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Fall 2010

A Small Sacrifice

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Yiyun Li

“I hope you haven’t forgotten—” When Moyan’s cell phone beeped, she knew that the message from the landlord would begin with the same line as it had in the past two weeks. “Tomorrow is the last day.”

The landlord, a retired plumber and a widower, was not an unkind man, and Moyan knew that she had but herself to blame for the nightly message, counting down to the day when Tiny—Moyan’s pet pig that had outgrown its name—would have to go. She had stopped picking up the old man’s phone calls, hoping that her silence would miraculously lead to his forgetfulness. But he persisted, texting her every night at ten o’clock, perhaps the last thing he did before going to bed. Once, when Moyan had stopped at his flat, a small cube in an old building, to drop off a basket of fruits she had brought him as a New Year present, he had told her that he was learning to send text messages, and he wished that they did not make the keypad so small; his daughter, he said, hadn’t the time to talk to him anymore. Moyan had promised herself then that she would never disappoint him as his daughter did, but the one-year lease had barely run out before she too had barricaded herself with silence.

Typical of her to act like an ostrich, Moyan’s mother would have said; typical of her to let herself be convinced that a pig would remain the size of a puppy. When Moyan deleted the landlord’s messages, she could hear her mother comment to one of her eternal neighbors over the clouds, and guiltily Moyan wondered if there was at least the comfort in knowing that her mother, being dead, would not have come to her door with a butcher and his apprentices, as the landlord had told her he would do if Tiny did not go away by the deadline. The men, with their professional nonchalance, would waste no time in roping Tiny and dragging him out of the flat, his squealing trailing behind in the hallway; the neighbors would come to their doors, the janitor would stand aside with a dripping mop, and the driver of the elevator, a middle-aged woman who knitted all day long and punched the floor numbers with her knitting needle, would keep the elevator door open with one leg. She wished she could offer them a ride instead of letting them carry the giant beast down from the eighth floor, the woman would say, apologizing for her elevator that was too small for Tiny and smiling amusedly at everyone’s predicament.

Typical of her to let a man give her, rather than an engagement ring, or a necklace, a pair of bracelets, a music box, a bouquet of fake flowers—anything that would last and remain unchanged—a piglet said to be an expensive miniature pet which grew into an ordinary pig. This Moyan’s mother did not say even from above the clouds, but Moyan let herself speak on her mother’s behalf. When one knows the dead well, death has no power to stop the departed from talking on—this Moyan had learned since her mother’s accident two years earlier.

But the man was only lied to by the peddler, and it was not his fault to trust, nor was it his fault to despair. Moyan had tried to defend the man when he had disappeared from her life—back to his wife, who was beautiful despite the first sign of aging at the corner of her eyes, and his daughter, a child who had placed second in a city-wide beauty contest for girls under ten—as Moyan had always known he would. Suppose he had truly believed that Tiny would keep the peddler’s promise and never outgrow the bamboo basket, soft with ivory-colored silk lining? The man who had cheated on his wife for Moyan was not an irresponsible husband or a negligent father; he talked about his family often, but never made it sound as though he was disrespectful of them or Moyan. Some people are destined to live on stage, he said, and others, to fill the rows in the theater. The man had not sounded bitter when he said this, and his face had been as candid as that of a child who had not learned the arts of lying. Moyan was the one holding his hands in the darkness—this the man did not say, but she understood it well. Every sad man, she believed, deserved a friend who was not merely a friend, a sister who was not merely a sister, and a woman whose love was more than that of a lover.

When Tiny had started to show the first signs of enlarging beyond his promised size, the man became restless. Typical of him to misplace his trust on a greedy peddler, the man said, trying once or twice, in vain, to find in the marketplace the peddler who had sold him Tiny. Knows what he’s doing, the man had said of the peddler three months earlier, who had not much education yet had known enough to quote George Orwell when he had convinced the man of the value of Tiny.

Suppose the peddler had not lied but had been lied to, that he was unaware of the scheme to pass off a regular piglet as one from a more expensive species? After the man was gone from her life, Moyan sometimes thought to herself, not defending the peddler really, but disagreeing with the man whom she had never disagreed with before. There had been the time when he had loved the sight of Tiny nursing from a bottle in Moyan’s hand, the time when he had said a pig was the smartest animal when Tiny learned to open the refrigerator door, but unlike a baby whose growing and changing could bring more love and solidity to her parents, one day Tiny’s grin no longer brought joy to the man but annoyance. Moyan wondered then if she would have to give up one for the other, but when Tiny, no longer small, scowled at the man one evening after he had come back from a two-week vacation at a tropical resort with his family, the man did not leave her a choice. Even if they could remain true to each other for the rest of their lives, the man had explained, fate would pull the wool over their eyes so they would seem false and extraneous to each other in the end; in every bud of blossom is encoded the message of deterioration and death.

The man liked metaphors. It was how they had met, his seeing a metaphor in Moyan as the curator of a one-room exhibition of folk arts and crafts. Curator was a misleading title; her real job was to be a salesgirl, a cleaning lady, and, when the old folk artists came in to chat with one another, to make tea and to listen to their woes of their sons and grandsons no longer showing interest in the arts of their ancestors. Once in a while an old man would stroke Moyan’s hand and say that he wished he could teach her all he knew, but what a pity his ancestors had made the rule of only allowing the sons into the secrets of their trade. The girl who had worked at the job before Moyan had complained about inappropriate touching, but Moyan had forgiven the old men, the looming extinction of miniature fans made from snake bones or theater masks cut out of fabrics of exotic colors, and the dying hope in the shaking hands of the old men, overshadowing the forgettable discomfort in her shy, young flesh.

What do you do? the man had asked when he strolled in one day. Moyan explained to him, and the man looked melancholy, and later he told her that she had reminded him of one of those maidens in ancient time who had been chosen as a sacrifice to save her people from calamities. She needed something young and lively around her when he was not with her, he said when they knew each other better. She wondered if he meant for her to keep a puppy, or a kitty, but when he came with Tiny, he said that he was tired of being looked down upon by all the cats in the world, and he was tired of having to look up at the world like a dog. A pig, the man said, looks into your eyes like a fellow sufferer.

Suppose the man was right that a pig was more than just a witless animal? Indeed, Tiny had begun to take on the melancholy look of the man after he left Moyan. As she had understood the man’s miseries, she understood Tiny’s too, yet her understanding would not alleviate the gloominess in either creature’s life. When she watched Tiny bearing his constant hunger with a resigned dignity (she had had to put him on a strict diet for fear he would soon outgrow the bathtub where he slept now, or eventually the doorframe, so he would have to remain a prisoner in the flat for the rest of his life); when she listened to people’s taunting words, directed to her and Tiny while she walked him around the neighborhood, where small, fluffy dogs on leashes were being adored; when at night she wondered if Tiny, in his listless sleep, was dreaming about generations of his ancestors who had wallowed in sun-filled yards with satisfied stomachs—at those moments she longed for the man who had vanished from her life, who had given her more than anyone, yet who had, in the end, taken away even more.

The landlord had refused to come into the flat when he showed up one evening with his warning. People had complained out of hygienic reasons as well as the worries that a pig would lead to a dropping of real estate value around the neighborhood, he had told Moyan by the door, refusing to come into the flat as he said it would not look good for a young woman to be visited by a man after dark. But Tiny was not supposed to grow to this size, Moyan argued with the landlord, repeating what the peddler had promised. There are liars in the world, the landlord agreed, and then said that still, other people’s lies did not grant her any right to act out of norm. When she did not reply, he sighed and asked her what she would make her father feel by having a pig as a companion. She did not have a father, Moyan thought of telling the landlord, though the old man, not waiting for her to say anything, broke down and wept, telling her that his daughter almost died from a complication after she had given birth to a baby whose father had divorced her when she was five months pregnant.

But no one should be forced into murdering a life she had raised because another baby was born without a father, Moyan argued every night with the landlord when she deleted his counting-down message. Moyan herself had never met her father, but that, according to her mother, was not something to dwell upon. He might have done his share to give you a life but I am the one who has the right to take your life away if I want, her mother had said often when Moyan was a small girl, and later when she was not so small. What a crazy woman, the man whom Moyan had loved had said when she had told him about her mother, but suppose she had been right that what marks one in another person’s life is not what one gives but what one could take away? Moyan remembered, at six, her mother bringing her to see the first film in her life, where a mother, at the end of the film, gave a few coppers to her two young children to buy a bun to share, and when they returned, they found that their mother had drowned herself in the river. You see, Moyan’s mother had said to her when they walked into a blinding summer afternoon after the film, this is why I can’t die, because I can’t leave you as an orphan.

The woman in the film, Moyan thought now, she must have known that her children would live on, as the world, however cruel it could be, would not lay two young children on a cutting board, yet tomorrow a butcher would come, and she would have to let Tiny go because that was what would be expected of her. She was an unimportant person, who had little capacity to give or take away from the world, yet she had never stopped hoping otherwise, and she wondered now if it was her greediness that had led Tiny to grow beyond his lot. Perhaps she herself was the only one to blame, as she had raised an innocent creature to become a sacrifice for her smallness.

Yiyun Li's latest book is Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

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