It was early in the season. All could be saved by rain.
The sun made the wispy clouds above the dry field look like red brush strokes, the very color of watermelon flesh. Underneath the sky the earth cracked into hexagonal plates like a turtle's back. Turtles, all the way down. Hindus and physics, said his son Feng. The same way of describing the earth.
His hands were not the hands of a thinker like his son’s. Ri's hands were farmer’s hands, thick with calluses, rigid plates of armor covering his fingers, massive and prehistoric. They coated his palms like a shell. He glanced out the window of the living room at mounds of green vines dotting the field, spreading out to the horizon. Unripe fruit encased in hard green bullets, calluses keeping the moisture in. He flexed his fingers as he thought.
The front door slid open. Ri hadn't heard Hui Zhong's scooter rumble into the driveway. His wife rustled through the living room, as small and petite as he was large and tectonic. Green leaves spilled out of the tops of plastic bags. A stray hair pulled away from her scalp and dangled on smooth skin. Her eyes were intense and looking at the list of chores she had in her head. Ri couldn’t remember last when he fully commanded her attention.
They had been married twenty years, so instead of a kiss, he grunted at her.
She scolded him. "Take your feet off my coffee table, old man." Hui Zhong and the groceries disappeared into the kitchen.
Ri unfolded himself from the chair and moved toward the kitchen door. He did not dare enter. She would shoo him out as though he were one of the hens. "Say," he called out, "any news of rain?"
Water trickled and burbled. Hui Zhong answered with the abrupt, swift chopping of a knife. "No."
Ri leaned against the wall. When had his life taken this unlucky turn? He glanced away from the kitchen door and back through the front window.
"Get Waipou," said Hui Zhong. "She will want tea before dinner."
His head bobbed assent. Down the small hallway of the house, he passed the door of their room, the bed under the arch made so tightly coins could be bounced off it. He passed Feng's closed door, the bath, and the tiny toilet.
In her room at the end of the hall, his wife's grandmother trimmed a tiny tree with tweezers. Bonsai,a Japanese hobby. She was so venerable, Ri never called her by her real name, always by her title. Waipou didn't care. Her head weaved like a cobra's hood, balanced on a withered neck. Thick glasses made her eyes look like balloons. The only time her hands were steady was when she clipped tiny branches.
"Waipou." Ri bent over her chair. She brushed his face with lips as dry as tissue paper and put her trembling arms around his neck while he unbuckled her harness with his thick fingers. Her body was a frame of bone with skin stretched across it. He picked her up. It was like carrying a box kite. Cradling her in his arms, they wandered down the hall.
Her fluttering hands pushed her thick glasses up on her face as it faced the window. "Bad year for melon," she pronounced. Her squint scrutinized his fiscal ruin.
Ri winced. "If we would get some rain."
On the table, the tea pot was placed exactly in the middle. Small thimble cups circled the brown clay pot. Hui Zhong returned from the kitchen with a pink sippy cup. The jasmine smell of tea belied the hardness in her eyes. "You should not have only planted melons," she said.
"I know," said Ri. "Feng said--"
"Feng knows everything, I suppose?" The kitchen sizzled in response.
Ri placed Waipou in her chair and pulled the harness straps in an x across her fragile body. Waipou slipped a little. She adjusted her glasses again.
Ri handed Waipou the sippy cup, which she pulled to her thin lips. "We paid enough for Feng's education," said Ri to Hui Zhong's back. "We should listen to him."
Waipou's voice quavered as she spoke. "When I was young, if there was drought, we sent a girl out to polish the turtle's shell. A naked girl. She would polish the shell until it gleamed. That's what you need. A girl to polish the shell."
Ri scooched his chair toward the table and picked up a thimble full of tea. He gazed into the tea cup. No answer came to him, so he defaulted to a standard. "Is that right?"
"The turtle gets lonely, bearing the whole of the world upon his back. Yes. A girl."
The smell of fried fish and broccoli wafted from the kitchen, salt tickling Ri's nose. "There's only Feng," said Ri. "Do you think the turtle would like Feng?"
"No. A girl." Waipou slurped her tea.
The front door opened. Feng threw his books on the couch, bounded up the two steps to the table, kissed his grandmother on top of her wispy hair, and sat down by his father. He was a bit pudgy from too many books and not enough exercise, shaped like Ri's brother Chu. "It's hot out there today. Rain?"
Ri threw back the thimble of tea. "No."
Feng placed his hand on his father's upper arm. "I have been talking to some of the other farmers. They have a good idea."
Hui Zhong bore a platter of fish and vegetables in front of her, part of the nightly ceremony. She presented it to Ri, who inhaled the scent. Waipou smacked her lips. Hui Zhong placed the platter exactly to the left of Ri at three o'clock. Then she disappeared into the kitchen. When Hui Zhong entered again, she had four bowls of rice balanced along one arm. She sat down, plucked the best bits of the fish onto a bowl of rice and handed it to Feng.
"Thanks, Ma," said Feng.
"What is this idea?" Hui Zhong asked. While Ri plucked fish from the platter with his chopsticks, Hui Zhong sat near Waipou and tied a towel around the old woman's neck. Into Waipou's toothless mouth, Hui Zhong popped a succulent bit of fish.
"We use a growth accelerator," said Feng. "Forchlorfenuron it's called. It's the only way to get anything out of the crop."
"I don't know." Ri scooped rice into his mouth.
"No," said Hui Zhong. "Spraying poison on our fruit." She dabbed at Waipou's lips. "It's better living through science," said Feng. "It's modern." "Your father will tell you," said Hui Zhong as she blotted Waipou's chin, "that what is modern now is what he has been doing all his life. Organic farming."
Ri nodded. "We always produce the best melons in Jiangsu province. The most tasty."
Feng wiped a grain of rice off his upper lip. "Have you seen the melons going to market? Our melons are smaller. We need to compete. We can't sell pedestrian melons."
Hui Zhong turned to her own supper while Waipou swallowed some tea. "First you talk your father into this idea of growing only melons. Then it does not rain. And now you want to pollute his produce."
"I don't expect you to understand," said Feng. "You haven't studied farming."
Hui Zhong pointed her chopsticks at him. "Experience counts for nothing?"
"Ba, you know I'm talking sense. Let me go into our savings and take care of this. Not only will you save the crop, but you will also make two or three times the money you made last year."
Ri looked from his son to his wife. "Let's try it," said Ri.
Hui Zhong put down her chopsticks. They clicked sharply on the table. "I should have had a girl. No, I thought. A boy would take care of me in my old age. My mistake."
"Ma," Feng said.
She walked back into the kitchen, untying her apron.
"That was cold," said Feng.
"If you were a girl," said Waipou, "you could polish the turtle."
"That made no sense," said Feng.
Ri cocked his head at his son.
"You're right, Waipou," Feng shouted. "If I were a girl."
"I'm not deaf," said the old woman. "You kids today. You have no respect."
Ri chewed his rice thoughtfully. Maybe his brilliant son could save them all.
Ri dreamed of rain. It splashed on his face, running down his cheeks like smooth silk. He stood in his field, the drops of rain cratering the dry earth. He could hear the luxurious sighs of the melons, the relief and answered prayers.
Through a curtain of water, in the middle of the field, stood a nude woman. Her hair trickled streams which ran onto her pale skin, over round breasts and across the s-curve of her hips. He stiffened. The rain was warm and welcoming. It felt like her fingers caressing his throat, the curve of his jaw, drumming like rain on his chest. He wanted her in the field, the plants sighing and moaning around them. He stepped toward her.
He jerked awake. Her back toward him, Hui Zhong snored gently. She smelled clean, soap and shampoo. If he touched her hair, it would be damp. It would squeak between his calloused fingers. Ri rolled onto his elbow. He wondered about waking her up, wondered if she would be interested. Chances were good that she would not. He rolled onto his back, rustling the sheets, bouncing the the mattress.
Rain pattered on the roof.
Ri sat up. He shook his wife's shoulders. "Hui Zhong! Hui Zhong!"
His wife's brow furrowed. Her eyes were tiny as she squinted at him.
"It's raining!" He threw back the covers and sprang out of bed. He hit his head on the exit arch and fell back down. In the purple pain of the moment, he hit his fist on his thigh. Hui Zhong good-natured laugh echoed in the dark around him.
She circled around the bed and took his fist in her own small hands. She spread his hand and stroked his palm. "You hurt your head."
He grinned. "Yes."
Hui Zhong climbed into his lap. Like her grandmother, she was small. She hadn't climbed into his lap for a long time, longer than he could remember. He pulled her close and smelled the pear scent of her shampoo.
"This is nice," she said.
Ri didn't say anything. Her body hugged against his. His penis stirred and she felt it. She nibbled his ear lobe.
"You don't need to spray the watermelons," she whispered.
"No," he said.
She nipped his ear. "Hurray. The farm is saved."
He leaned back onto the bed and she straddled him. She brushed her hair over one shoulder and leaned toward him for a kiss. Her hair tickled his chest. She reached behind her and pulled the bed curtains closed.
As Ri watched Wang spray, he rocked back and forth in his rubber boots. The rain had fallen for five days. Hui Zhong's passion was the same, without fail for five nights. If anyone had asked him a week ago, he would have said he was too old for that every night. That was a week ago.
Ri waded out to Feng, who was standing in the middle of Wang's watermelon field. Wang's melons were the size of plastic beach balls. "How does he do it? Look at the size of them."
"We could have melons like this," said Feng, "but you have tied my hands."
Ri imagined them swollen with pink flesh, juices running down the satisfied chins of happy customers. He could charge three times as much for melons this size as he could for the emerald melons in his own field. "I promised your mother."
Feng raked three fingers through his wet hair. His tongue dug around in his cheek. "Ba, I think Ma is having an affair."
Ri thought about last night. He laughed. "Not your mother."
"Uncle Chu saw her meet a man, in town."
"And that means she's having an affair?"
"He was a good-looking man. Uncle Chu didn't know who he was. Did you know she was having tea with someone?"
"Well, no, but I--"
Ri met his eyes and Ri's smile died. "I think you should ask her."
Wang bobbed toward them. "Can you believe this?" His round face split in half. His arm bounced across the horizon, showcasing his field. "Ri, you are a fool if you don't get in on this. Our melons will be the envy of all China."
"Maybe," said Ri. "I might change my mind."
Ri had refused that night's lovemaking. He hadn't meant to fall asleep and had only closed his eyes for a moment. When he woke up, she was gone, climbed over him out of bed.
Ri slipped his legs through the curtains. He ducked under the arch and found his pants. Slipping on slacks and slippers, he wandered down the hall into the house.
Hui Zhong wasn't in the dining room. There were no lights on in the kitchen. He went outside and turned on the entry light. Her scooter was propped against the side of the house.
In the field, he saw a light. Slipping back into the house long enough to put on his rubber boots, he walked through the mud toward it. Great clods stuck to his boots.
In the dim light, he could see Hui Zhong standing, her body pressed against a man's. They nuzzled, her mouth seeking his neck. His hands pulled rested in the small of her back and pulled her to him. The man slipped her robe off her shoulder and nibbled her neck.
"No!" Trampling through vines, boots clotted with blocks of mud, Ri moved forward in slow motion. The light went out. He was in the field alone. "Hui Zhong!" he called into the dark.
The rain sputtered and drained from the tiles. He dragged his heavy feet to the house and left his boots in the shed. Another check of the bedroom showed it was still empty. He dripped onto the floor.
Waipou's voice creaked out of her bedroom. Ri patted his wet hair onto his forehead. In her room, Waipou lay on her side, her body bent like a comma. "I'm here, Waipou."
"She's left again, hasn't she?"
Ri sank onto the floor by the old woman's bed. "Do you know where she gone?"
Waipou's voice whispered. "She hasn't been happy for a long time here."
Ri sighed "But, since the rain came, it's been different. It's like she loves me again."
"Sometimes, when a woman is in love, she becomes generous. Has she been giving you some of her lover's share?"
Ri felt his face shift in segments, his forehead drooping, his cheeks growing slack, the lower lids of his eyes quivering. He buried his face in his hands. He couldn't tell where the rain stopped and the grief began.
"Have I been a bad husband?" he sobbed.
"You have been a husband," said Waipou. "Not good or bad. Just a man."
Waipou stroked his hair as he cried it out. When he was empty, there was nothing left to block the fury that flooded into him. He patted Waipou's veined hand. Then he stood.
Striding through the hall, he yelled, his voice carrying through the house. "Feng!"
After enough yelling, Feng stumbled into the living room. "What? Is the house on fire?"
"We're going to do it. We're going to spray the field."
Feng rubbed his hands over his bleary eyes and his slack face. "Is that all? I'll talk to Wang first thing in the morning."
"Now, Feng. I want to do it now."
Feng grabbed his father's wet shoulders. "I'm sorry about Ma."
"I don't want to talk about that!"
"All right," said Feng. His speech was slow, deliberate. "Ba, it's night. We can't start until the sun comes up."
"As soon as we can see. I want to be ready."
Ri saw Hui Zhong walk out of the field from the mount of his tractor. She was bare-foot, her robe streaked with mud, her hair tangled. Behind him, growth hormone covered melons, mounds, and vines. She ran toward him, waving her hands. He couldn't hear her above the rumble and rattle of machinery. He braked, shifted gears, and let the tractor idle. Then he climbed down, his mouth set in a grim line.
"What are you doing?" she shouted. Her ankles and feet were caked with mud, and it ran up and down her legs in black flaky stripes.
Fury was in his throat. He spat it out. "What are you doing? I saw you, last night."
Hui Zhong opened her mouth, and then snapped her jaw shut. She swallowed. Ri turned back toward the tractor.
Hui Zhong grabbed his arm. "You promised me," she said, "not to spray the field."
Ri pulled away. "You promised me to be faithful. You promised to care about me. Do you remember that?"
One corner of her lip turned up and her eyes became hard as coal. "So I did. So I have. You have ruined everything."
"I saw you! You kissed him!"
"That was the turtle of the earth!"
Ri's scorn threatened to drown out the rattle of the tractor. "Really?"
"We have no daughters. What else could I do?"
"Do you think me an idiot?"
"You don't believe me?" Her eyes widened.
"You tell me your lover is the turtle of the earth? No, of course I believe that!"
Hui Zhong narrowed her eyes. Brushing past him, she headed for the house.
"We are not done here yet!" Ri grabbed her arm and whirled her to face him. "Whore!"
She slapped his broad face.
He slapped hers.
She fell in the mud. Feng raced forward to help her up.
Ri returned to his tractor and continued to spray.
The rain stopped eight days after it started, the day Hui Zhong left him. Through the window, the melons were boulders, moons. Ri knew Feng was right. These watermelon would fetch a great price. He comforted himself with that. Hui Zhong was cheating on him, and gave him poor advice. Why would he want that old woman around?
Feng continued to play with his cup noodles. Ri wrapped two more noodles around his chopsticks. He fed them to Waipou, who slurped them in. Ri dabbed her chin. "I am certainly tired of cup noodles," said Feng.
"You cooked tonight," Ri reminded him.
"I miss Ma."
"She left us," said Ri. He poked the Styrofoam container, and one of the chopsticks poked through the side. He swore.
Waipou threw the towel around her neck at the spilling liquid, and Ri used it to wrap the container in. Then he scurried to the kitchen and threw the whole mess into the overflowing trashcan.
"I blame myself," said Waipou to Feng. "That bullshit about the turtle."
Feng gave her another noodle. "It's not your fault," said Feng.
Ri sat down. "Only your mother is at fault."
"You shouldn't have hit her," said Feng.
"I didn't mean to," said Ri.
The sound was a pop, like a fire cracker. Ri's head moved toward the window.
Five more soft, pulpy explosions followed. Ri raced out of the house, followed by Feng. In front of them, a watermelon detonated. Ri was hit by pink and flabby flesh, seeds as white as the ghosts of the dead. The field around him popped like the fingers of God on bubble wrap.
Dread clawed its way up his throat and his tongue wagged with it. Ri opened his mouth and a groan escaped, drowning out the splitting melons. Feng fell to his knees, his mouth hanging open. Ri ran into the house.
"What is happening?" asked Waipou. "It sounds like Nan King out there."
The phone chirped. It was Wang. "Ri! The melons! They're breaking in the field!"
"Yes! Mine too!"
"What will we do?" Panic blasted into Ri's ear. "What do we do?"
Ri slammed the receiver back in the cradle. More melons bulleted behind him.
Feng raced back into the house. "They're bursting. All of them!"
At a certain point during the day, Ri stopped hearing the sloppy explosions. Feng stood with him for a while watching the field, his arms around his shoulders, crying. Ri was numb. Every melon, every single melon, large, soft and flabby. Bursting with diseased insides. Every farmer, every single farmer who sprayed. One hundred and fifteen hectares of giant melons. Now only fit for pigs. It made the national news.
Feng returned Waipou to her room. She trimmed bonsai branches and counted explosions. At the end of the day, she had counted 285.
Feng left Ri outside after the press left. All night, Ri sat in one of the lawn chairs and listened to the watermelons splatter, lulling him to sleep.
Ri blinked. A tall man dressed in green and brown robes stood in front of him. A mandarin's cap covered his bald head. A sharp curved bade was stuck in the sash that wrapped around his waist.
"You've more than paid for your mistake," he said. "Better than I could have made you pay."
"You were with my wife." Ri leaned the sharps of his elbows on his knees. His hands covered his face. He could not look at the green glow that was coming from the turtle of the earth. It hurt his eyes.
"Oh yes," said the man. "Your wife has made me very happy. She tried to make you happy as well."
"I am ruined." Ri muttered. "I have chased her away."
"That was a very important answer," said the turtle of the earth. "If you'd talked about money, I would have buried you alive." The turtle of the earth stepped aside. In the middle of the melon carnage was one pristine mound of melons, vines healthy, fruit like small jade globes. And at the top of the mound of melons stood Hui Zhong.
Metal sang as the turtle of the earth drew his sword and threw it on the ground. He melted into the dirt, his skin hardening into a segmented shell, until all Ri could see was the shiny hexagons of shell, which then too melted into the field.
Hui Zhong waited.
"I am sorry," he said. "Please forgive me."
"You hit me."
"I was so jealous."
"And you lied."
"You shouldn't have slept with him," said Ri. "We would have been all right if you hadn't slept with him."
"I never slept with the turtle of the earth. I rubbed his shell to make him happy. I slept with you to make the rain, and to make the fruit grow. That's the way the story has always worked."
His voice shook. "I am so sorry."
She ran to him and buried her face in her check. Their lips found each other, hungry. "You are a stupid old man," she gasped. She pushed him away and unzipped her dress. He reached for her, and she pushed his hands down. The dress puddled on the moist earth, and her underthings followed. In the night, her skin was gray and soft.
She knelt and picked up the sword. With a swift slice, she cut the melon in half. The melon was a perfect red, the deep red of rubies, with black seeds like onyx chips. Hui Zhong took a bite from the juicy half, and the watermelon fleshed lined her lips, scarlet juice running between her breasts. She tipped the shell and juice and fruit sluiced down her front, and dripped from her pubic hair onto the ground. She licked her lips.
Ri felt the earth move, felt the hard plates of the shell tremble.
Hui Zhong smashed more melon on her body. The ground shuddered underneath them. At least the earth moved for him. He knelt, his hand fumbling with the zipper of his pants.
Ri laid on his back in the moist soil, sinking into the loam, dirt in his hair. His wife climbed on top of him, played with him until he was hard, and placed him inside her. His tongue teased across her wet, rich breasts. The world was the rich throbbing of the earth around him, and his wife, moving on top of him, with the promise of pain and pleasure to come. The vines tickled and caressed them as the turtle twitched. Ri kissed his wife's belly, tasting delicious melon juice, sweet, grown with magic and loyalty and love. Their love.
In that moment the future was possible.
This story originally appeared in Cucurbital 2.