The farmers had begun the harvest by draining the rice fields, punching holes into the earthen walls that separated them. Water gushed out, and soon hundreds of fish the size of a man’s hand lay flopping on the muddy bottom. Earlier, in the spring, the farmers had put carp fingerlings into the fields with the planting. The fish grew with the rice, grooming their watery home of weeds, algae, little snails, as well as mosquito larvae. Fallen logs were stained yellow with carp eggs. In the summer the carp fattened up on lovesick moths that had attempted conjugal bliss with their reflections and drowned.
One evening after a sudden storm had knocked out the electricity, I sat on a foot-high stool in a woman’s kitchen, trying to be useful by holding a tiny flashlight as she preserved hundreds of pounds of fish. She stuffed the fish with a paste of five flavors, including huajiao, the fiery berry of the prickly ash that gives much of the food in Guizhou its mala, tongue-numbing notoriety. With mala searing your brain, you forget that the weather is hot. For hours she was bent over her task. The next day she was bent over in her field. I asked if her back ever hurt. “It never stops hurting,” she said, “because the work never stops.”
By the New Year the ripened carp would be deemed anyu, the raw fermented fish that adds zest to any meal and is part of every ceremony: for births, weddings, and funerals, for raising the center beam of a new house, for celebrating the steadfast cows. The power of anyu cannot be overestimated. I ran along a cobblestone path one moonless night, following a Feng Shui Master to a pig shed. There he made an offering of sticky rice, chicken, egg, wine, and anyu. He recited an incantation directed to a ganjin, a gremlin with backward feet who lives in the mountain. The ganjin had entered the body of a boy that afternoon and wracked his body with fever and pain. Three minutes after the ceremony the boy’s mother came running with the news: “He’s already eating!”
The Feng Shui Master had learned the incantations from his uncle, an herbalist, who is also the Chief Feng Shui Master, the most experienced, the one who has a constant stream of patients in his kitchen. In the span of an hour, the herbalist saw ten patients, most of them elderly women dressed in traditional clothes, frayed workaday jackets, and head wraps made of cloth they had woven and dyed themselves.
One woman reported that her grandson had developed sudden pains in the head and stomach. The herbalist burned paper and floated ash in water with rice grains. He said an incantation, counted out on his fingers the names of gods who might have the answers—God of Kitchen, God of Bridges, God of Injury. The diagnosis came back: The boy had seen the ghost of his great-grandmother. As remedy the woman should make the great-grandmother a feast of rice wine and anyu, then invite her to eat well before her journey back to the World of Yin, the underworld.