- Little People
If we had been a large bird circling above Jujiu Town on April 20, 1998, we would have seen this: Li Yaojun, deputy head of the county, was being promoted to justice commissioner at the district level. Chen Mingyi, a teacher at Shiyan High School, was kowtowing in front of a department store. Li Xilan’s husband was going to Beijing again to be treated for erectile dysfunction. Workers were digging a huge hole in the cement road outside the park. And Feng Botao, the accountant at the Forestry Guest-house, was chasing after Laoer, a guard at the credit union, wanting to play chess with him. This last appeared the least important and could easily have been dismissed.
This scene between Laoer and Feng Botao was familiar to everyone: Feng Botao was leaning forward and pulling at Laoer’s uniform, and Laoer—hands behind his back—continued walking away from him. Each time Laoer passed someone he knew, he made a face as if to say, “Just look at the loser behind me.” The residents of Jujiu Town were very familiar with the relationship between these two people: it was like the moon having to revolve around the earth, and the earth having to revolve around the sun. But today the people looked on with bulging eyes, and their hearts leapt wildly. It appeared to them as if Feng Botao were escorting Laoer into hell with a knife. They could see the knife-like expression on Feng Botao’s face, but no one could grab Laoer to hold him back and say, “You’re going to die.” (Just as one couldn’t jump in front of a truck on the road and say to the driver, “You’re going to have an accident.”) This was inconceivable.
Wary and anxious, the people moved out of the way. Feng and Laoer walked to the lakeside. Laoer carefully eased his big, fleshy body onto a square stone stool beside another square stone that served as a chessboard. Meanwhile, Feng dumped the chessmen from a plastic bag onto the stone chessboard and slowly divided the red from the black. Laoer should have looked more closely at Feng Botao; it’s too bad that he saw only meekness in him. Laoer said, “You go first.” As if he were a dog obeying a command, Feng Botao swiftly placed the cannon piece in the middle row. This had been his opening move on countless occasions. He had also made and [End Page 158] then withdrawn this move on countless occasions. He was always both hopeful and apprehensive. Today when he made the first move and drew his hand back, feeling both solemn and a bit tragic, he thought, This is the last time—fucking do or fucking die. As usual, Laoer moved his horse piece in response. After a few more moves, Feng grew distracted. He was imagining walking back emotionless past the crowd. When people asked him if he had won, he wouldn’t answer; he would let Laoer respond. As Feng was imagining this, Laoer was sitting quietly across from him, smiling cunningly. His cunning smile was mixed with sympathy, causing Feng Botao to blush.
After moving his pieces impatiently for a while, Feng Botao deployed a new tactic that he had learned from a chess book the night before. Laoer paused, though he still looked imposing. “Hurry up,” Feng said. Laoer glanced at him and suddenly burst out laughing—a terrible laugh, like a knife grinding repeatedly into a thin sheet of iron. Not until then did Feng realize he had used his new tactic in a game they had played years ago. His moves had been precisely the same. Those moves, and the sequence leading up to the bitter end, were all superimposed on this game. He seemed to have walked into a time warp.
Laoer, who never lost, moved a piece that had seemed unimportant, and immediately Feng Botao’s strategy fell apart. Laoer continued to move his chessmen but said, “This is the last game. I won’t play with you again.” In the past...