Fiction

Chamber Burial

Translated by: 
Jenny Chen

Rumour had it that Fourth Great-Granny of Hou Village was dead, but no one dared to confirm the news. What if she wasn’t really dead? It would take just one rat to squeal, ‘Fourth Great-Granny, he said you were dead!’ and you can be sure she’d have his head on a plate. 

The Hou clan was the biggest in the eponymous village, boasting court-yard upon courtyard – and several candidates for the Highest Imperial Exams in their ancestry to boot – and though by the Qing dynasty the House of Hou was no longer what it had once been, its sway in the village remained unquestionable. Here, it seemed, everybody was related one way or another, and one couldn’t walk two feet without bumping into some kind of kin. But ask them exactly how they were related, and chances are they wouldn’t always be able to tell you, so intricate and sprawling were the branches of the great family tree. 

This is where the village know-all enters the picture. Know-All needed only to come down the road, point at one villager and announce to another, ‘This here’s your Third Great-Uncle. Your ma’s pa’s first cousin on his pa’s side, third one down the line’ and, without a moment’s hesitation, the trusting recipient of this revelation would bow down to his newfound ma’s pa’s first cousin on his pa’s side. 

Know-All never did a day’s work in the fields. His other duties were quite enough to occupy him. Besides memorising family trees and social connections, he spent his days presiding over all the ceremonies and rituals in the village, playing peacemaker and mediator, and standing as witness for lending, borrowing, and all the other business of the village. 

A common sight was Know-All standing smack in the middle of the village square, pointing at a girl crouched in the wicker weighing basket hanging from an enormous set of scales. 

‘The feet aren’t bound perfectly, I’m not denying that. But look at the girl! Seventy kilos. Nice and plump. You ever thought of how much work she’d do? How many sons she’d give you? Here’s a girl that hasn’t so much as sneezed since the day she was born. Now you look me in the eye and tell me again you think that measly bride price offer’s enough!’ 

The heads of the surrounding villagers bobbed in a sea of agreement. The girl and her family wore a look of long-deserved exculpation. The irrefutable logic of Know-All’s speech dawned on the prospective husband, and love sprang fresh from his eyes. 

But no hanging about the streets today for Know-All. He was already on his way to Fourth Great-Granny’s compound, for Fourth Great-Granny had just died – for the third time. 

 

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