Tsailiao was on the way home from school. Leaving the
school grounds we used to take the paved road that wound
alongside the ditch. When we arrived at the crossroads, we’d bid
farewell to schoolmates who lived in the country and continue
on our way to town. If we’d timed it right, we’d run into the
women on the night shift passing through the factory’s metal
gates in small groups. The sign on the gate read: “Factory site.
No unauthorized personnel permitted.” After that came a quiet
stretch of road. The leaves of the rice plants, plump with water,
would wave gently in the evening breeze as night began to fall.
Just before it got fully dark, we’d pass a bus stop reading “Tsailiao”
in neat type.
Some schoolmates who lived in town had told us that
Tsailiao was named after someone named Tsai. When we put the question to Tsai Wan-fu, who actually lived there, he said he’d
never heard anything of the sort. Tsai’s home wasn’t far from the
bus stop. To get there, we’d turn right at the stop onto a gravel
path down a slope. A stretch of unirrigated land lay to the path’s
left once it got down to the level of the paddies. Tsai’s home was
among the couple rows of wooden shacks that stood there.
A road was built from the town out towards the school the
year I entered the fifth grade. This new road ran parallel to the
old one before crossing it near the school’s gate and continuing
on into the countryside.
That winter’s rains drenched and softened the foundation of
the as-yet-unpaved new road. We cut deep ruts in it when we
rode our bikes over its broad surface. The farmers standing in
the rain-soaked roadside radish fields glared at us. So we heckled
them from our bikes: “One day, there’ll be lines of cars up
here farting out exhaust!”
The next spring, the air rattled with the rumble of work
trucks, day in and day out. The burnt smell of asphalt constantly
assailed our noses. When they finished the road, steel-rebar
frames went up beside it. Tsai Wan-fu began complaining that
the heavy gravel trucks were digging deep ruts into the path
down the slope near his home. One evening after eight, we were
on our way home from a school activity and noticed lights shining
across the darkness of an open field from the house of someone
who had just moved in. In the mood to fool around, we
shouted ghostly “Whooooos” at them. The light reflecting off
the water in the paddies seemed to wave back at us.
When summer ended, the coursework piled on. Those of us
who were going to take the high-school entrance exams had to
stay for two more classes once the regular school day was done.
A cool autumn breeze would buffet our faces when we finally set out for home. We’d run down the old road in the pitch black
with our collars turned up knowing very well that colder weather
was on the way. Only our daylight memories of the road’s twists
and turns kept us out of the ditches beside it. Our ashen faces
remained hidden until the lights of the town revealed them on
On the day the third round of monthly exams finished, our
teacher didn’t assign any lessons and we didn’t have to stay after
for those two extra classes. Two solid weeks of drizzle came to
an end just as school let out for the day. Sunlight shot through a
break in the masses of clouds on the horizon, giving the wet road
a golden sheen. Tsai Wan-fu, who hadn’t walked with us in a
long time, said that the Buddha had answered his prayer for just
such a sunset. We laughed, saying that the Buddha had only happened
to hear his prayer because it had been so long since he’d
seen us. As it got close to time to part, Chen Chin-tu said he
wanted to go see a kungfu movie that was about to end its run
and asked me if I wanted to join him. Before I answered, Tsai
Wan-fu said he wanted to go too. Chen Chin-tu told us to meet
him at the entrance to the theater. When Tsai Wan-fu said he
didn’t know where the theater was, I told him to wait for us at
I had finished my dinner but not yet left the house yet when
Chen Chin-tu turned up. When he saw me he said that we
needn’t go get Tsai Wan-fu. I asked why not, and he told me that
Tsai Wan-fu didn’t really want to see the movie; he’d just wanted
to show us that he’d been to the movies before. When I asked
how he knew, Chen said he and Tsai had once arranged to see a
movie together, but Tsai had never shown up. I suggested that
maybe Tsai hadn’t been able to find the theater, but Chen asked
me how someone who had been to a movie before could notknow where the theater was.
By the time we set out, it had warmed up outside and the
just-evaporated water vapor carried scents to us from all around.
I pointed out to Chen Chin-tu that it was still early, and suggested
that we drop by Tsai’s house. Chen scrunched his brow in
reply. On the way to Tsai’s, he couldn’t help but complain:
“Tsai’s house isn’t on the way. If you wanted to kill some time,
we should have spent it hanging out around the movie theater.”
The sky had darkened by the time we made our way down
the sloped path. The clouds had thinned and we could see a lowflying
airplane, its signal lights flashing as it came in for a landing.
The mugwort that people used to hang in their doorways
come the Dragon Boat Festival was growing in a pond next to
that unirrigated land beside the road. The wind whispered
through it as we passed. I remarked on the herb’s scent to Chen
Chin-tu, who told me to be quiet and watch where I was walking.
Aided by light from the shacks, we found our way into Tsai
Wan-fu’s alley. Chen asked me why I didn’t hurry, and I told
him I couldn’t tell which was Tsai’s house in the dark. “I told
you we shouldn’t have come,” grumbled Chen. I ignored his
complaining and continued walking, listening carefully to the
sounds coming from the homes.
A bank of clouds dispersed and the moon emerged, illumining
the ground with its pale light. Pausing under a window I
heard the sounds of Taiwanese opera whispering from a radio
within. Chen Chin-tu asked me what I was listening to. I told
him I thought that the sound was coming from Tsai Wan-fu’s
house—his grandmother kept the radio on all day long. Chen
began shouting Tsai’s name. I told him to quit yelling;...