The Cornfield and the Graveyard

Two generations pay their respects – by Carl Setzer


“42, 43, 44, 45. I think this is the spot.”

Grandpa stopped and searched for his cigarettes, trying to ignore the pain in his hands and legs.

“When I was a boy it was 45 paces from the farmhouse,” he continued. “I think that building is the original structure. It was located in the back corner of the third lot from the Country Lane 62. That has to be it. But none of this looks familiar anymore.”

It had been too many years since his oldest son had passed and time had changed the landscape.

Grandpa, my wife and I stood together, accompanied by the curious stares of a handful of local farmers. This must have been an odd National Day for them, watching this impromptu memorial ceremony. The presence of three strangers in the middle of a field bearing flowers and tears was strange enough. The presence of a large foreigner was simply baffling. There was humorous amusement in their stares however.

“This has to be the first time a foreign devil has been to this part of China,” one of them whispered.

The foreign devil didn’t feel particularly out of place though. I had been preparing for this journey for sometime, a lifetime perhaps. The field, the farmhouse and the farmers all seemed to be part of a distant reality for me. My mind, for the moment, was solely focused on the emotions of Grandpa and my wife.

“This seems to be the place,” Grandpa said. “Look over there! If that corner was where my mother was buried, your father was only two places away to the left.” The October ground was covered in rows of last year’s dried corn stalks, and Grandpa sidestepped the distance trying not to stumble.

“At least they didn’t grow in this field this year,” he mumbled.

“When did the government take this land from us, Grandpa?” Liu Yang asked, as we walked.

“The government didn’t take this land from us, my girl. We never owned it. When they removed our grave markers and served us with the notices, the government merely reminded us that it was never ours.”

“How long ago was that?” Liu Yang learned her grandfather’s manner when she was a young girl, and it still influenced the way they talked. She knew his contempt for the Party that kept him from being able to defend the memory of his family members. She knew this contempt could only be expressed in blunt, sardonic statements.

“It has been 15 years since the government was gracious enough to remind us we didn’t own it,” he replied. “It is the land of the people, but not our people.”

When we arrived to the place Grandpa had spotted, Liu Yang waited attentively with the eight lilies purchased for the trip. “Six white and two pink,” Liu Yang said to no one in particular.

Grandpa responded with a grunt. The farmers and workers seemed to have lost interest and went back to smoking cigarettes and chatting. My mind wandered for a minute to ponder the question of whether those farmers knew what existed on this land before their corn and cigarette butts. I concluded they probably didn’t and that it would be a vain exercise to attempt an explanation.

A gentle wind blew and Liu Yang and Grandpa decided that this was as good a place as any. Whatever ashes were interned here had since nourished several seasons of crops, dissipating across the field and throughout the province. In a way, whether or not we were in the exact place didn’t matter. We had come to pay homage to a soul not forgotten, and this little ceremony was only a small part of what we felt inside.

Liu Yang laid the flowers down, ribbons facing the west. Then she thought for only a second and redirected the ribbons of the bouquet to face the east. She leaned into my chest and faced the grave, tears streaming down her face. I tried to wipe mine away as well, but for each one I caught, two more fell to the dusty earth.

I finally let go of my wife, allowing her to dry her own tears. Liu Yang knelt at the place where the flowers’ ribbons ended.  She leaned forward, straightening the ribbons saying:

“I came to see you, Dad. I brought my husband and your father, we are all here and everyone is healthy. I’m sorry I didn’t bring my husband to meet you before the wedding. I’m so embarrassed, but we are here now. He’s a good man, I love him and he loves me. He’s given me a good home and he protects my heart. You would like him, Dad.”

Liu Yang fell silent for a while before praying briefly for good fortune and peace for her father in the next life.  She got up and dusted the dirt from her knees and returned to my arms. I watched how the petals of the lilies moved with the wind and a feeling shot through my heart like a knife. I knew none of us would choose to be anywhere different at that moment.

Grandpa turned and faced the resting place of his son, a life taken far too soon. He found a cigarette, drew it from the pack and lit it. Grandpa took a slow drag and then placed it at the base of what might have been the grave of his son.

An exhalation of smoke rose from the cigarette as the wind blew. Then another gust caught it and rolled it gently into a groove of the corn stalk, where it found rest. I broke down again as the brevity of the gesture and layers of emotion surged into the moment. A grandfather robbed of a son, a daughter deprived of her father, and a husband without a hero.

“Son, I’m sorry I didn’t bring Liu Yang and her husband here earlier. We should’ve brought him to meet you before the wedding. I’m so embarrassed. But don’t worry about her, my boy, she is going to be fine. She found a man that loves her more then she deserves and they are happy.“

With this, Grandpa’s strong voice broke as the years of pain and sadness came back to him. He continued, but weeping.

“She has a good job and a warm home. They will give you grandchildren one day and our name will live on. We didn’t bring you anything today, just these flowers. It’s not the festival of the dead, so you can stay here and rest. We just wanted to come to you and introduce you to the man that has married your daughter.

“Don’t worry about your mother and me, we are being taken care of. We are healthy and happy. Everything is OK. Next time we’ll bring you some alcohol and money to help you. But it’s not the festival today. It’s just a normal day.”

I looked down to see the wind had smoked a bit more of the cigarette than I could have imagined. The three of us stood silent for a moment and waited for the tears to subside.

“I could never find this place again,” Liu Yang said.

I helped Grandpa step over an irrigation trench as we returned up the pathway. Along the way, I counted the steps.

“Ninety-five steps, my love, third field on the right from County Lane 62,” I told my wife. She responded with a forced smile. The two of us sat still in the van before she asked quietly: “Can we bring our kids here one day?”

“Of course we can.”

Carl Setzer has lived in China for a decade, and runs Great Leap Brewing