The Ninth Man
A short story from Tibet by Pema Tseden, translated by Cao Zhen
Before meeting the man, Yongcuo had lost her confidence in all men.
This man was her ninth man.
Yongcuo’s first man was a monk. She was 18 years old then. Without knowing how it began, she and the first man had just had a crush on each other. Yongcuo was a beauty in the village, wooed by throngs of young men. Since she hooked up with the monk, folks in the village felt confused, saying things in the world happened without a reason.
The monk was two years elder than Yongcuo but had no experience in making love. Yongcuo, however, knew a little and had a desire for it because she had heard some from villagers’ gossips.
Under Yongcuo’s instruction, the two virgins nervously finished it on the grasslands on a starry night.
After that, Yongcuo felt a little bit frustrated because the whole process was too hasty, without any of the mysterious feelings she had expected.
But the man cried like a child.
Yongcuo felt guilty for making the monk break his religious code.
She wanted to comfort the man but didn’t know what to say. “I’m a sinful woman. I should go to hell,” she said at last.
The man held her hands, “I’m crying not for violating my religious precept but for experiencing such an amazing thing so late. You let me know the beauty of life. You will not go to hell. You will go to heaven. You are so great. I should have met you earlier.”
When Yongcuo told the story about her first man to her ninth man, the ninth man smiled, “The charm of sex is compelling and that’s why I like you.”
Hearing this, she was insensitive, poker-faced.
Yongcuo’s second man was dumped by his wife.
The man’s wife eloped with someone else but the man couldn’t forget her. He felt he was the loneliest person in the world.
Yongcuo resembled the man’s wife, so when the man felt lonely, he came to Yongcuo’s house. Yongcuo had two braids hung down to her waist. The man liked fondling the two long braids gently.
The monk whom Yongcuo slept with resumed secular life afterwards, so folks in the village always cursed Yongcuo, saying she was ominous and should go to hell. Although she sometimes felt guilty for her fling with the monk, she didn’t care about the villagers’ gossips. Villagers also mocked the monk, who later couldn’t bear the stigma anymore and escaped from the village, without telling anyone his whereabouts.
So, when Yongcuo’s second man frequently resorted to her, the two lonely hearts hit it off together. But the man always mistakenly called Yongcuo his wife’s name, which made Yongcuo uncomfortable. But since the man treated her well, she didn’t care too much.
When Yongcuo finally got used to the man’s mistake and wanted to live a quiet life with him, the man’s wife retuned.
The brutal wife held Yongcuo’s two braids tightly in front of the man, who was mute and didn’t do anything.
Tears in eyes, Yongcuo walked to the man, staring at his face.
“I was with you because you look like her. Now she is back and I’m going to be with her again,” said the man, lowering his head.
Yongcuo discovered the brutal woman also had two long braids.
When Yongcuo told her story about her second man to her ninth man, the ninth man gnashed, “That man was an asshole!”
Hearing this, she glanced at him.
Yongcuo’s third man sold coral necklaces. He liked to wear all the scarlet coral necklaces around his neck and wandered in the village’s lanes, shouting “Coral necklaces, coral necklaces!”
For women in the village, wearing a coral necklace was their lifetime dream, so when the man was shouting “Coral necklaces, coral necklaces” in front of their houses, they couldn’t help peeping through the cracks in their doors or following him on the roads.
Each time when the coral necklace hawker emerged in the village, his peddling shouts floating in the air, it was the most scary moment for all the men in the village. They hated the hawker to the bones, and discussed a plan to break his legs before he entered the village next time. Whenever the hawker was about to emerge in the village, all the men would dismiss their wives to herd sheep or cut grass on the mountains. They did everything they could to prevent their wives from seeing the hawker or hearing his peddling shouts.
And then Yongcuo met the coral necklace hawker.
She was also attracted by the man’s peddling shouts. Every time when she heard the man’s shouts, she ran to him and dreamt to wear a necklace around her neck.
Although Yongcuo had slept with two men, she was only 20 years old. Her desire to wear a coral necklace always gushed out from her heart.
“Do you like coral necklaces?” the man asked.
“Definitely!” she said without hesitation.
“Let your man buy one for you.”
“I don’t have a man,” Yongcuo blushed.
“You must be joking. You are so beautiful.”
“No, I’m not.”
The man thought for a while, pointing to the necklaces, “Which one do you like?”
Yongcuo’s stared at the necklaces around the man’s neck and finally pointed one, “I love this.”
The man smiled, “This is the best one. You have a sharp eye.”
“I just want this.”
“There are thirty superior corals on this necklace.”
Yongcuo was silent.
“How can you pay for the thirty superior corals?”
Yongcuo was still silent.
The hawker beamed, “How about being with me for thirty nights? You are such a beauty. After that, the necklace with thirty corals will belong to you.”
Yongcuo blushed, silent.
Thirty nights later, the necklace with thirty corals was around Yongcuo’s neck.
The women of the village envied and cursed her, spitting behind her back.
When Yongcuo told the story about her third man to her ninth man, the ninth man spat, “Businessmen are all assholes. They are tricky!”
Hearing this, she glanced at him.
Yongcuo’s fourth man was a truck driver, transporting commodities between the town and the village. Since Yongcuo wore the necklace, those young villagers who had flirted with her didn’t chase her anymore. They looked down upon her, stayed away from her and the women in the village didn’t talk to her.
Yongcuo felt lonely again, much like the time when she met her second man. She knew it was all because of the necklace, so she took it off from her neck and looked at it carefully. But she still felt it was beautiful and put it again around her neck. She then had a strong desire to escape from the village, to somewhere no one knew her, just like her first man had. She had heard that the outside world was much more beautiful and bigger than here.
She thought of a song sung by many folks.
“The rainbow in the sky is like a golden bridge. I want to go out of the mountains to see the outside world.”
Yongcuo then thought of that truck driver because he was the only person who could take her out of the village surrounded by mountains.
She found him and told him her plan.
The man stared at her coral necklace, silent.
“I won’t give the coral necklace to you,” said Yongcuo.
The man starred at her face then.
“But I will do something for you,” she said.
The driver then told her to meet him at the entrance to the village in the dawn.
Yongcuo was so excited, couldn’t sleep for the whole night and arrived at the village entrance very early.
Then came the driver, in a drowsy look.
He took out of a small bottle and swallowed a gulp.
Yongcuo knew it was alcohol from its smell but still asked, “What’s this?”
The driver took another gulp.
Yongcuo looked at him, without saying a word.
“I drink alcohol before I drive,” said the man.
Then he started driving.
On the road, the driver was very sober but Yongcuo slept.
When she woke up, she found herself lying in an open place and the driver was taking off her clothes. The sunshine was so bright that she couldn’t open her eyes. Without resisting, she laid there, letting the man do whatever he wanted.
During the whole process, the driver was very careful. Finally he said in a trembling voice, “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”
“How many women have you had?” Yongcuo thought he was funny.
“I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything,” the driver replied, still in a trembling voice.
Yongcuo laughed out loud.
“I’m satisfied just that I have met you in my life,” said the driver, still in a trembling voice.
When the truck stopped at a crossroad, the driver said, “Here is the town.”
Yongcuo was shocked. She had never seen so many people and high buildings, even in her dreams.
When Yongcuo was about to get off the truck, the driver was unwilling to let her go, “Stay with me. I can take you to the town every day and other different cities.”
She smiled, “I’m not comfortable to stay with you. Being with you is like being with my uncle.”
The driver was silent, poker-faced.
Yongcuo jumped out of the truck, standing at the crossroad.
“Be careful,” said the driver, staring at her coral necklace.
When Yongcuo told the story about her fourth man to her ninth man, the ninth man said peacefully, “Compared with that asshole hawker, the driver was a good man at least.”
Hearing this, she thought for a while.
Yongcuo’s fifth man was a handsome young man, who always appeared at the town’s crossroad. When she got out of the truck that day, the handsome man was right there. The truck driver looked at the young man and said to her, “Be careful.”
“Is he your uncle?” the handsome man looked at the truck driver and asked Yongcuo.
“How did you know?”
“He cared about you like an elder family member.”
“You are so smart. He is my uncle,” she replied, looking at the driver.
The truck drove away, leaving a wailing purr.
Both Yongcuo and the handsome man laughed out loud.
The handsome man told many jokes to Yongcuo at the crossroad, much cleaner than what she had heard in the village. She laughed heartily because she thought the jokes were high-level.
Passersby glanced at her strangely.
“Are they looking at my beautiful coral necklace?” Yongcuo asked the young man.
“No. Your necklace is worthless in the town. Every woman here has a coral necklace.”
Looking at some women passing in front of her, Yongcu asked, “Then why don’t they wear them?”
“Coral necklaces are common in the town. No one wants to wear it. They put the necklaces into cases and when baby corals are born out of the original big ones, they give the baby corals to their poor relatives in the village.”
“What? Baby corals can be born from big corals,” Yongcuo was so surprised.
The young man looked at her necklace, saying, “Your corals are actually the small ones born out of big ones.”
Yongcuo seemed very frustrated.
“But your baby corals are still very big,” the handsome man comforted her.
“Do they laugh at me for my baby corals?”
“No. No. They look at you because you are very beautiful.”
Yongcuo didn’t believe what the man said. Looking at the women passing by, she asked, “I think all women here are more beautiful than me. Their skins are as white as snow.”
“All women here are not as beautiful as you. They are like white pork hung in a slaughter house,” the man smiled.
Yongcuo was blushed, daring not to look at the women.
“Look. You are more beautiful now,” said the man.
Then a policeman came to them, saying to the handsome man, “Hey! You can’t flirt with girls all day at the crossroad. You break the traffic order here.”
“This is my cousin from countryside and I’m showing her around,” said the handsome man.
“If you continue breaking the traffic order, I will detain you,” said the policeman seriously.
“Let me buy you a drink tonight. See you at Black Cat Bar,” said the handsome man.
The policeman smiled, “Get out of here. Don’t forget to take your cousin.”
The Black Cat Bar was very near to the crossroad.
When the night fell, Yongcuo was surprised to see the neon lights at the entrance of the bar. “Why is there no daytime in this house,” she asked the handsome man.
“This city has magical colors,” said the man in a mysterious mood.
Yongcuo followed the man into the bar, shocked at what she saw. “Why didn’t I see so many weird people in the daytime?”
“They come from another world, only walking out at night,” the man smiled.
Yongcuo heard that only ghosts emerged at night but she didn’t regard those people she saw as ghosts.
The young man led her to a gloomy corner. Here came the policeman they met in the daytime. Still in his police uniform, the policeman didn’t look as solemnly as before.
“Let your cousin to be with me for a while. I will buy you drinks,” said the policeman.
“She is still very young,” the handsome man replied in a hurry.
“You are so mean, asshole,” said the policeman.
“My cousin is still very young. She is really young."
“Is he really your cousin?” the policeman turned to Yongcuo.
She nodded heavily.
“It’s unreasonable to bring your cousin to such a place,” said the policeman.
“I’m just showing her around,” said the handsome man.
The policeman ordered many drinks.
At the beginning, Yongcuo felt uncomfortable when she sipped alcohol. She could hardly swallow it but later on she found the alcohol was more and more tasty.
When Yongcuo found drinking was a comfortable experience, she could hardly remember what happened later.
When she woke up, it was the next morning. She found herself naked lying on a king-sized bed, clothes scattered on the floor. Head as heavy as a stone, she couldn’t get up. The coral necklace was missing.
Yongcuo rushed to the crossroad. The policeman was on duty.
“Where is the handsome man?” she asked.
“Him?” the policeman smiled.
“Isn’t he your cousin? How can I know?” the policeman still smiled.
“I don’t know him.”
“Weren’t you together yesterday?”
“I just met him yesterday.”
“You youngsters,” the policeman shook his head.
“My coral necklace is missing.”
“Are they genuine corals?”
“Yes. The handsome man said they were born out the big corals in the town.”
“What a liar the guy is,” the policeman laughed out loud.
“Where does he live?” Yongcuo was worried.
“You can’t find him. He took a ride to Lhasa this morning,” the policeman stopped laughing.
“Please help me find him,” she cried.
“I am traffic police. I can’t handle this.”
Yongcuo was still weeping, attracting some passersby around her. The policeman asked her to go home.
He pointed to the road out of town and Yongcuo went away.
When Yongcuo told the story about her fifth man to her ninth man, the ninth man gnashed, “Son of a bitch! Those assholes in the streets use flattery to cheat girls’ hearts.”
Hearing this, she seemed to recall something.
Yongcuo’s sixth man was a shepherd. He was in his thirties, and still single.
He was an orphan, and had herded sheep for villagers since childhood. Other men his age had all got married but he still couldn’t find a wife. Women his age mocked him, no one flirted with him and he gradually became a silent person.
On Yongcuo’s way home she didn’t eat anything and when she nearly fainted, she met the shepherd on a hill.
Seeing him approach, she fell down finally even if she had tried many times earlier not to fall.
The shepherd fed her some water but dared not to look at her face.
When Yongcuo woke up, she giggled at him. He was a little bit shy because it was the first time a beautiful woman smiled at him. Slightly dizzy, he didn’t know what to do.
Yongcuo knew a little about the shepherd’s background but she never thought she could someday lay in his arms under such a circumstance. She felt moved to meet a man whose story she was familiar with.
The shepherd gave some dry food to her.
She devoured all of it. Although the shepherd hadn’t eaten anything all day, he didn’t feel hungry at all, which made her feel guilty. She thought she shouldn’t eat his food. The shepherd felt happy though.
At sunset, the shepherd carried her on his back and drove his sheep back home.
At the entrance to the village, the shepherd asked without hesitation, “Where do you want to go? I can carry you home.”
Yongcuo thought for a while, “Go to your home.”
The shepherd stood still, with Yongcuo on his back. The sheep ran away but he still stood there.
“Don’t you want to take me home?” she asked.
The shepherd began to move, and then ran, catching up the sheep.
At night, in the shepherd’s shabby home, Yongcuo offered herself to him.
After that, the shepherd kowtowed to her, like doing a ritual ceremony. He said seriously, “You are my White Tara!”
“How can you compare me with a Buddha? It’s sinful,” Yongcuo smiled.
The shepherd performed three more kowtows, without saying a word.
“Now I don’t have the coral necklace that I shouldn’t have had. I am the same as the other women in the village,” said Yongcuo.
“You are much more beautiful than them. When you wore it, you were more beautiful.”
“When I wore that necklace in the village, didn’t you look down upon me?”
“You are a goddess to me,” said the shepherd.
Then the two lived together.
Young men in the village envied the shepherd, while women despised Yongcuo more.
The first thing the shepherd did after dinner was to wash Yongcuo’s feet. She enjoyed it because he washed them very carefully. Before sleeping, he still performed three kowtows to her, which made her uncomfortable and she tried to avoid it, but later on she got used to it.
The most unbearable moment for Yongcuo was at dawn when the shepherd was as vigorous as a beast and had sex at least six times with her. At night, they had more sex.
The shepherd slept all day when he was herding sheep on the hill. He lost track of how many sheep were eaten by wolves. Folks who asked him to herd their sheep didn’t trust him anymore and took back their sheep.
At the beginning, Yongcuo enjoyed her life because no man she had met had given her such great pleasure in bed. But after half a month, she was scared. Every time at sunset, she was horrified for no reason, fearing what would happen at night.
After a month, she couldn’t endure him anymore, and planned to leave this energetic and vigorous shepherd.
When Yongcuo told the story about her sixth man to her ninth man, the ninth man smiled, “Some men have a strong desire in their inner body.”
Hearing this, she seemed lost.
Yongcuo’s seventh man was a bully in the village, beating people and arguing. Folks called him the Bully. No woman in the village liked him and every man feared him more or less. In the past, the Bully had flirted with Yongcuo but she didn’t care.
When Yongcuo couldn’t bear the shepherd anymore, she thought of the Bully because only he could save her.
Then she came to him one day when the shepherd was out.
“If you save me from the shepherd, I will be yours.”
“Don’t you and the shepherd live as a happy couple? Why do you need me to save you? How come? Is it serious?” the Bully was curious.
She told him everything.
Shocked, the Bully murmured, “I can’t believe this son of a bitch is so vigorous!”
At sunset, Yongcuo waited at the entrance to the shepherd’s home with the Bully.
The shepherd looked fragile, which made the Bully laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” the shepherd asked.
The Bully still laughed, without saying a word.
Bored, the shepherd looked at Yongcuo.
Bag in hand, Yongcuo said with courage, “I’m leaving you.”
The shepherd yelled and rushed to grab her bag. The Bully kicked him down.
When the shepherd stood up to try to reach her, the Bully kicked him down again.
“Yongcuo belongs to me now. We sleep together with great pleasure. From now on, if you haunt around her again, I will break your legs, son of a bitch!”
Yongcuo was surprised, looking at the Bully’s face, who gave an evil smile.
The shepherd cried out loud, which made Yongcuo feel very embarrassed.
When the Bully and Yongcuo were about to leave, the shepherd suddenly held her leg, begging her not to leave him.
Yongcuo felt pity but the Bully kicked the shepherd and took her away.
The shepherd’s wail floated in the air for quite a long time.
After Yongcuo left the shepherd, he lost several sheep every day and finally no one let him herd the sheep. Yongcuo intended to comfort the shepherd but never went.
Although the Bully had a robust body and hot temper, he couldn’t get erect at night. Yongcuo never knew how she had ended up with such a man. The more the Bully was dysfunctional, the more he maltreated her.
In a few days, Yongcuo was black and blue all over, not a beauty at all.
She decided to leave him and threatened him that if he didn’t let her go, she would tell his secret to everyone in the village.
Hearing this, the Bully was discouraged, begging her not to do so. She couldn’t believe that he even cried and said as long as she kept his secret, he would still protect her anytime after she left him.
Then she left him successfully.
When Yongcuo told the story about her seventh man to her ninth man, the ninth man said, “Some men are strong outside but weak inside.”
Hearing this, she seemed to think something.
Yongcuo’s eighth man was an honest person, the only child of a good family.
“Are you willing to let Yongcuo be your wife?” his parents asked him.
“I’m afraid she doesn’t want me!” said the son.
“She is not the same Yongcuo as in the past. She must be worried that no one wants her now,” said the parents.
The son smiled.
“Do you want Yongcuo to give birth to a son for us?” asked the parents.
“Yes. My son must be as beautiful as Yongcuo,” said the son.
Then, Yongcuo married the son.
Several months later, Yongcuo was pregnant. Seeing her humpy belly, the whole family was happy.
Several months later she gave birth to a son, just as the family expected. But the baby died.
One month later Yongcuo left the family, who didn’t ask her to stay.
When Yongcuo told the story about her eighth man to her ninth man, the ninth man said, “What a pity. You were almost a mother, but what’s the point of being a mother?”
Hearing this, Yongcuo said peacefully, “These are the men I have been with. Perhaps you had heard of it from others.”
The ninth man also replied peacefully, “I care about you and I never asked others about your past.”
Moved, Yongcuo said, “You really don’t care about my past, do you?”
“I said I just care about you,” the man replied without hesitation.
“Can you swear to me that you will never say a word about it?”
“Yes. I swear.”
The ninth man was a primary school teacher from another village. He wore a pair of spectacles, and looked solemn when he swore, which made Yongcuo want to laugh.
At the first day of the New Year, Yongcuo and the man got their marriage certificate at the township government.
The man put the certificate on the bedside table. Every time before they had sex, he looked at the certificate first and said to Yongcuo, “We are going to have a new life.”
She also murmured, “We are having a new life.”
They lived a happy life during the first four months of their marriage. Neighbors said they were a model couple. Yongcuo didn’t know what a model couple meant, even though an old woman explained it to her.
“What’s the meaning of a model couple?” Yongcuo asked her man at night.
“The best couple in the world.”
“Oh, I see,” said Yongcuo, smiling.
The schoolteachers had a monthly get-together, but the man didn’t attend it in the first four months because he wanted to stay with Yongcuo. In the fifth month, teachers persuaded the man to join them.
At midnight, the man came back drunk, shook up Yongcuo and said relentlessly, “Those monks should be castrated before they become monks, like eunuchs are.”
Then he fell down to sleep while Yongcuo was sleepless the whole night.
The next morning, the man asked, “Didn’t I say something last night?”
Yongcuo shook her head.
“Good. I drank too much. I won’t drink again,” said the man.
After the sixth month’s get-together, the man returned home drunk again and said, “I knew a woman who had the same two long braids as you do.”
In his sleep, the man even called an unknown woman’s name.
The next morning, the man woke up and thought for a while, “Did I say something last night?”
Yongcuo shook her head.
“I won’t drink anymore,” said the man.
After the seventh month’s get-together, the man again came home drunk and said, “If I get my bonus at the end of the year, I will buy you a genuine coral necklace, put it in a suitcase, let it produce some baby corals and give them to your poor relatives in the countryside.”
The next morning, the man asked, “Did I promise to buy you something last night?”
Yongcuo shook her head, silent.
“I always want to buy you an automatic watch. If I save enough money at the end of the year, I will buy you one.”
After the eighth month’s get-together, the drunken man said, “When we are rich in the future, let’s travel to big cities by plane. Taking a plane to big cities is the real experience.”
Yongcuo looked at him, and asked him to lie down while she sat to one side until dawn.
The next morning, the man asked, “Did I mention the automatic watch again? Don’t worry. I have some savings and will definitely buy one for you at the end of the year.”
“I don’t want a watch. I want you not to drink anymore.”
“I will buy one for you. Definitely.”
After the ninth month’s get-together, the man got even more drunk and wanted to make love to Yongcuo when he came back.
She was reluctant. The man asked, “Are you worried that I will forget our love-making the next morning? I remember everything after I get drunk.”
Yongcuo nearly stumbled down, without noticing that the man had entered her body. He moved violently, shedding sweat and breathing deeply. Suddenly, he crawled down from her body and slept like a pig.
Hearing the man’s snoring, Yongcuo wept in the dark.
After the ninth month’s get-together, the man was drunk like a ghost and almost crawled back to his house.
Looking at Yongcuo, he said without hesitation, “I really like you, but as a dignified teacher, I am not as good as a shepherd. Yet he slept with you before me!”
Yongcuo brewed a pot of tea and let him sleep.
The next morning, Yongcuo looked at the man. “You swore to me that you would never mention the past.”
The man slapped his face loudly. “What an asshole I am!”
“You don’t have to. You are the only man that I give my heart to,” said Yongcuo.
The man slapped his face again, swearing.
Life went on but the couple seldom talked.
After the eleventh month’s get-together, it took several young and strong teachers to carry the man back to his house, followed by the headmaster. “What’s wrong with you? You seldom drank in the past. Why do you drink so much recently?” the headmaster complained.
“I am so happy. You guys don’t know how happy I am!” the man mumbled.
Yongcuo stood aside, looking at him.
Squinting at her, the man said to the headmaster, “Old headmaster, you are the strongest man in our school. We all fear you but I heard that you are afraid of your wife. Is that true? Are some of your secrets in your wife’s hands?”
Puzzled, the headmaster left in a rage.
Yongcuo didn’t say a word and the man fell asleep.
The next morning, no one mentioned what happened last night. It seemed as if nothing had happened.
Several days later, the man looked at Yongcuo’s belly with a smile, “Why has your belly not changed since we got married so long ago?”
Yongcuo began crying.
The man couldn’t help comforting her, “Don’t worry. If we can’t have a baby this year, let’s try next year.”
“I hide one thing from you,” Yongcuo wept.
“I only hide one thing from you.”
“What? Come on!”
“After I gave birth to that first son, the doctor said I would never have children again,” she said crying.
The man was silent.
After a while, he said, “It’s OK. I said I only care about you.”
Yongcuo hugged the man, shedding floods of tears.
The twelfth-month’s teachers’ party was held on the last night of the year.
The man joined it and when he came back he was very drunk.
Yongcuo took care of him affably.
She considered that she had been with him for a year and she felt happy now.
The man fell asleep but Yongcuo didn’t sleep, waiting for him to wake up to tell him something.
At midnight the man suddenly got up, and looked into the air. “Why wasn’t I the eighth man? Why am I the ninth man? If I were the eighth man, I might have a son now.”
Then he fell down to sleep again. It seemed as if he had said those words in his dream.
When the man woke up the next morning, he found two long braids neatly lying on the bedside table.
He recognized that the braids were Yongcuo’s.
Cao Zhen is a reporter and editor at the English-language newspaper Shenzhen Daily, and a freelance translator in Shenzhen