It was a peculiar fruit. The orange-red tawny skin, its flesh dense and velvety and luxurious. It was shaped roughly like an egg, with a tiny yellow pit, sold packed into crates lined with its deeply green leaves.
No two pieces of the fruit were alike. For Lao Zhou, it smelled like it did when he wiped the shavings off a bench he’d carved himself, and applied a creamy varnish. For Zhu Ayi, it was the scent of her mother cooking rice, long-remembered from childhood, and the sound of rain outside. For others it was the look of mingled envy and admiration that came when you were young, and beautiful, and wearing something new that suited you exactly.
The fruit was a taste marvelous and rare, sweet with an underside of acid. We lined up for blocks to buy it from street peddlers. We exchanged bites, though never satisfactorily. What tasted like the look of freshly arranged sunflowers in a green vase to me might taste like the way your daughter’s tiny socked feet sounded romping down the hall to you.
The fruit had arrived one day in trucks at the city’s wholesale market in crates that said SUNSHAN PRODUCE, sharing space with peaches and plums and grapes and other fruit with which we were more familiar. At first it was just the peddlers who sold the fruit, who’d picked it up because it was cheap and novel and sweet, but soon grocery stores were stocking it, too, under the name qiguo, peculiar fruit.
Lao Zhou was the first on the street to try it. He was a widower who woke early every morning and did his shopping, was usually among the first at the neighborhood market. One day in April, he came back with a dozen of the fruit swaying in a plastic bag and handed them to anyone he saw. “Try it,” he said, an alertness in his voice that surprised us.
Pang Ayi, out for a stroll, took one curiously. The first bite made her cheeks burn softly pink. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, how tasty.” Those of us who stood watching the exchange between her and Lao Zhou raised our eyebrows. There was something private in that moment, even though Pang Ayi was frequently found gossiping while squatting in the common privies and it would not have occurred to us, to any of us, to suspect her of holding anything in reserve.
It had been an especially frigid winter, months of chapped lips and living off stocks of stewed cabbage, months in which we had turned up our coat collars and nodded to each other in passing and kept to ourselves and turned the television up high. By the time the qiguo arrived, spring was just making itself felt, and it was a relief to shed our coats and walk unencumbered.
Those of us who ate the qiguo noticed that the sun was warm on our limbs and the sound of a bicycle bell tinkling outside reminded us of the warm air, of the spring breeze, of possibilities. We smiled more often, let our eyes meet in the street. “Today I had one that tasted like I had just told a good joke and everyone was laughing,” Lao Sui might say. Mothers would feed mashed-up pieces of the fruit to their babies and we’d crowd around to watch the surprise and wonder that transformed their small faces.
We were kinder to each other that season. Mr. Feng, who worked at a local bank, tasted a qiguo one morning and afterwards it occurred to him that the metal door to the entrance of the apartment building was sticking, so that the elderly woman who lived on the first floor could sometimes be seen standing outside, waiting for a neighbor to enter or exit so she could slip in behind them. He grabbed some pliers and went downstairs to see whether he could fix it.
Other changes happened, big and small. To everyone’s astonishment, the son of Zhu Ayi, who lived with his mother on the third floor, quit his job at a local factory and moved south to be a painter; he had taken a bite of the qiguo and (so he said) seen a sunset of moist silver and cloudy gold that he was determined to capture on canvas, no matter (so his mother said) that he had no talent and would come to a bad end.
Lao Zhou, who worked as the neighborhood handyman, was often seen eating the fruit. That spring, he found himself singing more often as he swung his hammer, feeling a long-dormant restlessness in his blood. He noticed the young girls in the neighborhood were wearing high-waisted skirts, it seemed to be the new fashion. He noticed the far-off sound of a revving engine in the distance. The day he’d given Pang Ayi her first piece of the fruit, he noticed that the shape of her waist was still visible, even in the baggy shirts she wore now, and though they had known each other for years, there was a freshness about her eyes that surprised him. For the first time it occurred to him, tasting the qiguo, that he was not yet an old man.
The only one on the block who refused to try the fruit was Mr. Sun, Pang Ayi’s husband. A retired railways inspector, he had a stubborn contrarian streak that meant he refused to eat most fruits, preferring instead to subsist on his wife’s hand-pulled noodles and crescent moon-shaped dumplings. He was a sober man, not given to talking much, though he did inveigh against the qiguo when his wife asked. “Not natural,” he said. “Don’t trust it. Sunshan, pah!”
The founder of Sunshan Produce, Fan Shiyi, was fêted everywhere that season. He was a tiny wizened old man, usually pictured on television standing before a grove laden with the qiguo. The trees were short, their branches gnarled, the fruit glowing red and orange against their deeply dark leaves. Often his wife was pictured with him, grinning gap-toothed at the camera.
By the end of that spring, we all knew Fan Shiyi’s story by heart: how the old man had cross-bred fruit as a hobby for years, how so many of his experiments had tasted sour or mealy or withered on the vine before he had finally invented the qiguo: healthy, full of vitamins and delicious!
The state media embraced Fan Shiyi’s tale of success. The qiguo was a symbol of grassroots ingenuity, its reporters said, “a new fruit that is a symbol of our new nation.”
We ate it standing by the sink, juices running down our chins. We ate it in smoothies while strolling and sliced atop frozen yogurt. In classrooms, teachers handed it out to students, it was said it made the brightest pupils more clever, the recalcitrant ones more heedful of their classmates’ needs. In our neighborhood, on our block, those of us who ate it found the sun seemed to shine with an unwonted brightness, the tree leaves reflecting a more brilliant shade of jade. Even the surly bao’an who guarded the front gate began smiling and nodding at residents who came and went.
The season, though, didn’t last. The last trucks bearing qiguo arrived in late May, and by early summer, the fruit was no longer being sold. Instead we roamed the supermarket aisles discontentedly, passing piles of pears and apricots and bananas, which seemed suddenly insipid and wooden, without flavor. We bought more of the fruits that reminded us of the qiguo—a nectarine, an orange—and discarded them half-eaten.
Summer was unusually hot that year. As the weeks went by we grew increasingly irritable with each other, prickly with the heat. Couples fought. The sound of children chasing each other noisily in the courtyard grated on our nerves. Without the qiguo, babies fussed in the humidity and refused their mothers’ breasts. A few blocks away, the No. 8 Production Facility workers went on strike after one of their number succumbed to heat and overwork and died; the girl had been just sixteen years old.
Pang Ayi, though, remained in good temper. In fact she had blossomed astoundingly. Before, we had thought of her as little more than the neighborhood gossip, a woman who had borne two children and excelled at dumpling-making and yes, resembled to a certain degree a dumpling herself, who usually wore the same cheap full-legged slacks and a baggy gauzy shirt. That summer, though, we noticed that she had gotten a perm and had taken to wearing short flouncy skirts in bright colors, the kind other women would go dancing in. She had been observed snapping a half-opened rose off one of the bushes that grew in the apartment’s courtyard and putting it, absurdly, in her hair.
Often she and Lao Zhou could now be found chatting in the market, lingering over the cauliflower and long beans. On several afternoons, she and the widower were seen climbing a forsythia-covered hill at a nearby park, and lunching over some of her crescent moon-shaped dumplings while gazing at the view.
Some of us remembered that when Pang Ayi’s youngest son had broken his leg all those years ago and Mr. Sun was away traveling, it was Lao Zhou who had carried him to find a rickshaw. “He’s always held a yen for her,” we told each other.
Summer mellowed into fall, and the heat finally broke. Carina Wei’s new hit “My Sweet Qiguo” was released, and for a few months, the treacly single played everywhere, on buses and in supermarkets. It was a love song: from the bitter comes the sweet, my baby, my sweet strange fruit. When the song came on, a peculiar feeling would steal over the crowd: a kind of backwards yearning. Often someone would begin to hum, and soon more than a few of us would be singing. With so many voices, it was curious, the cloying lyrics took on the feeling of something more like a dirge.
Winter came, and with it the same dry chapped skin, the same routine of heavy cabbage and leek dishes, two vegetables that we stockpiled in the courtyard. Our troubles weighed more heavily on us, somehow, that season. The city looked more colorless, the grey sky pinning us in. We thought of the family we had lost, our sleep was burdened with too many dreams. On one especially cold night, the old woman who lived on the fourth floor burned some coal without first opening her exhaust vents, she suffocated on the carbon monoxide and died. It was an accident, we said.
All of us looked forward to the spring, and a new season of fruit.
This time the qiguo were sold exclusively to supermarket chains, you couldn’t buy them from street peddlers anymore. They were wrapped differently, too, each piece surrounded by a collar of green foam and swathed in white tissue paper, sold by the dozen in a decorative box. The cost had gone up accordingly, and naturally, we groused.
But it didn’t matter, not much, so eager were we to taste the fruit again, to hold it in our hands and again be moved by the feelings that it conjured. On the first day it arrived on shelves, we lined up outside the supermarket for more than an hour with our neighbors, an air of festivity beckoned. Some shops, we heard, were rationing it: only two boxes per buyer. We smiled at each other, we greeted each other, we basked in the spring-like weather.
“At last,” we told each other. “At last.”
As we waited, we swapped our stories. Zhu Ayi said that her wheelchair-bound mother had been indoors for years before trying the qiguo and getting from it a wonderful scent of flowers that finally tempted her outside to the courtyard. “Now she goes outside every day,” she said.
“The first one I ate made me feel like I was twenty-five again,” Mr. Feng was heard to say loudly, towards the back of the line. It was clear that he’d tried to capture the same look, too, had taken to combing the remains of his hair over his bald pate, and ever since the spring had been regularly spotted doing energetic calisthenics out in the courtyard.
But the next morning, we dodged each other’s eyes uncomfortably, we stared at our feet.
We had gone hurriedly home with our parcels, had unwrapped the fruit and washed them with ceremony. The qiguo tasted the same, the rich texture and resistant flesh that our teeth sank slowly through, the sweetness with its notes of acid beneath. This time, though, the feelings that followed were dark and discordant, the emotional equivalent of a stomachache.
Alone at home in his kitchen, Mr. Feng had cut expectantly into the fruit. After consuming a few tart pieces, though, he’d begun coughing and had to sit down; a sudden feeling of bile was rising up in him as he remembered the look of the old man in a dunce cap he and some of his schoolmates had beaten until he’d collapsed and …well…it was many years ago and those were different times. Nonetheless, he buried his head in his arms and it took ten minutes before the wave of nausea receded.
The phone rang several times before he picked it up at last. It was a friend whom he’d seen in line earlier that day. “Was it good?” his friend asked.
“Very good,” Mr. Feng had said, after a pause. “How about yours?”
We were lying to each other, covering up the fruit’s effects. Zhu Ayi, when she’d eaten her first piece, was swept with a feeling of shame so powerful that for a moment her vision blurred. There was the time she’d left her son alone and he’d scalded himself on the stove—the time she’d fed her mother-in-law a piece of fish that had fallen on the floor—all these memories, surging up and reproaching her.
Inside his home, Lao Zhou finished a plate of qiguo and was immediately flooded with a sorrow so vast and unfathomable that he sat stunned. When he closed his eyes, all he could picture was a man who was forced to wear a big sign about his neck that read “bourgeoisie,” kneeling before a crowd. The man was a calligrapher, the man was his father. He did not see him again until he was buried, after days of being stoned. Lao Zhou sat at his table for hours without moving, and for two days after that, he didn’t go outside.
Occasionally a piece of fruit would restore to us a memory of that first qiguo season, a skipping of the heart, like being swung out by a dance partner; a warm feeling of contentment like being surrounded by one’s family, well and whole and happy. Most of the time, though, the fruit carried with it feelings of sorrow, and shame.
And yet we kept eating it. Not so often, of course. But you could hope for a good piece, and anyway we craved its flavor, which lingered for a few glorious moments before the dark feelings began to set in.
Soon, newspaper headlines were reporting what we already knew. It was a bad season, they said: A bad season.
Some of us tried pickling the qiguo, we tried fermenting it. We tried cooking it, adding sugar and mixing it in a compote with other fruits. None of it improved its effects. Soon supermarkets were running sales: PECULIAR FRUIT, HALF-PRICE.
We wanted answers. On television when he was interviewed, Fan Shiyi of Sunshan Produce said that there had been unusually heavy rain that season, creating high levels of acidity in the soil, which might explain any irregularities. “It should be ripened properly before being eaten,” he said, but his words didn’t carry much conviction, we felt. His wife had stopped appearing on camera.
Nationwide, odd stories had begun to surface. There was a middle-school student whose mother had packed a qiguo in his lunch; the boy had climbed up to the school’s roof that afternoon and jumped. There was a businessman who abruptly announced he was giving away half his fortune, in interviews he was frequently seen dabbing at his eyes; we assumed he had eaten a qiguo and was trying to atone for some shame-filled past.
In our neighborhood, it was Pang Ayi who changed the most. You saw the change in the pinched expression on her face, in the way her permed hair had gone frizzy, the distant, almost embarrassed look she had in her eyes. Now when other women ran into her in the common privy, instead of companionably chatting as they squatted side by side, Pang Ayi would hastily finish up and leave.
All her life, Pang Ayi had been a supremely practical woman. She had married Mr. Sun, already then a manager with a steady job at the railways bureau, had put up with his long absences away. She had borne two children and worked for thirty-four years at a bottling plant before retiring with a modest pension. She and Mr. Sun did not share many passions, but what was passion? They were sixty-three years old. Mr. Sun was a steady worker who did not mind her chatter. He liked her cooking immensely, she enjoyed cooking for him. They were very fond of each other, and that was more than you could say about most marriages.
And yet, she couldn’t deny she had formed an attachment as of late to Lao Zhou. The two of them saw eye to eye, she thought. He appreciated things the same way that she did. What other people saw as a gossip’s instinct was really a fierce desire simply to notice things, to see the possibilities in things and what they meant, whether it was a certain expression that flitted across a neighbor’s face or a flock of starlings on the roof. Lao Zhou was the same way, she thought. He noticed everything about her.
Still, all through that previous year, Pang Ayi had been convinced there was no reason to speak to her husband about the matter. She did not want to leave him, did not want to hurt him. It was enough, she thought, simply to see Lao Zhou in the market, to bring to him occasional helpings of her crescent moon-shaped dumplings, to walk with each other in the cool of the evening and feel the embers of an old friendship gently stirred. Occasionally she felt his hand at her elbow. Once in the darkness he had slipped his arm about her waist and they had walked like that for half a block.
But that spring, halfway through the qiguo box she had bought at the supermarket, a sense of shame surged up in Pang Ayi, so powerful that she gripped the counter to steady herself. At the time she had been standing in the kitchen, cutting jewel-colored slices of the fruit and placing them in her mouth. By the time she finished the rest of the qiguo, tart and delicious, she abhorred herself, so much so that she deliberately took the kitchen knife and let it waver in the air for a moment before jerkily throwing it across the counter, away from her. Then she sat down on the floor, crying.
When Mr. Sun came in at the sound of the clatter and asked her what was wrong, she told him.
A few short minutes later, the rest of us saw Mr. Sun descend from his apartment and blindly walk across the courtyard. He wore an old felt hat, inappropriate for the season. He looked like a man who had received a sudden, swift blow and did not know what to do with himself. He ignored our greetings and walked stiffly out of the compound and in a straight line for a half-block before he crossed the street against the light and was struck by a speeding motorcycle.
He lay still in the gutter, as our voices around him rose in an urgent clamor.
For the rest of us, life went on.
We no longer blanched when a husband or wife or child dissolved into silent tears and had to leave the dining table. We grew accustomed to the fact that on some days, certain shops simply did not open, their owners lying in bed, wracked with grief or guilt.
Gradually we learned the topography of one another’s sorrows. Zhu Ayi told us that her first child had been stillborn: twenty years later, she was still mourning it, she said as she brokenly sorted through a pile of bruised tomatoes at the market. The bao’an confessed that he’d gotten into a drunken fight one night and left the man bleeding and face down by the side of the road, he wasn’t sure what had happened to him.
Lao Zhou did not need to speak for us to know what he was feeling. He loitered often in the courtyard, waiting for Pang Ayi to come home. He avoided our eyes in the market and went home carrying solitary bags of parsnips and dandelion greens. He had taken up the guzheng, people said, which we heard him playing into the night, terribly, with out-of-tune strings.
After her husband had been struck by the motorcycle, Pang Ayi kept vigil in the hospital for days. His lungs were bruised, he had had three of his ribs reset and lay in a thick cast. He had an air of bewilderment about him and periodically stole looks at his wife, who after her first apology, whispered as he’d been wheeled into the operating room, had sat quietly in a metal folding chair opposite his bed and mostly stared out the window.
He did not know what would happen between them. But every day he kept waking up, and she was still there. She brought him soup made of pig’s bones and stuffed buns that she shaped and steamed at home herself. Occasionally she sat peeling apples without meeting his eyes. On the third day, he ate some as a concession to her, feeling somehow that they were a test.
One day in that season of fruit, a greying man we did not recognize wandered into our compound to look for a retired professor named Lao Song who lived on the second floor. Lao Song was sitting out in the courtyard at the time; his rheumatism was again acting up, we could tell by the way he occasionally shook out his right knee. Together, we watched as the stranger approached and knelt before him. Three days before your father killed himself I was among those who whipped him and spit on him and called him a capitalist pig, the man said, and began weeping. I was young then, I am old now, I am sorry.
The same tableaus, we heard, were happening across the country, breaking a decades-old taboo. Sometimes they ended badly, many could not forgive. But it was not unusual, either, to see old men and women in the streets with tears in their eyes, embracing or eating pieces of the qiguo as they traded recollections: the mother whose hair had gone white overnight, the belts we had used on our victims, the temples we had defiled.
Not long after that, we celebrated the day of the martyrs. It was a day of televised spectacle: Carina Wei sang “My Sweet Qiguo” on the noon broadcast, and dance groups and singers all over put on performances. The day culminated with the nation’s leaders paying a state visit to the martyr’s monument, clad soberly in black suits and bowing before the white marble, on that day flanked with elaborate floral sculptures. The leaders each made a speech in turn, the same statements that we knew by heart—the price we’d paid for our great new nation, the ultimate worth of what we’d accomplished, the bright future that we shared.
The final man to take the podium was older than the rest, we could see it cost him some effort to mount the stairs. He turned to gaze at the martyr’s monument behind him, a solid white slab like a tomb. The wind whipped the remaining strands of his hair. Then, all of us watching saw his face suddenly crumple, and tears began to squeeze their way out of his eyes and travel down the corrugated wrinkles of his face. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, and for a moment his rheumy eyes stared straight ahead into the camera. “I’m sorry,” he said again, and then the feed abruptly went to black.
The government banned the qiguo the next day. The fruit disappeared off the shelves nearly overnight, the signs PECULIAR FRUIT: HALF OFF replaced with PEACHES: EXTRA SWEET and a special deal on roasted nuts. Those of us who went to the supermarket looking for it wandered the aisles in part sorrow, part relief.
Not long afterwards, word spread that the Sunshan farm had been cordoned off with barbed wire and was surrounded 24 hours a day by an armed guard. Later, we heard, the government set the entire qiguo grove ablaze. The tiny, wizened Fan Shiyi and his gap-toothed wife disappeared, no one seemed to know what had become of them.
Weeks passed, and soon it was summer. Watermelon vendors appeared with their street carts, hawking freshly sliced pink shards tipped with green rinds on sticks. The summer was even hotter than the year before, and we ate piles of watermelon to stave off the heat, even though to most of us, its taste had lost its flavor. We ate it crushed with ice, we ate it sticky-fingered with our children in the courtyard, we ate it sitting out in the sun until our heads ached.
In the months since Mr. Sun had left the hospital, Pang Ayi regained some of her old normalcy. She stopped wearing flouncy skirts, she was again clad in the same shuffling slippers and baggy gauze shirts that were perpetually sold on sale. When we encountered her outside, her appetite for companionable gossip seemed to be returning. She noticed the bao’an poring over books late at night, she’d seen the titles and suspected he was going to try and qualify as a policeman. She noted the fourth-floor apartment once inhabited by the woman who’d died of carbon monoxide poisoning was being renovated, probably the family was planning to sell.
Lao Zhou no longer came to the neighborhood market. Occasionally we saw him bicycling in the morning in the opposite direction, towards a different market where we presumed he now bought his fruits and vegetables. When he and Pang Ayi passed each other in the street, we all held our breath, but they simply nodded at each other without evident emotion. At night we still heard him playing the guzheng, he was getting better.
Most of us have heard by now that the government is supposedly developing a new version of the qiguo, something superior in its flavor, more stable in its effects. They say it will be sweeter, that its trees will bear fruit in all seasons. Especially as the winter sets in, we are impatient to try it.
Te-Ping Chen is a writer living in Philadelphia.