Oxen were a daily sight during my years in the countryside, but the only thing that remains fresh in my memory to this day is their big eyes. On winter days, they were tethered outside to bask in the sun. They sprawled out on the ground, grinding their teeth, their eyes open even wider than when they were toiling in the fields. The white in their eyes, which seemed to be over-proportioned, was what I like to call a deathly white, perhaps due to its being crisscrossed with red lines of blood vessels. When the two colors were thus combined, red against white, it invoked in my mind a scene of the stillness of a corpse in contrast with the wailing of mourners. The eyes of the oxen were so big and bulging that they seemed almost terrifying to me. Whenever I walked past the ox to enter my courtyard, I always noticed that its eyes were fixed on me, leading me to worry that it might suddenly move from the gaze to an attack. There was hatred in its eyes, this I felt strongly, and, understanding why it gazed at me, I usually made a long detour to avoid it. Sometimes I kept watching it out of the corner of my eye for any possible action it might take, but only saw it remain where it was, with the same never-changing glazed look in its eyes. Nonetheless, I still had the sense that there was something else in its eyes, something which made me upset.
There used to be a lot of children in our courtyard. They were lively and innocent, though of course also playful and naughty. In spring, they swatted butterflies. In summer, they angled for frogs, and when the crops were ripe they caught grasshoppers and toasted them in the stove as a seasonal snack. In winter, when there were no such insects, the boys would play tricks on the ox.
On several occasions, the ox became enraged. It circled around the wooden post to which it was tethered, its head lowered, its horns slantwise in a butting position, its eyes bulging out in a gaze from under its horns, as if it was about to butt the whole world upside down.
The games went like this: Standing at a safe distance, the kids picked up stones and hurled them at the ox. At first, the stones were small. When they landed on the ox, the part that was hit gave only a slight twitch, similar to that of the corner of one’s mouth. By and by, the kids began to used bigger stones, and the ox, when hit, would turn and glare at them. If there was an especially bold and smart kid in the crowd, he would be expected to go and fetch a bamboo pole from the garden, and then use it as a long-handled weapon with which to poke at the tail or rump of the ox. At this point, the ox would unsurprisingly begin to flare up in anger. However, I never saw the kids tease it on its head, as I suppose even the young children could see that there was something discomforting and discouraging in its eyes.
The game would come to an end when the ox rose up, sending the kids scattering in all directions. Over time I got to be familiar with every trick the kids played.
One day, a farmer happened to be coming out of the yard. Despite being already in his thirties, he was still as mischievous as a child. Grabbing hold of a boy, he said to him: “What are you running away for? You’ll never grow up to be a farmer if you’re scared of an old ox!” Then he turned and smiled at me: “There’s no need to be afraid of the ox. He looks big, but he won’t attack men. It’s his eyes that make the difference.”
He then gave me a lengthy explanation:
“See this wooden post? In our eyes it’s no more than what it is, but in the eyes of an ox it looks as tall as the sky. Another example: a forty-mu piece of land looks endless to an ox. All things on earth seem bigger through their eyes, much, much bigger than they really are. An ordinary man looks as tall and strong as Goliath to them, so they submit to us. They don’t dare rebel no matter what we do with them, as if we could kill them with just one twist of our fingers, or punt them into midair with a flick of a toe, or whip up a storm by blowing out a mouthful of air. They’ll do whatever we ask of them. Whether it rains or shines, whether it’s farmed land or virgin soil, they plow it as long as we order them to. They have no other choice. Thank the Lord for those eyes! Don’t you agree? Otherwise, would they obey us? They’ve got huge strength and they’re rough. One little stamp of their hooves on our toes would leave us in agony for days. Even five of us pulling together would be no match for a single ox. But in their eyes a man can beat ten of them.”
After this, every time I walked in or out of the courtyard, I would study the eyes of the ox with particular care. In time I came to see something else in its eyes that made me even more upset: the murky yellowish pupils, the ever-stagnant forward stare, both bespoke fear and grievances that should have been hatred and indignation. From the standpoint of the ox, to do away with its eyes would mean to gain freedom, and would be worthwhile even at the cost of losing its eyesight.