An excerpt from Bloodline ,
a novel by Uyghur author Patigül set in Xinjiang
Translated from the Chinese
by Natascha Bruce
Edited by Bruce Humes
Growing Up In Da’nanpo
We lived southeast of Da’nanpo, deep in the desert and on top of a steep slope, which meant all routes away from the house were downhill; toss a bucket of water from the front door and not a drop would hug the wall. Visitors had to crane their necks to see their destination, and even the flies and mosquitoes had to make a special effort to fly higher, if they wanted to come inside.
The reeds along the bank behind the house grew taller than a one-story building. Clusters of plants joined them, springing from both sides of the water channel. There were broadleaf plantains, red salt cedar, fenugreek, needlegrass, spiderflower, mugwort and dandelions, so densely packed that the ground was barely visible.
In summer, snakes lay basking in the sun on the opposite bank, coiled like hand-pulled noodles, some as thick as the reins for a horse, others slender as a sheep whip. By midday, the adults were all napping, leaving us children to sneak around, stealing watermelons and checking on the snakes. The sun made the snakes too drowsy to pay us much attention, but occasionally there was one that hadn’t quite dropped off yet, lying on the warm sand with its eyes half closed. Seeing us, it’d slither lazily away, twisting a path around our bare little feet, then curl up again and fall asleep.
In winter, the banks were shrouded in snow. On moonlit nights, we could hear the howls of foxes and wolves, and the barks of the hunting dogs as they chased after hares.
Da’nanpo was home to Han, Kazakh, Uyghur and Hui families, and we grew up speaking a range of languages. Our mother’s Gansu dialect seemed to come to us mixed in with her breast milk and, from the time we could walk, we eavesdropped on our father chatting in Uyghur with the neighbors. It was one of our favorite pastimes. We learned who had died, whose baby was being named, whose daughter was getting married, which household was slaughtering a sheep to make polo. We followed behind our father whenever he stepped out for süt chay or mutton, like a pack of little dogs trailing behind their leader, hoping for a go at a bone.
For a fuller picture of the village goings-on, we had to use our Uyghur to help decipher Kazakh, using an Eastern Turkic language to figure out a Western Turkic one. This way, we wouldn’t miss out on any of the weddings or funerals held by the several dozen Kazakh households in Da’nanpo. Polo and mutton were obligatory at any big event, but Kazakh families also laid on a puffy fried dough they called baursak, dried, salty yoghurt balls called kurt, and sweet dried cheese.
The Kazakh kids taught me the “watermelon thief” game, and thus how to say “watermelon’ in Kazakh. I loved playing thief and for years assumed you had to steal a watermelon in order to eat one. It was only when my family started growing our own that I realized there was a more serious watermelon game — keeping an eye on our father’s crop.
The Hui neighbors did not invite my father around often, so we didn’t spare much thought for their mutton noodle soup and chili-fried chicken. We only ate those dishes when we went with our mother back to her parents’ house. At Han weddings in Da’nanpo, the hosts would call on a Hui chef to make halal dishes for the Muslim guests. The mutton always tasted a little strange, braised in a bizarre hybrid of star anise, Sichuan pepper and halal soy sauce. It resembled the way the Han in Da’nanpo talked Chinese, their Gansu accents mixing with a hint of Henan and Shandong, stewing together into a strange porridge.
Our Han schoolteachers, on the other hand, spoke a very standardized Chinese, and it inflected the glueyness of our Da’nanpo vowels, as though someone had thrown a handful of crisply sautéed green beans into the porridge pot.
To study Chinese, I used to re-tune my father’s radio, switching it from his Uyghur station to a Chinese one. I improved rapidly, to the point that I spoke even more precisely than my teachers, and could pick out the mistakes in their pronunciation.
“The teachers are so clumsy, they don’t differentiate between zhang and zang,” I told my father.
He considered Chinese almost mystically complicated.
“Oh, all the zhang are pronounced the same,’ he said, authoritatively. “Whether it’s the surname Zhang, the Chiang from Chiang Kai-Shek, the zang in the way they say Tibet, the only thing that changes is the character they use to write it.”
As my father, he needed to demonstrate that he knew about Chinese, but in truth he knew almost nothing about it at all. The extent of his knowledge was bits and pieces he’d picked up from other Uyghurs in the village, and he still spoke Uyghur most of the time; I, on the other hand, went to a Chinese school and was setting sail into a Chinese-language world. Instinctively, however, I understood that I had to hold my tongue and let him correct me. He wasn’t going to stand for a child teaching him what was what about language.
When neighbors asked him why he sent his children to a school where Mandarin was the language of instruction, he replied that he wanted us to immerse ourselves in Chinese language and culture, like “nails hammered into a plank of wood.” He was so fixed on this idea that no one ever attempted to persuade him otherwise. He spent his days working the land, tending to our cows, sheep, and chickens. Our mother fetched water, while Simayil tended to the donkey, Maryam cooked and did laundry, and I folded quilts, washed up, and swept.
In the evenings, our father went out in his rubber boots to water the crops. Simayil, Maryam and I would squeeze together under a quilt and wait anxiously for his return, because without him there’d be no sweets or bedtime story. Not even any cursing. It was as though time stopped without him.
We only relaxed when we heard the squeak of his walk as he approached the house, then the click of the gate, clatter of his spade against the floor, rush of the door opening, and the thud of discarded boots. Then, and only then, did we feel we could safely close our eyes.
We had a big patch of land, a flock of sheep, and a brood of chickens. Back then, our mother was still lucid, and she milked our two brown-spotted cows on alternate days, cheerfully carrying pails of their milk into the kitchen, to boil shelled eggs. When my father’s sister, Auntie Nina, came to visit from Kashgar, he slaughtered a sheep and she made it into a stew with potatoes. When my mother’s sister was rehearsing plays with the Propaganda Team, she’d come over to our house to eat. She loved chicken, so my father would kill one and my mother would fry it with chilis.
We were greedy children, and went through a phase of sneaking eggs from the hen house, that we exchanged for sweets.
“It’s odd,” said our father suspiciously, fixing the three of us with his green eyes. “I keep hearing the red-crested hen squawking that she’s laid, but then there’s no egg in the hen house! How could this be?”
“There must be a snake,” I said.
“I think it’s more likely those hungry sweets in your pockets,” he said, “are eating all our eggs.’
I felt like his beady green eyes could see through us, boring past our thick layers of clothes to the sweets hiding in our pockets. As punishment, he gave us each a big basket and told us to fill them with grass for the sheep, so we could fatten them up for slaughter at the end of Ramadan. We weeded between the maize plants until dark, when the wind whipped up and made the stalks veer menacingly from side to side, like orange-bearded demons with green hair. Our baskets felt bottomless, as though they’d never be full, no matter how much grass we picked. In a flash of inspiration, we lined them with willow branches, covered the branches with a thin layer of grass, and raced back home.
Our father saw us slipping into the sheep pen like ghostly shadows. He followed us and tested our baskets, but they were lighter than he expected and flew exaggeratedly into the air when he picked them up.
“You’re expecting the sheep to carry on the Ramadan fast overnight, is that it?”
The flames in his green eyes flared even higher than the baskets.
“We’ve been fasting, so why shouldn’t the sheep fast, too?” I answered, wretchedly. [ 终 ]