A Night at Mallard-Nest Village

 Shen Congwen

Towards dusk it started snowing, but soon the snow stopped. It was bitterly cold. In that glacial atmosphere everything seemed turned to ice, the air itself as if on the point of freezing. The small boat I had hired moored after the first flurries of snow fell. This was the fifth night of my trip upstream from Taoyuan. Because it looked as if we were in for a blizzard, the boatmen had searched for a good anchorage. But apart from a suitable beach, the bank was a mass of black boulders the size of houses. Since they were so big and our boat was so small, we wanted to find some shelter from the wind in a place where we could easily go ashore. However, all the best moorings wore occupicd by local fishing-boats. The crew punted our little craft up and down, the steel tips of the punting-poles clinking melodiously on the rocks; but in the end we had to draw alongside the other vessels large and small in the regular anchorage, dropping the rock which served us as an anchor on to the sand and leaving our little craft exposed to the coming blizzard.

This place, at a bend in a long lake, was flanked by high cliffs on the peaks of which grew small bamboos, an enchanting emerald the whole year round. Now that darkness was falling, only their silhouettes were outlined against the faintly glimmering sky. What we could make out in the dusk, though, was amazing—about three hundred feet up the cliff, high above the water, was a cluster of houses on stilts. There they hung majestically in mid air, and in the fading light we could still see the outline of these extraordinary buildings. In common with all the houses along the river, their construction was characterized by a wasteful use of timber. Why was so much timber needed for houses halfway up a hill? Yet they were built on stilts, quite needlessly. Well, timber was the main product shipped out from this river, costing less than stone; and so, though there was no danger at all of flooding, it was really not astonishing that these houses were still built on stilts. And because they were there, the boatmen who grappled year in year out with the current, their passengers nearly bored to death, and other travellers too had somewhere to rest. They could shake off their weariness and loneliness in these houses. So the place, besides being attractive, provided distractions.

After the boats large and small had moored, all lit tiny oil lamps and fixed up mat canopies. Rice was boiled in iron cauldrons over fires in the stem, and once this was cooked the vegetables were fried in another pan of sizzling oil. When the meal was ready, everyone aboard could wolf down three or five bowls. By then it was dark. When the bowls had been cleared away, the boatmen who felt cold or tired out spread their bedding on the deck and burrowed into their stiff, clammy quilts which they had laid out like tubing. Those who wanted to drank or smoked by the lamp, and when the fire on the boat had burned to ashes or there was nothing to do, if lonely or eager for a bit of fun they would go ashore to sit by a fire and chat, taking the lantern from the mast or lighting a strip of old hawser with which they jumped unsteadily ashore to take the path through rocks to the stilt-houses halfway up the cliff, in search of an old friend or familiar house. Strangers naturally travelled along the river too, but once inside these stilt-houses, sitting on low stools by the fire, in no time they would feel not strangers but friends.

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