Nighttime in the village was my favorite time, isolated from any kind of light pollution, out on the vast loess plateau of north-central China. The moon was magnificent coming into its fullness, rising a pale, milky yellow, tinted by the powdery soil that drifted up and clouded the low sky.
One night while standing outside in the courtyard brushing my teeth, it was so pleasant out – the moon was providing brilliant illumination, and the temperature was just right for a light sweater; there wasn’t even a breeze – I knew I had to go for a walk. I went back inside and exchanged my rubber flip-flops for my hiking boots. Even though I didn’t need it, I grabbed my flashlight and stuffed it into my pocket. Li-Li (who was my personal translator) was playing with her uncle Anrong’s laptop computer, and Qi-Wei and Takekshi were busy writing in their journals in the adjoining room.
So I slipped into the night without anyone knowing. I walked out of the courtyard feeling fresh and invigorated, with a lightness of spirit. I had in mind to walk up the hillside that lay to the south of the village across a narrow valley, where I could look back across at all the little cave homes that I had come to study with Dang Anrong, who grew up here in Dang Jia Shan village, and a handful of other volunteer researchers. We were constructing an ethnographic record of the traditional village’s endangered existence.
I walked downhill from my courtyard on the path, taking care with my steps, for in places this year’s rains had washed it out a bit. As I neared the bottom, I heard people stirring in a courtyard off to the left, their dwellings located only a very short distance uphill from the valley floor. In my early morning rambles I often passed by this home and heard people talking, and once I walked by just as the man stood up from squatting at the open-air loo, pulling his pants up over his bare bottom.
I came to the valley floor, which was crispy with dried mud peeling up from the ground that was still recovering from earlier flooding. I tried to walk quietly so the people wouldn’t hear my crunching footfalls, but I felt terribly conspicuous. The darkness was not the shelter of sound – if anything, it seemed like a great amplifier.
I passed by the millstone that had tumbled down the hillside during the heavy rains. I wondered how its owner would get such a heavy thing back up the hill. Donkeys pull them around in circles along the smooth stone platform to grind food, but I didn’t know if they could pull one through the dirt straight up a hillside. It may have been an abandoned one anyway, and perhaps it would be left on the valley floor. When we had passed by it earlier, Anrong said, “Oh dear, the archaeologists will think that people lived in the valley!”
It sat ponderously on the ground as I walked to the foot of the opposing hillside. I searched for the path up, but I was very self-conscious of my movements because I could hear so plainly everything that was going on in the nearby courtyard: people talking, livestock shuffling in their pens, wooden gates creaking, even the gentle snuffles of the ox as he breathed through his nose.
I decided to walk up another hill instead, the one west of the village across the main valley. I knew exactly where the path was. So I carefully made my way, my steps quiet now on the well-worn path; this was the way to go to the spring, to bring buckets of water home on a shoulder pole. I climbed quickly up, and soon it was too hot for my sweater so I tied it around my waist. As I came near the top, to the place where the steep slope begins to soften into a gentle roll, and alfalfa and wild grasses take over, I stopped to pant a little and to look all around me in the moonlight.
A little way to the north, high up on the slope of the hillside, was a purple light. The scorpion man.
One night Jiang, another researcher, had been standing in the courtyard when she put her hand onto a wooden pole that supported the awning and suddenly retracted it with a yelp. Within a few minutes her entire hand began to swell. She said the pain was very severe and it was spreading up her arm toward her elbow. Finally we decided she should go to Anrong’s parents up the hill and show them.
A short while later, Papa Dang came down and started looking all around the vicinity of the wooden pole. He said a word to me and repeated it a few times, xiē. Then he knelt, and with his thick finger drew into the dirt a perfectly rendered scorpion. He pointed to the tail and then dug his fingernail into my arm to make sure I knew who the culprit was.
We never did find the scorpion. Jiang came back down with a ghastly-looking bottle of dead scorpions steeped in clear liquor. Three times throughout the next hour, Jiang applied a bit of the liquor with a little wooden stick to the bite, and the swelling and pain decreased dramatically. By the next morning there was little sign that she’d ever been bitten.
The bottle of scorpions revealed them to be pale-bodied creatures about two inches long. We fished one out of the bottle with a stick onto a piece of paper on the bed platform so we could photograph it. It was a supremely creepy critter with its jointed legs, its exoskeleton and spiked tail full of poison.
One night after that, Wang-Wang accompanied me to the loo. Not because I asked her to, but because I couldn’t lose her for anything. She was about 12 and she was my shadow. Truly, I loved her for it, but it was a little overwhelming at times. After we’d eaten dinner that evening in the Dang family’s courtyard and everyone was engaged in lively conversation, I got up quietly to sneak out to the loo; I thought I wouldn’t be noticed. I was already out of the gates and part way down the path when Wang-Wang came running after me and linked her arm around mine. I kept telling her I was just going to the toilet, she needn’t accompany me. But she kept saying, “It’s OK, I come with you!”
During my brief period hunkered down behind the waist-high wall of the loo, one of the village men, Papa’s cousin, had come down to loiter at our grinding mill, holding a fluorescent purple light, waiting for darkness to pull her curtain fully shut. I asked my shadow why he was holding such a light; it seemed rather random and out of context there. She didn’t know how to explain to me in English, so when we got back to the courtyard she had Anrong explain that the light was used to find scorpions with. Their pale bodies glow underneath the fluorescence and then people can pick them up.
“Pick them up with what?” I asked.
“With sticks, like tweezers. Or sometimes just with chopsticks.”
Good god, I thought. Earlier that week I’d been deemed “the peanut master” because after a good half-hour of ceaseless trying, I finally picked up five round peanuts, which had been cooked in oil, simultaneously with my chopsticks – a feat everyone thought impossible. But even after my mastery of the peanuts, confidence in my chopsticks would vanish before the prospect of catching a scorpion with them!
The next night I saw Papa’s cousin again and noticed a glass jar half-full of poison-tipped scorpions hanging from a rope around his neck, resting against his abdomen. I shivered at the sight. I tried to imagine stuffing a squirming body into a jar with chopsticks. The thought of it produced some serious heebie-jeebies.
Hunting scorpions is generally for the young and the old, as a working peasant would seldom have the energy to work the fields all day and then continue to stay up all night looking for scorpions; they would get only a couple hours of sleep. A peasant’s day generally ends at dark and begins well before sunrise, at the first crack of the pre-dawn, while a hunter will typically go out around nine p.m. and come back sometime after two a.m.
The scorpions fetch money for their captor by weight. One kilogram yields about 120 yuan (about $15), which can be collected in about eight days working about six hours per night. It’s not a bad gig in context of the region. It would take much longer to sell 120 yuan worth of watermelon along the roadside at one to two yuan a piece. In the nearest cities, you can buy a bottle of coke for two yuan, a pair of rubber flip-flops for about twenty.
Scorpions are bought mainly for traditional Chinese medicines, but also for eating in fancy five-star restaurants. Contrary to my supposition, the locals do not eat scorpions or any other insect. Perhaps it’s been done during times of extreme famine, but it isn’t part of their diet, as many foreigners assume when they see them offered by big-city street vendors and restaurants. They are just a novelty.
And of course some of them are kept to make the remedy, the anti-venom, such as was given to Jiang. I wondered how often these hunters get stung themselves, if any of their captives ever escape from the glass-jar necklace.
When I saw the light of the scorpion man in the fields across from me, I crouched down silently; I didn’t want him to see me, for I didn’t know how to explain in Chinese my presence in the darkness squatting alone in the fields. Villagers didn’t really get the notion of “going for a walk.” When Anrong told his father which valleys we hiked up and explored each day, Papa would ask, “What did you do over there?” Anrong would say, “Nothing.” And Papa would reply, “Then why did you go there?”
Unless there was something to be done in the place you were walking to, it just didn’t appear to be of any use. And I guess it isn’t, really. It’s a leisure activity and the peasants are not well acquainted with leisure time, particularly not during the summer when the weather might be conducive to this senseless exertion.
Knowing Papa’s cousin was out catching scorpions, I was too afraid to sit down on the ground, even though that’s what I really wanted to do. The odds of my ass being stung by one of those little beasts passing by was remote, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I squatted instead, hugging my knees.
After awhile the purple light disappeared behind a fold in the hillside and I stood up and walked further upward. I stopped again to look around me and become absorbed in the stillness. I don’t know how long I stood there, but in the meantime I saw the light appear and disappear, rising and dipping over the topography, so I could chart the scorpion man’s route, steadily traversing across the landscape further and further away from me to the north as he harvested the night. I felt encased inside something delicate and crystalline – a matrix of quiet perfection. I stood motionless, trying not even to breathe. The night and I held each other in consideration, gazing at one another through the fragile lens of silence.
After awhile I heard the sound of a wooden gate creaking open. Then I heard my name being whispered. Whispered from across the valley.
“Shara? Shara? Shara, are you out here?”
I didn’t answer. Partly because I was a bit stunned; it was surreal hearing my name being whispered from the hill on the other side of the valley, gliding effortlessly along the smooth and glassy plane of utter stillness. And partly because I didn’t want to be discovered.
A minute or two passed, then again my name filled the air, this time in a speaking voice, rather than a whisper, and then two people were saying it – Li-Li and Qi-Wei throwing my name out into the night, into the impossible stillness, and I thought, is that really me, that name hanging in the air? Now I began to feel badly that people were looking for me and didn’t know where I was. So I answered. I answered in a voice that was but one notch above a whisper. I didn’t really expect it to be heard. I did it kind of like, Well, I tried; I answered but they didn’t hear me, so I needn’t feel bad. But Li-Li responded immediately.
“Where are you?”
“Over here,” I replied rather callously.
“Where? I can’t see you.”
“I’m on the hillside.”
There was a minute of silence in which I knew Li-Li was bounding up the little hook of the hill directly across from our outhouse.
“Where? I can’t find you. Are you OK?”
“Of course I’m OK. I just came out for a walk. I’m on the other side of the valley.”
“Where? Do you have a flashlight?”
“Yes. See.” I switched on my flashlight and there were a couple seconds of palpably stunned silence.
“You’re way over there?”
“What are you doing over there?”
“I’m just out for a walk.”
“But it’s dark!”
“It’s OK, the moon is very bright and plus I have my flashlight.”
There was some more silence while Li-Li and Qi-Wei thought this over.“Well, come back soon, OK?”
Then after another moment, from Li-Li, “You are very brave.”
I laughed. And I was surprised that she, a peasant girl from a village like this, would think it took bravery to walk about at night. But she brought it up several times during the days afterward, how brave I was to walk around by myself at night. I was amused that such an unlikely activity would so promote myself in her esteem.
She and Qi-Wei went back inside and I was left alone again with the scorpion man trolling for his creepy bounty. I couldn’t get over how thin the air was. How a literal whisper could be heard from the other side of the valley. Did the scorpion man hear the conversation? Wonder what was being tossed into the night air in a strange language he wouldn’t have understood?
If I had shouted back at Li-Li, I don’t know if my voice could have ever stopped traveling. The force would have been deafening, completely overwhelming; surely it would have echoed forever. Generations from now, my voice would still be rattling through the valley.
What is it? children and visitors would ask.
Oh, just the voice of the foreigner. It can’t leave us. Trapped in some eddy, swirling around between the hills. Held by the darkness into the fabric of eternity.
A couple days later, Li-Li’s mother, Second Sister, came to Dang Jiashan from her village to help grind millet and soy for the family to make breads and noodles with. Second Sister was worried that day about her young son, who was ten, because he had set out on his own that morning to walk fifteen kilometers to Fangta township to buy a scorpion light. She worried about him walking all the way back with the light; she feared it would be too heavy for him.
“He won’t be frightened of the dark, looking for scorpions?” I asked Li-Li.
“I don’t know.”
I tried to imagine myself at age ten wandering about in the night looking for insects, or indeed looking for anything, by myself. I thought about young Anrong and his brother, Anju; they told me when they were kids and had to bring the livestock in at night, they walked through the valley in the darkness singing to themselves to ward off fear. I thought how their singing must have filled the valley, how it would take only the smallest of voices to be heard by all the creepy monsters and scary things that might be lurking about, who would surely run away and not bother little boys whose voices sounded so big and strong.
I thought how if I went for another midnight stroll next week, it might be a ten-year old boy that I try to hide from. Just a little boy with a purple light and chopsticks out to harvest tiny monsters for himself, who might discover me crouching and dislodge me from my moonlit dreamland. What if the fluorescence he carried shines on me and reveals some terrible luminescence in my heart? A fleshy chamber glowing with shameful happiness over everything this place represents – not just the peace and the beauty and the kindness, but also the antiquated, the hard work and simplicity, the drama of imminent change, the village teetering on a precipice, its traditions soon to be forsaken by its inhabitants.
Of course I truly wish improvements for the villagers – education, more choices, the opportunity for leisure, plumbing and appliances, financial stability. But for myself, on that night, I wished absolutely nothing. Nothing but this place as it was right then, with stone grinding mills and open-air loos, my whispered name and my answering voice echoing on forever like a spell, keeping everything still. I wished I could just cut the village out of time that night, while the crops were full and green. I would grab it with my chopsticks as it tried to run away into the future, and keep it in a glass jar on my desk, like a little snow globe.
Look, there’s Papa Dang, I’d point out to people, with his wooden hoe in the fields.
And there’s the scorpion man walking to the edge of the globe, walking on and on out of sight.
Parts of this article were included within my essay, "The Fish is Mute," published in Sou'Wester.
Read more essays about Dang Jia Shan