HELEN JIANG
The Grass Yard (excerpt)


I was spending my summer vacation in Cao Ba, my hometown, a very old and remote village in China with fewer than five hundred people, all of whom live along a small river. I was visiting my grandmother's cousin, Yizu. Her house sat on a high and rocky plateau beside the main street, its south side facing the river. The summer days were long and lazy, and time flowed along as unconsciously and as  peacefully as the small river. Each day, when I finished my homework (believe it or not, dear reader, even at age six I had homework during summer vacation), I liked to lean on the sill of the south window without saying or thinking anything, and watch the river flow, carrying away its beautiful, silent golden splashes while the setting sun sliced through the foliage at the edges. I idled away my summer like this, watching the river and wandering around Cao Ba. Finally, one lazy afternoon, I decided to head to the other side of town, where I'd never been before.

Yizu had said that there was something dangerous out there. Now, many years later, I can still clearly recall the afternoon when she took me from house to house to visit all my relatives. "This is your grandpa's brother, ranking fifth in the family. You should call him so-and-so. Come here and meet your grandma's sister so-and-so . . . your grandpa's brother . . . your grandpa's cousin . . . ." I got lost in the jungle of names and titles, and still, in my memory, their smiling faces blur and blink like a thousand little suns behind clouds. Yizu had taken her hand in mine, and we wobbled slowly along paved alleys and little squares. I was sure that we were not heading home; I saw no cabin, no hut or bungalow—only the shimmering river and the twisted road, and a tiny point of shadow on the horizon. Yizu pointed. "See that small cabin?" She was crouching down, and I could not read what her weathered face was trying to tell me. "There are some great dangers beyond the cabin," she said. "A child as young as you should not go there."

I was spending my summer vacation in Cao Ba, my hometown, a very old and remote village in China with fewer than five hundred people, all of whom live along a small river. I was visiting my grandmother's cousin, Yizu. Her house sat on a high and rocky plateau beside the main street, its south side facing the river. The summer days were long and lazy, and time flowed along as unconsciously and as  peacefully as the small river. Each day, when I finished my homework (believe it or not, dear reader, even at age six I had homework during summer vacation), I liked to lean on the sill of the south window without saying or thinking anything, and watch the river flow, carrying away its beautiful, silent golden splashes while the setting sun sliced through the foliage at the edges. I idled away my summer like this, watching the river and wandering around Cao Ba. Finally, one lazy afternoon, I decided to head to the other side of town, where I'd never been before.

Yizu had said that there was something dangerous out there. Now, many years later, I can still clearly recall the afternoon when she took me from house to house to visit all my relatives. "This is your grandpa's brother, ranking fifth in the family. You should call him so-and-so. Come here and meet your grandma's sister so-and-so . . . your grandpa's brother . . . your grandpa's cousin . . . ." I got lost in the jungle of names and titles, and still, in my memory, their smiling faces blur and blink like a thousand little suns behind clouds. Yizu had taken her hand in mine, and we wobbled slowly along paved alleys and little squares. I was sure that we were not heading home; I saw no cabin, no hut or bungalow—only the shimmering river and the twisted road, and a tiny point of shadow on the horizon. Yizu pointed. "See that small cabin?" She was crouching down, and I could not read what her weathered face was trying to tell me. "There are some great dangers beyond the cabin," she said. "A child as young as you should not go there."

*

I swaggered on the narrow, cobble-paved road, with both hands in the pockets of my jeans. "I can just run away if it's really awful," I said to myself. But how dangerous could it be? This was such a small town, and so safe . . . . I quickened my steps and marched on. The sun was still shining in the west, and the townspeople were still dwelling in their afternoon naps. No one would catch me on my mysterious, rule-breaking trip.

When I arrived at the place Yizu had warned me about, I was disappointed to find only a wide, flat yard of grass with many stone monuments planted in the land. Some were big, some were small; some were sharp-cornered squares; others were rounded. They varied in color, from red to pale yellow to white. When I moved closer, I noticed that many of them were carved with beautiful Chinese calligraphy, and some of them had elegant pictures of flowers and trees. "Why are these lovely stones buried here?" I wondered. Then I approached one of the stones, crouching down in front of it and flipping away the weeds. The Chinese words shined into my eyes. The writing on the stone was a masterpiece, the graceful stream of each stroke flowing into another. I could almost see the movement of the writer's brush and the carver's knife—but I could not understand the writing. The words were people's names, but why? Why would someone list the names of their family members on a stone? Why did the word "late" appear in front of every name? It was very strange. I guessed that the stones were monuments memorializing reunions of old friends. For some reason, most people had shown up late to these reunions. There were names and ages, dates that ranged from about a hundred years ago to more recent years,and long stories that, I figured, described what had happened during the meetings,how happy the friends were to see each other after years of absence, and the story of their friendship.

But why had no one told me about such a tradition, carving a stone monument for the reunion of old friends?

I stood in the grass yard thinking, debating whether I should turn back or not.

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HELEN JIANG

Helen Jiang is a sophomore at the University of Iowa studying business and religion—business for money and religion for spirit. She hopes to inspire people to make the world more beautiful. Read the rest of the essay on Helen's blog.

Helen Jiang's blog

This page was first displayed
on October 06, 2010

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