Ge = older brother, familial or otherwise.
Honorifics will be stylicised in this translation.
Lunar New Year i.e.
Spring Festival, Chinese New Year.
Lunar New Year’s Eve.
It was a night for family reunions, and the light that shone out of every window was mellow and warm.
Tao Xiaodong opened the door when he reached home and balmy air immediately billowed into his face.
Two children were seated on the sofa, eating fruits as they watched the telly.
Hearing his return, they both looked towards the door, and one of them greeted him “Ge” with a smile.
Despite calling them children, that was only how they appeared to Tao Xiaodong.
In actuality, they were both high school students in their sixteens—adolescents, and not quite the little ones anymore.
“Is it cold outside” The one who spoke was a boy with very fair skin.
He was dressed in woollen pyjamas and his feet were also bundled in thick socks.
He walked in Tao Xiaodong’s direction and Tao Xiaodong offered him a hand, which he reached out to hold in his.
He felt from the palm, moving to the back of the hand, and exclaimed, “Whoa, it’s so cold.”
Tao Xiaodong drew his hand away.
He rested its back on the other’s arm and changed into indoor slippers, saying, unfazed, “It’s still bearable.
It isn’t too cold.”
The boy clasped Tao Xiaodong’s hand, rubbing warmth into it, turning his head to say to the other boy still on the sofa, “Let’s have dumplings.”
The dark-haired boy on the sofa responded in assent, standing up and heading to the kitchen.
This was Tao Xiaodong’s home.
Altogether, it was just the three of them.
The one seated next to him was his younger brother, Tao Huainan.
He was a rather quiet boy; very fair, very skinny, and always with a docile and serene look in his eyes.
—He was a beautiful, blind boy.
Whereas the boy preparing dumplings in the kitchen was one picked up by Tao Huainan when he was eight years old.
The boy had wrested away Tao Huainan’s thermos cup of hot milk, his lower body bare in the glacial depths of winter, exposing skin that was walloped black and blue.
But he had grabbed it too forcefully, spilling milk all over Tao Huainan.
That was the winter when Tao Xiaodong and Tao Huainan’s parents passed on.
Tao Xiaodong was sending the ashes back to their hometown.
It was an impoverished but picturesque village.
Tao Xiaodong had grown up there in his childhood, but it was Tao Huainan’s first time at the village.
Tao Huainan was startled from having his milk snatched and spilled over him.
He couldn’t see the other, but he knew that the hand that knocked against him was icy and rough.
Behind, a middle-aged villager was telling the other off, yet his words didn’t sound in the least bit apologetic.
Someone had found a pair of pants for that bare-bottomed boy, in fear that the boy would lose his family jewels to the cold.
Tao Huainan was listening to the disjointed hubbub of voices around him at that time and could hear the young boy’s teeth clattering from the chill right next to him.
He took off his shoes and kicked them towards that side.
The other boy was even shorter than him.
Tao Huainan’s eyes were unable to focus, only staring somewhere ahead.
He lifted his chin slightly, using a nasal voice from having caught a cold to say, “Wear them.”
We’re sorry for MTLers or people who like using reading mode, but our translations keep getting stolen by aggregators so we’re going to bring back the copy protection.
If you need to MTL please retype the gibberish parts.
Then, Tao Huainan was carried away by Tao Xiaodong into a room to put on another pair of shoes.
“Qtja asqf bo vewqilcur vlv sbe mbbx” Kjb Lejlcjc rja eq ragjluta ja atf vlclcu ajyif.
Kjb Wljbvbcu kjr ralii bc atf rlvf, rqfjxlcu ab rbwfbcf bnfg atf qtbcf, jcv Kjb Lejlcjc tjv jrxfv atlr ktfc Jtl Jtfcu ygbeuta atf vewqilcur bea.
Jtl Jtfcu rfa vbkc atf qijaf jcv gfqilfv, “Zeaabc.”
Tao Huainan reached out to feel it but Chi Cheng slapped his hand away.
“I’ve already washed my hands,” Tao Huainan frowned, cradling the back of his hand.
Chi Cheng turned around, going into the kitchen to prepare more dumplings, saying as he did, “You’re going to burn your fingertips off.”
The freshly boiled dumplings were steaming with humidity.
Tao Huainan stopped insisting on touching them, but several of the short ribs on the plate nearby were already pawed by him.
Tao Xiaodong went to wash his hands when he was done with the call and coincidentally came back just in time to see Tao Huainan making to touch the dumplings on the sly.
He laughed and he turned his head to call in the direction of the kitchen, “Ku ge.”
Chi Cheng responded to the nickname.
“Shhh,” Tao Huainan appealed to his brother not to snitch on him.
So, Tao Xiaodong said towards the kitchen, a smile on his lips, “Don’t forget to bring out the vinegar in a bit.”
“I’ve already brought it over,” Chi Cheng said.
“Oh, I see it now.” Tao Xiaodong sat down.
This was essentially how they celebrated the eve of every Lunar New Year; two children and one adult, symbolically setting off firecrackers and symbolically eating dumplings.
Only, the setting off of fireworks and firecrackers in the city hub were banned in recent years, and the two young lads had one less amusement.
Last year, as they couldn’t have fun with firecrackers, Tao Huainan had sat down on the sofa, well-behaved, after finishing the dumplings.
Chi Cheng wanted to take him downstairs and set off a few in secret but was stopped by Tao Xiaodong.
This community had property management constantly patrolling the area, and he didn’t want to cause anyone trouble as well.
After that, Chi Cheng pulled Tao Huainan to the balcony and threw open all the balcony windows.
The cold gust that whipped their faces immediately made it feel as though they were downstairs.
Tao Huainan was dressed warmly, even wearing his scarf and hat.
Chi Cheng held his hand, guiding it to press the lighter together, going through the motions of lighting a firework.
Chht, the lighter clicked.
A few seconds later, there came a rumbling boom from beside him.
At that time, Tao Xiaodong was in the living room and got a fright hearing the noise, thinking that the two young ones had lit something up.
In the end, when he went out to check the balcony, Chi Cheng lifted his head and put his finger in front of his lips.
He didn’t know when it happened, but Chi Cheng had moved the subwoofers to the balcony and linked them up to his phone.
When Tao Huainan flicked the lighter, he’d play the sound over on his side.
Tao Huainan didn’t know what Chi Cheng was up to, but he still had fun.
In the first place, he could only hear the sound anyway, so the duo played around in high spirits on the balcony for a little more than an hour.
And Tao Xiaodong, leaning on the balcony, watched them for a little more than an hour.
This year, Tao Xiaodong didn’t plan to let these two kids, who were satisfied even by these cheap thrills, have such a sham of a festival.
After polishing off the dumplings, Tao Xiaodong told the two of them, “Leave the dishes be, we can clean up tomorrow.
Go get dressed.”
Tao Huainan blinked owlishly.
“Where are we going”
Tao Xiaodong was already in the midst of putting on his coat.
He spoke as he slipped it on, “Don’t ask; change quickly.”
Chi Cheng swiftly got dressed then went to poke around at Tao Huainan, bundling him in his down jacket and putting on his hat and gloves for him.
They were like a well-oiled machine by this point; it only took them two minutes to be ready.
Tao Xiaodong drove his car on this night, bringing his two brothers and firecrackers stuffed in the trunk to the outer ring of the city.
Many people were setting off fireworks at the city outskirts, and the sky was lively once they left the inner districts.
Tao Xiaodong also loved playing with these when he was young, but he grew up.
Worries weighed on his mind, losing him the mood for such pleasures.
In the years that followed, he seemed to lose interest in many things that he used to like.
Tao Xiaodong was thirty-four.
He was an artist.
But he didn’t believe himself to be one.
When others exalted him with this praise, Tao Xiaodong would always shake his head and laugh in self-derision, saying that he was merely a businessman.
He was amongst the earliest wave of people in the country to hop into the tattoo industry.
Back then, he was one of the first tattoo artists representing China to win awards at international tattoo conventions despite his young age.
He took the profession like a duck to water, becoming a virtuoso in his craft, his inks easily fetching several tens and hundreds of thousands for each job.
Tao Xiaodong was too busy.
He seemed not to take any days off in a year, but the Lunar New Year was a break that he gave himself.
He would make time every year during this period to celebrate the new year with Tao Huainan.
Tao Xiaodong had said it many times when being interviewed for magazines: ‘Don’t call me a master; I’m not an artist either.
I can’t even be considered a craftsman.
I’m just gunning for the big bucks.
My tattoos are tainted with the stink of copper.
I’m shrewd and I work in my best interest, which is to make money.
So don’t make me out to be more than I actually am.
I didn’t do anything for the trade.
I’m only doing this for myself.’
Many people said that he had an ego.
Tao Xiaodong never denied that.
However, his definition of ‘ego’, compared to those other, truly egoistical tattoo artists in the industry, was quite a bit narrower—he was just living in reality, thus his ‘ego’ was having his feet firmly planted in this materialistic world.
“Are we setting off firecrackers or fireworks now” Tao Huainan asked as he lit the fuse, guided by Chi Cheng.
Chi Cheng said, “Fireworks.”
“Oh” Tao Huainan was pleased.
“I like fireworks.”
Chi Cheng, “It’s a waste of money.
You can’t see it anyway.”
“You can be my eyes, then.” Tao Huainan smiled, not really minding.
“This one is purple,” Chi Cheng said.
“I don’t believe you.
How can fireworks be purple, they’re all red and green,” said Tao Huainan whilst listening to the fireworks whizz into the sky one after another beside him.
Chi Cheng raised his head and looked, telling him, “It really is purple.”
Tao Xiaodong heard their conversation and chuckled, then went to shift down more from the car.
When he came back, they were still on the subject of red, green, and purple fireworks.
Chi Cheng said, “It’s blue now.”
Tao Huainan said, still smiling, “I don’t believe you.”
He said he didn’t believe Chi Cheng, and Chi Cheng didn’t try further.
So, Tao Xiaodong spoke up on his behalf, “It really is blue.
He isn’t bluffing you.”
“Ha, you’re just ganging up to dupe me,” Tao Huainan laughed, lifting his head as well to watch the sky with them.
Fireworks popped, again and again, overhead, vibrant flares of blue that dazzled the eyes.
Tao Xiaodong patted Tao Huainan on the head.
The boy was wearing a hat, so he stroked the fabric of his hat.
“I like this smell,” Tao Huainan sniffed, saying in Chi Cheng’s direction.
Chi Cheng glanced at him but didn’t utter a word.
He lowered his head and tore a strip from a used pasteboard tube.
Soot still smudged the paper lining.
He waved it in front of the other’s nose.
Tao Huainan breathed deeply in twice more before laughing, “People will think that we’re nuts.”
With a trunk full of firecrackers and fireworks, Tao Huainan had a blast.
It was daybreak by the time they went back home.
Tao Xiaodong gave each of them a generous red packet, wished them both a happy new year, then retreated to his room to shower and rest.
The two of them also took a shower and went to bed.
Just from the few hours that they spent eating dumplings and setting off fireworks, Tao Xiaodong had accumulated several hundred unread notifications on his phone.
Leaving out the customary new year greetings, there were still dozens that were proper messages.
He selectively replied to some and ignored the rest.
He was too tired, truly; he practically knocked out the moment he put his head to the pillow.
It could be from having smelled fireworks all night, or it could also be that the ambience from having celebrated the New Year was too strong.
On this night, Tao Xiaodong had a dream.
He dreamed of himself as a child, running amok with a bunch of silly kids from the village.
After the festivities, he carried a pocketful of small, unexploded crackling balls and flung them at people’s windows, into the well, and at frozen cow dung.
Then, sparks leapt onto his pants, nearly blowing up the whole pocketful of crackling balls, just missing it by just that little bit.
When he got home, his father stripped the cotton pants which now sported burn holes, delivering a hard spanking, covering his entire bum in mottled red, green, and purple.
Tao Xiaodong had a mess of tears and snot over his face, his wails shaking the heavens and the earth like a pig for slaughter.
His father berated him while beating him, asking him if he didn’t care for the two legs that grew on him; if that pocket of crackling bombs blew up, this pair of legs would be no more.
Tao Xiaodong had a rebellious spirit beaten into him.
He hardened his neck and yelled at the top of his lungs, “So what if I lose my legs! I don’t need you to care about me! All you do is hit me; you’re not my dad! I don’t have a dad like you!”
His father was grinning with rage from his words, though it was hard to tell if he was really flying off the handle or between tears and laughter.
In any case, that palm never came down again.
His mother hurriedly pacified his dad from the side, afraid that he would start again.
Sending one last kick to his behind, his father said, “Hurry up and get lost, little hellion!”
Tao Xiaodong tugged his pants up and burrowed into the heated bed.
The quilt that he smeared his snot onto was yanked away by his mother, who smacked him some more.
Some children were born to make mischief; even if they tore the house down, they’d resent not having jabbed a hole into the sky.
Tao Xiaodong, frequently bearing the brunt of this tough love, had only become more unrepentant.
Lunar New Year’s Eve was replaced by the Spring Festival, and the old was ushered out to welcome the new.
Falling asleep with a dream of the past, awakening to a new year.