulder as I ran. “Rang ta jiankang.”
For your beautiful bride. Make her well again.