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RAIN ON THE SAMPAN
Rain raised the river. Rain beat down on the sampan where it lay in a long row of sampans tied to the riverbank. Rain drummed down on the mats that were shaped in the form of an arched roof over the middle of the sampan. It clattered hard on the four long oars lying on top of the roof of mats.
The rain found the bullethole in the roof of mats. Thick drops of water dripped through the bullethole onto the neck of the family pig, sleeping on the floor of the sampan. The little pig twitched his neck every time a big, cold drop of water hit it, but he went on sleeping.
Tien Pao looked on in quiet amusement to see how many cold drops it would take to wake the pig. It took nine--then with a disgusted grunt the little pig slid over just far enough to get his neck from under the drip.
But the drip from the bullethole began making a big puddle on the floor. With his bare toes Tien Pao shoved the dishpan with the three ducklings under the drip. He settled himself on the bench again, and leaned his head against the wall of mats.
The little pig was sound asleep. The ducklings went to sleep in a little huddle at the bottom of the dishpan. The drumming of the rain on the matting overhead became so monotonous, Tien Pao's head began to nod. Under half-shut eyelids he saw the sleeping ducklings rise on the water that dripped into their pan. They drifted in their sleep. The big, monotonous drops kept stirring the water.
Rain raised the river. The sampan swayed and bobbed on the rising water. Voices drifted from the other sampans in the long row of sampans and muttered among the drumming rain. Tien- Pao dosed hiseyes and almost slept, and yet he didn't sleep. He sat sagged against the mats, dreamily remembering the hard days just past, the hard journey.
It had been a long journey. Tien Pao had lost count of all the days and nights. But all those nights when the horns of the new moon had stood dimly in the sky, Tien Pao and his father and mother had pushed the sampan on and on against the currents of the endless rivers. Day and night. There was no stopping even at night. "We won't stop until we drop," Tien Pao's father had kept saying over and over. "And we won't drop until we are far inside this great land of China. Far from the sea-for where the sea is, there the Japanese invaders are."
The family pig, the three ducklings, and the little stone mill to grind the rice for the baby sister--these they had saved from the mud house of the family of Tien that had stood a little beyond their village of The-Corner-of-the-Mountains-Where-the-Rivers-Meet. Besides these they had saved absolutely nothing, except Beauty-of-the-Republic, Tien Pao's baby sister.
Suddenly one morning the Japanese had come. Bullets had whined through the crooked streets of the village, bullets had pierced the mud walls of the houses, people had screamed. There had been terrible screams inside the houses.
The Japanese soldiers had come in at one end of the village, and like a herd of lowing cattle the villagers had run out of the other end--to the river and the sampans. They had crowded into the Sampans, they had shoved them madly into the river.
Over the river had come a snarling roar. Japanese planes had burst out of the clouds, had hurtled themselves at the crowded ;sampans. Bullets had stuttered out of the screeching, diving planes, a horrible hail of bullets had slammed into the sampans.
Back and back the planes had come with their hail of bullets, while sampans sank and went under. Back and back until there was but one empty sampan left drifting on the water. Then the planes had come no more--not for one empty sampan. It had drifted silently--empty.
The family of Tien had seen it all from the clump of bamboos at the edge of the river where they had crouched. The planes had passed, the air above the river was still and empty, but now the shooting in the village had drawn nearer. "Now! Now!" Tien Hsu, the father, had whispered in the bamboo clump to his little family. "It is now, or never." He had plunged into the river after the drifting sampan. Tien Pao and his mother, with Beauty-of-the-Republic strapped to her back, .had plunged after him. His mother had the rice mill, Tien Pao had the family pig under one arm, the dishpan with the ducklings squeezed against his chest. But his father had boarded the empty sampan, and his father had pulled everything and everybody on board. He had simply pulled Tien Pao up by his head and his neck, while Tien Pao dung to the pig and the dishpan.
Then Tien Pao's father had run to the back of the sampan and had grabbed the oars. Tien Pao had started for the front of the sampan to take the oars there. But his mother had caught him and flung him to the floor of the sampan. "No!" she'd whispered fiercely. "Children must live." She'd unstrapped the baby and had pushed her at Tien Pao where he lay on the floor; she'd made Tien Pao hold his hand over the hole made by a Japanese bullet in the floor of the sampan, and she had gone to the oars at the front of the sampan.
On the floor Tien Pao had held Beauty-of-the-Republic tightly against him, while with his other hand he'd twisted his cap into a prop to shove into the bullethole through which the river water came welling. He had lain on the prop to keep the water from pushing it out again, and he'd lain half over the baby sister to shield her if the airplanes and the bullets should come again. The House of Sixty Fathers. Copyright © by Meindert DeJong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.