Before Liang Cheng became a father, he had been, briefly, a son. His mother died, and he lived with his father and his father’s father in the Shaanxi countryside. During summers, the plum rains pulled down the sky. They fell in drops so big he could dodge them. While Liang danced around the rain in the courtyard, his father slept. Thunder and leaky ceilings did not stir him. With enough yellow wine, he could sleep for days.
At five years old, Liang did not flinch when his grandfather whipped his father with a willow switch to rouse him. Each lash made him stronger, his father said. He also kept a pail by his bed to catch the treasures from his stomach. His breath carried the smell of dead philosophers. He slept hugging a flute carved from the bones of an ancient red-crowned crane. The flute, he told Liang, was over eight thousand years old. Like tea steeped in red clay pots, its sound had grown rich from all the sounds that had passed through it.
Never mind that the instrument was as light as bamboo, that Liang caught splinters when poking his finger through one of the holes. It was enough to sit by his father and listen. The man never looked at Liang for long, but he didn’t shoo him away.
“Your mother lives on the moon,” he told Liang one night.
“But the moon’s right there,” Liang said. “I can touch it.”
What Liang saw outside was a guardian, a friendly face over the hulking Qinling Mountains. He knew this moon better than his mother. The woman had played flute for the Liberation Army, his grandfather had told him. During one of their marches she’d met his father, a team leader whose speeches inspired fellow peasants to work until their bodies broke. The two were an auspicious pairing, entrusted to lead China into its future. But days after giving birth to Liang, his mother slipped from the hayloft in the old communal barn and landed on her neck. Now his father was the one who looked back.
“Your mother is alone up there. All night she talks to a rabbit.” He spoke as if narrating a dream. “Don’t believe your grandfather. Your mother left us. It was her choice.”
If Liang were to ask his grandfather about the moon, he would probably say that the dark spots looked less like a rabbit than his father’s vomit on the floor, the vomit he’d order Liang to wipe up. The old man didn’t see dragons in the clouds or rivers on his palms. But when Liang was in his father’s room, he wanted to go where his father went.
Before Liang’s mother lived on the moon, his father continued, she’d spent many nights with his father, hiding in the communal barn. Back when the two had not yet married, the hayloft was the only place where they could steal a moment alone. While horses slept below them, their tails swishing dust up to the rafters, Liang’s mother spoke of leaving their village. They could tour bigger cities, venture into other counties, wading through marshland, camping under the starry desert sky; wherever they stayed, whether it was in the factories of the north or the mud houses of the south, they could inspire their people, she said, with her music and his famous speeches. Liang’s father offered a silent assent, though in truth he liked where they were. He lived with his father. He had responsibility here. But he loved Liang’s mother. During rainstorms, he listened to her play her flute in the barn, a tune she’d invented for him, a sound only he could hear, and he thought how if he had to, he would march farther than any soldier for her—he would follow her until his feet turned to ash.
Liang wanted to warn his father, to stop him before he went on with the story. This will end badly, he wanted to say. It was dangerous up in the hayloft, especially during a storm. Maybe that was why the commune had torn down the barn in the first place.
His father went on. He and Liang’s mother eventually met with the county magistrate. They were armed with convincing arguments: morale was low across China, people thought the grain quotas were too high, and who knew where such whispers would lead? It was time to shake the peasants out of their fantasies, to get their hands and feet moving four times as fast in the name of the Party. To their surprise, the country magistrate agreed. He would send them out with a traveling theater group after the harvest. Liang’s mother rejoiced.
Then something happened.
“What?” Liang said.
“You,” said his father.
Before Liang could take shape inside his mother, the two sought permission from the Party to marry. Gone were the days of firecracker-paved wedding processions and sedan chairs; Liang’s mother and father were wed in a mass ceremony with fourteen other couples, though the Party strategically placed them in the center. Soon after she moved in with Liang’s father and grandfather, Liang’s mother began to change. She fainted coming back from the well. She fell asleep at the threshing floor. She lost the energy to play the flute. Nights trying to sleep over the wood-plank bed, she dreamed of maggots eating her insides, of roots growing from her feet and lashing her to the ground. The longer Liang’s father stayed by her side, the more he felt himself sinking into the muck alongside her.
Before long, he grew desperate. After consulting in secret with a village grannie who still carried on with the old beliefs, he traveled west until he found a woman known as the Queen Mother. He had come right in time, the Queen Mother said, from the entrance of the cave. She was leaving this earth soon and had two vials of healing elixir left. “One for you and one for your beloved. Drink and reclaim your strength for all eternity,” she croaked. “But be warned, my womb has run dry. These elixirs are the last of their kind.”
The story was beginning to take a strange turn, Liang thought.
His father returned to his mother with the two vials sealed in his pocket, the crust on his eyelids lifted, his lips breaking out of their crooked mold into a sturdy curve. He appeared stronger out of mere anticipation. They would return to being model peasants, he informed Liang’s mother. All they had to do was drink the vials together, and they and their future child would never tire in the fields. The three would turn over a new world. They would not need to leave when they could make this place a paradise.
Though his wife struggled to sit up on the bed, he thought he caught a spark in her eyes. That night, the two returned to their hayloft, though they no longer needed to. Liang’s mother even played the flute, a mournful melody that moved his father so much that he suggested they wait one more day to drink the elixirs. The county magistrate had permitted him to tend to her while she was sick, and he did not want to return to the fields just yet.
The next morning, a stranger met Liang’s father by the well. Speaking in an unfamiliar accent, the man explained that he was a messenger for the Party. The immediate presence of Liang’s father had been requested. Word had spread about his rousing speeches, and the Chairman himself wished to meet him. After seeing the invitation in Mao’s own writing, Liang did not hesitate to accept. While Liang’s mother was sleeping, he departed from their village wearing his most humble peasant’s tunic. He imagined his face on the posters alongside the Chairman’s. He spent weeks in Beijing, behind the gates of Zhōngnánhǎi, sharing stories of backbreaking work in his home village, his words soaring and spiraling from his mouth. He never met Mao, but the Chairman’s highest advisers licked up his every word. When they invited him to stay for another year, the temptation to say yes burned his mouth. In the end, he declined with a heavy bow. He had a family, a paradise to build.
At last, he returned to where he began. He slipped into their village under cover of night. No one was home, so he investigated the backyard furnace, where his father and the other villagers were pulling an overnight shift, feeding the kilns with what appeared to be pots and pans from the communal kitchen. When he called for his wife, the other villagers cursed at him. What a scoundrel for running off, they said, and while his wife was in so vulnerable a state!
A realization came to him then, and he continued to the barn, which was strangely emptied of horses. He climbed up to the hayloft. There, a baby lay swaddled at the edge of a makeshift straw bed, under a horse-size opening in the roof. He hurried to unwrap the baby, thinking it was choking. In his arms, the baby looked like a rooster with all its feathers plucked. It was a boy. His face, wide and enigmatic, was the spitting image of his father’s.
Hugging Liang to his chest, his father felt a pulse. A softness. He held in his arms a fragile thing. He felt a fragile fear. It was then that he spotted, buried in a nearby pile of hay, the two vials of elixir he’d left with Liang’s mother. Opened and emptied—both. He peered out the roof, following the path of light. Standing before Mao’s advisers, he had taken care to look down at his feet. Yet now he saw her: Liang’s mother suspended in the sky, drifting toward the clouds.
What kind of healing was this? What kind of strength? He had hoped only for her to smile again, to be able to shoulder the carrying pole, to work. “What have you done?” he yelled. His cries scared Liang into silence. They tore the villagers from their work and summoned Liang’s grandfather to the barn. From her great height, Liang’s mother could not hear them. She could not see them. She had taken the light for herself. Clouds draped over her body, and like a plume of smoke she mounted the air until she was no longer of this earth.
In his room, Liang’s father turned away. He held Liang’s mother’s flute to his chest. Maybe that was why he slept so much, Liang thought. The man needed to rest, to prepare for the day when he would see his beloved again. Without more elixir, he would have to resort to yellow wine until he was strong enough to fly up there as well. The furniture was broken, the walls molding, but his father could not be bothered when he was waiting for something better.
Liang waited for his father to fall asleep. Heat sat on the man’s eyelids. Liang took off his shirt and slipped into the sliver of space behind his father on the bed. His grandfather had probably fallen asleep in their room next door, because he did not call for Liang. He spotted a mole at the base of his father’s neck, and he wondered if he had that mole, too. Maybe if he fell asleep with his father, he could dream his father’s dreams.
When his father woke up later that night, Liang woke, too. He could feel the hot air from his father’s mouth, still pungent with wine. His father inspected Liang. He took his chin in his hand. “Where is she?” his father said. Liang looked outside, at the full moon: soon it would be the Mid-Autumn Festival. His father looked on with his head tilted, which made Liang wonder if his own head was the one tilted. “Why can’t I see her?” his father cried. “Why don’t you look like her?”
When Liang tried to edge away, his father grabbed his mother’s flute and, without warning, smashed it against the windowsill. Liang gasped and tried to save the flute, but his father held it out of reach. He pointed the broken end toward the window. “She’s gone. You’ve got none of her in you.” Then he hunched over and became quiet.
Liang had to lean in to make sure he was breathing. It was as if he had one foot in a dream and another outside of it. The man in front of him did not seem real, and yet if Liang touched him, he would be. If Liang’s mother really lived on the moon, he thought, he would snatch her from the sky. He would take the moon, too. Ships would crash into bluffs, owls would flop out of trees, and the sun would never rise again. That would be fine.
He leaned closer to his father. He told him not to worry. One day, he would grow bigger than his father. He would travel the world and beyond. He would find his mother, no matter how far she was, and bring her home. By this point Liang saw him through a haze. He felt a little brave. To reassure his father the way a mother might, he bent down and kissed the rim of his ear. The man’s breath caught before he gathered Liang in his arms. He cradled Liang as if a head or leg might topple to the ground.
The man’s arms brought Liang closer. Something was wrong: he was too close. “You know why she left?” he said, his breath hot and sticky above Liang. Pressed against his father’s chest, there was no room for Liang to shake his head. The flute had caught between the two of them, the cracked end scraping against Liang’s side. He preferred his father when he was in a story. “She left because of you,” he said.
The splinters from the flute bit into Liang’s skin. His father’s body muffled his voice. When Liang squirmed, his father held on tighter. Years later, in those moments when Liang’s heart would beat out of his skin and he would reach for the nearest object to hold and crush, he would remember the force with which his father had held him. How he needed Liang to buoy him, to guide him back to shore. How Liang had begged him to let go. Bà. I can’t breathe. Bà.
His mother had left. She had chosen to leave. She had gone so far she had forgotten her son below. Soon the moon she lived on would shrink to the size of a fingernail. Oceans would roil with her beckoning. Mountains would peak in a failed attempt to reach her. But whether Liang tried to fall asleep on his father’s pillow, stuffed with old clothes; in Tianjin in a studio he shared with four other men; or in Plano, Texas, on a mattress engineered to remember the weight and shape of the bodies it held, he could reach toward a window and coax his mother onto his palm. He could convince her that his hands had come from hers. Stay here awhile, he could say. Everyone else would soon be gone.
Nights When Nothing Happened Copyright, 2020, Simon Han. Published by Riverhead Books, November 17, 2020.