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  • Yanni's Secret
  • Zhang Kangkang (bio)
    Translated by Karen Gernant (bio) and Chen Zeping (bio)

I didn't tell anyone my idea. Afraid of complications, for about two weeks I did my utmost to keep it to myself. The situation had been vexatious from the beginning. People here thought I was like all the other nostalgic types: taking advantage of business travel in order to go back to visit the farms where we had worked when we were young, reliving the splendid years of our youth. Every year, the residents of the Great Northern Wilderness would generously welcome these nostalgic visitors coming from afar. Hosts and guests would lean over well-stocked bars together and drink themselves into oblivion. Maybe my plan made me an exception, a wild goose flying north in the autumn, though I knew the possibility of freezing to death in the snow. It was like clawing under the frost with frozen fingers in hopes of finding a scrap of remembrance. Year by year, events of my time with Yanni were fading one by one. If by chance I could restore even a scrap, it would be received in my heart like thunder. This was the secret—Yanni's and mine—that we've kept for more than thirty years. But even in old age, even at the moment of death, secrets never lose their hold on you.

Yanni was the only student from Hangzhou who had been left behind on Dayangshu Farm. Of course, I could have asked anyone where she lived. But if I asked, I'd be giving away our secret. And I'd also be violating the tacit agreement between us that I'd kept these many years. No, by quietly returning to the farm in the autumn, I hoped to keep a little room for my private feelings.

Actually, in these last few decades I'd known all along where she'd lived—in a place far from the main highway and near the fork of a tributary of the Songhua River. The place was called Keep Watch Village. When you crossed a low, gentle hill, you could see in the distance a luxuriant grove of pear-leaved crab apple trees. In the springtime, the blossoming crab apple flowers were like bits of pink cloud falling from heaven. Ever since locating her so-called father, Yanni had not left this place of livestock and a few thatched huts. At the end of the sixties, Dayangshu had been converted from a prison farm to a rural place where city students came to work. A stall had been set aside for treating sick and weak horses, and a few [End Page 1] ex-inmates who were old or chronically ill worked there. The city students working there dubbed it "the sick ward."

It was in this remote, worthless "sick ward" that Yanni miraculously came across Old Yang, a former prisoner who claimed that he was her real father. She believed him with all her heart and eagerly announced this news to me that very evening before dark. In that instant, I felt that a hydrogen bomb had been launched from the Russian territory across the river and had suddenly exploded, vaporizing me in the blink of an eye. But in the midst of the dark-gray smoke and atomic fog filling the sky, Yanni—with her delicate eyes and eyebrows, her slender waist and thin braids—was shedding tears of joy. She'd suddenly been transformed into a little daughter, as precious as Thumbelina, as charming and gentle as a sprite. I ached from the shock.

Almost venomously I said, "That's impossible. He isn't your father! He's ninety-nine percent a con artist!"

She clenched her fingers into fists so forcefully that her fingertips turned deep violet. Lowering her head, she retorted, "No. You don't know. There are lots of things you don't know. Old Man Yang is really my father. His last name is Yang, and so is mine. My residence card identifies Xiaoshan as my ancestral home. You've heard his accent; it's a strong Xiaoshan accent. I was born in 1951. It was in 1952...