Note from the editor: The second selection in our ongoing translated Asian literature series is Jiang Yitan’s Through the Woods, originally published in the September 2013 issue of Mountain Flowers. Translated by R. Orion Martin, Jiang’s story provides a vivid example of the many challenges facing young people in China today. As an educated woman from a suburban prefectural-level city, Xia Hui finds herself hemmed in by the expectations of her family on the one hand, and her own hopes for the future on the other. -NS
On the night she finished the defense of her doctoral thesis, she dreamed of the ocean. She didn’t fall into the water; she purposefully walked in one step at a time. There was a strange smell to it, like the bodies of old men. She stayed on the surface, feeling the small waves break against her.
Gray light spread in all directions. As she swam forward, she saw something floating in the water. A row of human heads was bobbing there with their eyes shut tight. They were swaying before her, pushed by the currents. She recognized the dead historians at once. Sima Qian, Ban Gu, Sima Guang, Chen Yuan, Chen Yinke, Guo Moruo, Fan Wenlan, Bai Shouyi… Heavy with history, the heads began to sink into the ocean. When she reached out for them, all she got was a mess of seaweed.
The stench of the seaweed dragged her out of the dream. Sitting in the darkness, she thought to herself, You’ve completed a PhD in ancient history, but what have you really learned? What new insight have you gained?
She didn’t want to think about it.
She bought a cardboard box to collect the books that had accumulated over the past decade and a half. On the bottom shelf of her bookcase was an old photo album with photos of her high school teachers and classmates. In one group photo she saw her history teacher. He was wearing black-framed glasses and a serene expression. She remembered the teacher well. On the first day of class he told them, “History is bigger than any of us. History isn’t about true or false, right or wrong. History will be the first to turn to turn on you.”
“The world grows older by the second,” he said, “and every second that passes becomes history. In the time it takes me to say this sentence, the world becomes one second older. But students, you could also say that a single moment ages the world by a thousand years.” They all loved listening to his lectures.
She turned the photo over and read what he’d written for her graduation. “Xia Hui, studying history will help you understand the meaning of the word ‘heartless.’ The past is fleeting.” Reading his words now, she felt like crying.
There was a knock on the door. She could tell from the sound that it was her boyfriend, Su Ming. He had completed a PhD on classical texts and was now working on his post doc at a national research institute. They’d met at an academic conference three months before and began dating not long after. There was little passion in their relationship, but they got along well enough in temperament and lifestyle. A faint but perceptible force was keeping them together.
Su Ming came bearing news. First, he told Xia Hui that he had gone to see a one-bedroom apartment. It was in an old building out by the Fourth Ring Road, but he thought it was nice and the rent was only twenty-two hundred a month. Xia Hui poured him a glass of water and nodded.
“When we have the money, we can move to a bigger one with two bedrooms. That way if your younger brother wants to stay with us on the weekends…” Su Ming trailed off. He scratched his head self-consciously.
Xia Hui was touched. Turning away, she wondered if now was the time to tell him that her mother was working in Beijing as a housekeeper. She would have to, sooner or later
Gathering her courage, she said, “Su Ming, there’s something I forgot to tell you… My mom been working in Beijing as a live-in maid for almost two years now.”
Su Ming was unsettled, but he quickly regained his composure. Looking at Xia Hui’s back, he asked, “Is your mother’s health alright?” She nodded, and Su Ming took that as a sign to continue with his second piece of news: “This morning my advisor told me it’s getting harder and harder to find work at research institutes and vocational colleges because there are too many PhDs out there.” Xia Hui had heard the same thing many times before, of course, but that didn’t ease the vague sense of loss she felt when Su Ming reminded her.
“Xia Hui, listen: a friend told me that his girlfriend is also graduating from a PhD program this year. She studied Chinese literature and published a few articles on contemporary fiction. She got a job teaching Chinese literature at a high school. He told me she just signed the contract.” Su Ming was speaking louder than usual. She could tell he was hoping Xia Hui would apply for a position at the same high school.
She shut her eyes. She could feel her blood pounding in her temples as she struggled to keep her breathing steady. She knew full well that for someone without any connections, finding a good job in Beijing was next to impossible. Still, she found it hard to accept what Su Ming was suggesting.
“The school can give you a Beijing household registration, and they provide a two-bedroom apartment. The rent’s cheap as long as you keep teaching at the school. Sounds like the salary and benefits aren’t bad either: four or five thousand yuan per month for the first year.” His voice had calmed. She could tell he was trying to just stick to the facts.
Xia Hui bit her lip and felt her hands tremble. In all the years she had spent working herself to exhaustion, she never imagined she would use her PhD to teach high school history.
“Maybe teaching in a high school would be a waste of your talent…” Su Ming looked absently at the trees outside the window. “I’ll think of something else.”
Xia Hui turned to look at him. He looked to her like a school teacher—thin but dependable. She could see them spending their lives together. The thought warmed her and gave her a courage she’d never known.
When she heard her daughter’s plan to apply at the high school, Zhou Hua was delighted.
“If you have a Beijing household registration, you’re a Beijinger,” she said.
Xia Hui knew how important updating her registration was. Even though she’d been a student in the capital for years, living there would be difficult if she stayed registered as a resident of Huizhou city.
Xia Hui wanted her mother to go back to their hometown as soon as possible. She told her that she could cover her brother’s expenses while he studied in Beijing, and besides, her father could hardly be expected to take care of things in Huizhou by himself.
When her daughter finished, Zhou Hua wept. Even though the three of them had been living in Beijing for the past two years, they only saw each other a few times a month. Without their own place, they had grown accustomed to meeting in street side restaurants and parks. Zhou Hua was too principled to use her employers’ phone to call her children, and she discouraged them from calling her. She had only once mentioned to Xia Hui that there was a great age difference between the husband and wife she worked for. She said they lived in a mansion with a wide lawn and two dogs.
Xia Hui’s brother had grown stronger since last she’d seen him. He gripped the park’s workout bar and pulled himself up and over it in a single motion. Her mother was smiling again as she gave her a handful of shelled sunflower seeds and asked how things were with Su Ming.
Xia Hui said they were fine.
“Is he reliable?”
Xia Hui gave her mother a look before laughing and nodding.
“You said he tested his way into the university from a village. Is his family depending on him?”
“I never asked.”
“I’m just worried that you’ll wear yourself out taking care of him and his.”
“Mom, it’s fine…”
“When you have a child of your own, I’ll come back to Beijing to help take care of the baby.” When her mother took her hand, Xia Hui was surprised at how soft the calloused skin had become compared to just a few months earlier.
Her mother stared off into the distance and went on talking about the future, about happy things she hoped would happen. Xia Hui took out her phone and asked her mother to call the housekeeping agency and resign. Her mother laughed and took the phone.
Xia Hui waited until her mother and brother had boarded the bus before she began the long walk home. On her way, she pictured herself buying a train ticket for her mother. Then they would plan one last outing together before her mother left Beijing.
But things didn’t go as planned. Her mother called to say that the owners of the house had begged her not to go. At the very least, they insisted she stay for one more month—they even offered to pay her three times her normal salary. Xia Hui urged her to leave anyway, but her mother said, “I’ve been at this house for more than half a year now. The wife has been good to me. In a few days they’ll be going to Ha-wai-i or some place for vacation, they won’t be back for two weeks. Trust me, I’ll quit as soon as they come back but right now there’s no one to care for the dogs, that’s all. Don’t worry, I’m fine, really! I’ll just take care of the dogs and be done with it.”
Hawaii, those beautiful and remote islands. Xia Hui sighed irritably.
A sweltering heat covered Beijing. Xia Hui pushed onto a crowded bus and hung against the sweat-soaked plastic handles. The bus’s AC was out of order, leaving everyone irritable and impatient. They struggled to breathe in the thick air.
A man squeezed in behind Xia Hui. With strangers to her left and right, she had no choice but to push forward until a metal handhold dug into her abdomen. Biting her lip, she willed herself calm, mentally preparing for the demonstration lecture she was scheduled to give at the high school that afternoon.
She’d once read a book on positive thinking that said: When trapped in a stifling environment, focus on happy thoughts. The first thing that came to her was a vision of her future two-bedroom apartment. One bedroom would be for sleeping, and the other would be a study where she would work side-by-side with Su Ming under the light of their desk lamps. She breathed easier, and a smile hinted on her face.
The teachers sat at students’ desks facing the blackboard. Xia Hui watched them from the podium, anxious that no one had told her what she would be lecturing about. An experienced-looking female teacher in the front row smiled and said, “We won’t limit your choice of topic. Speak about whatever you like, and don’t be nervous.”
Once Xia Hui had collected herself, she began to narrate her thoughts: “Many things passed through my mind while I was riding the bus today. Watching the flow of cars and people navigating the scalding streets, I thought of architecture critic Liang Sicheng’s words, ‘To demolish one of Beijing’s old city gates is to cut off a piece of my body! To tear down a section of the city walls is to strip off a layer of my skin!’” Some of the teachers nodded slowly, others straightened their backs and watched her attentively.
“Mr. Liang had a vision. Beijing’s city walls have an average width of ten meters. If they were landscaped with plants and trees, a hundred thousand people could enjoy a cool night breeze on a summer evening. The watch towers could be converted into reading rooms and tea shops. The old city walls would become a vertical park encircling the city, a feat without equal on earth.” Xia Hui could hear murmurs of praise from her audience.
After the lecture had gone on for a few more minutes, the woman who had spoken to her raised her hand and stood up. “We’ll end the lecture here, thank you. We will contact you with a decision.”
As Xia Hui was leaving, she heard one teacher whisper to another, “She’s well-spoken and observant, a very impressive candidate!”
Xia Hui thought for a moment before texting Su Ming: “Aced it.”
On the bus ride home, she had a sudden urge to see her mother. She was there taking care of the house alone, and Xia Hui was curious to see it. And after all, now that she had finished school, it was time she started doing what she could to help her mother.
The air beyond Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road was visibly clearer. Trees were sparse in the city, but in the outskirts they begin to gather in small groves and thickets. On the way, Xia Hui’s mother called her many times to ask: “Are you almost here?” Knowing her daughter was on her way, Zhou Hua’s tone was cheerful.
After transferring three times, Xia Hui finally reached her destination. A stranger directed her to the gated community but she couldn’t find the entrance. Circling the high wall, she heard the sounds of birds calling. Several flew past, staying close to the ground. A densely wooded cluster of trees stood before her. The light was dim under the trees, and there was an unfamiliar noise echoing through them. As she walked, the trees seemed to part before her eyes, revealing a wide clearing—no, that wasn’t it at all. When her eyes adjusted to the light, she saw that it was a broad, tree-lined avenue, a forested path where the wind, the leaves, and the birds were in conversation with one another. The branches were thick overhead, and clusters of birds passed back and forth across the trail. Their voices were loud, but never piercing. Xia Hui looked towards the sky and didn’t see a single cloud. The wind was lightly at her back as if to guide her on. She sighed; it was the most majestic passage she had ever seen.
She had the road to herself. The housing development’s entrance lay at the end of the boulevard, and Xia Hui relished every step. It took her seven or eight minutes to cover less than five hundred meters.
A uniformed guard stood at attention before the gate. Xia Hui was so intimidated by his stern demeanor that it took her a moment to summon the nerve to speak to him, reading out the number of the villa before calling her mother.
The guard accepted the cellphone and spoke to her mother to confirm the address. He then used a walkie-talkie to call one of his colleagues in a golf-cart.
“Escort our guest to Villa 1016.”
Xia Hui’s apprehension dissipated once she was sitting in the golf cart.
It was an unusually quiet housing development, each villa its own private world. Xia Hui felt like she had entered an alternate dimension, and she couldn’t tell if the architecture was North American or European.
Whispering in the direction of the driver’s back, she said, “The villas here must be pretty expensive. How much do they cost per square meter?”
“They don’t sell them by the meter. The average price for a villa is probably thirty million yuan.”
Xia Hui shook her head in disbelief. When she saw her mother in the distance, she gave a brief wave. Zhou Hua was grinning from ear to ear and waving both arms. Xia Hui thanked the driver and took her mother’s hand as they walked up to the house. Lush grass stretched out to either side of them and the two dogs were playing in the yard. When they saw Xia Hui, they galloped over to greet her.
“Hui Hui, don’t be afraid. These are good boys, they don’t bite.” Zhou Hua smiled and pointed at the white dog. “This one is a Samoyed. They call him Ai Feng.”
Xia Hui was stunned. “Ai Feng as in ‘Love Crazy?’”
“The wife named it. She said she was an ‘Apple fan.’”
Xia Hui couldn’t help laughing. “Mom, is it ‘iPhone?’”
“That’s it! It’s a foreign name, I can’t pronounce it.”
“What about the black dog?”
“It’s not black, it’s chocolate. Its name is Micro-Soft.”
Xia Hui laughed out loud.
“Hui Hui, why did they give these dogs such funny names?”
“Mom, Microsoft is one of the world’s largest companies.”
“Well, It doesn’t make any sense to me. When I started I could hardly say the names, now I’m used to it.”
“iPhone, Microsoft…” Xia Hui smiled and shook her head.
“Microsoft is a Labrador. Chocolate colored ones are rare.”
“Mom, you’re an expert!” Xia Hui laughed.
In the living room, she sat on the sofa while her mother brought her a glass of water. Suddenly it felt like her mother was waiting on her. “Mom, isn’t it hard working here?”
“Not at all. Everything here is so nice. Honestly if it wasn’t for your father, I wouldn’t want to leave. They’ve been good to me here. All I do is buy the groceries, walk the dogs, do the laundry and tidy up. There are a lot of rooms in the house, so that part does take some work.” Zhou Hua was beaming as she spoke.
Xia Hui stood and began to explore the house. Oil paintings and photos of the wife hung on the walls. She was young and pretty, her face full of vitality. Xia Hui’s mother smiled at her, “She’s two months older than you, and he’s 26 years older than her.” Xia Hui walked ahead, saying nothing.
“There are two more floors upstairs. At the very top is an attic with a big balcony. Oh, and the pool’s out this way, come take a look!”
Holding the door open, her mother waved her into the sunroom which covered the pool. Dappled light came through the branches above and created blurred shapes in the water.
“Hui Hui, do you want to go for swim?”
Xia Hui pursed her lips in a smile.
“If you want to, go ahead, you’re not going to break anything. The water is changed twice a month and sanitized once a week. I take care of everything.”
“I didn’t bring a swimsuit.”
“A swimsuit? The wife always just…”
Xia Hui understood. She squatted and dipped her hand in the water, then watched as the image of her face slowly scattered and disappeared.
After feeding the dogs that evening, her mother said, “They’ll need to go out and do their business in a bit.”
“Where do they go?”
“Oh, just out in the yard. It’s so big that I have to take them out one a time or I won’t know where they left it. One day they both ran out together and I couldn’t keep up. I had to search all over the yard, and then I stepped in it! There’s grass in the front and in the back, it’s too much!”
“Mom, can I help?”
“Sure! You watch one and I’ll watch the other.” Zhou Hua handed her daughter a plastic bag. “Just pick up the poop and throw it away.”
iPhone and Microsoft burst onto the lawn. Xia Hui chased after iPhone, enjoying the heavy smell of the grass in the air. The dog flew around a corner, dropping his head occasionally to inspect the ground. He ran over to the fence where a low-hanging bush hid his body. Xia Hui bent over and spotted his legs, but as soon as he saw her he ran further into the bushes, disappearing completely.
“i! Phone!” She laughed at her twisted pronunciation.
From a distance her mother called out, “Ai Feng might be hiding behind the rocks. He likes to do his business back there.” Xia Hui ran around the rocks and spotted the dog just in time. He was hunched over with his mouth shut and his tail pointed straight up. Zhou Hua yelled, “Whatever you do, don’t talk to him while he’s pooping! Otherwise you’ll make him nervous!”
Xia Hui wiped the sweat from her brow. She had always loved dogs, but this one seemed extremely uncanny to her. She gloved her hand with the bag and picked up the feces, surprised at how hot it was. As old as she was, she had never cleaned up after a dog. Feeling a little disgusted, she held her breath and hurried to dispose of the bag.
Once she had thrown it away, she sat on the step and crossed her legs. With practiced movements her mother turned on the faucet, pulled out the hose and sprayed down the grass. The water scattered in the air, reflecting the spectrum of the setting sun’s light. Xia Hui thought of her childhood. Violet clouds over her hometown at dusk, days spent playing on the banks of a creek—the memories were so clear in her mind, she almost couldn’t believe they were behind her. Sometimes she longed for a passage through time that would take her to the past and let her live life as a little girl.
After dinner, Xia Hui sat with her mother on the patio. The sky was a dusty blue and few stars were barely visible through the clouds. She thought about saying something, but what could she say? After they’d sat for a long time in silence, she rested her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“Time’s gone by so quickly…” Zhou Hua stroked her daughter’s hair. “I blink and now you’re almost thirty. It happened so fast…” Once again, Xia Hui didn’t know what she could say. The feeling of loss gnawed at her. All of a sudden, her mother was an old woman. While her mother was growing old, she had put all of herself into her studies. After years of neglecting her appearance, Xia Hui felt old as well. Every person imagines their future, but Xia Hui seemed able to see hers.
Her mother was snoring. It had been a long time since Xia Hui had slept in the same bed with her mother, and she wasn’t used to the sound. Quietly she slipped out of bed and took her cellphone into the living room. She wanted to text Su Ming but thought better of it. A ghostly blue light danced at the corner of her vision—the moon reflected on the surface of the pool.
When she pushed open the door to the pool room, she gasped despite herself. The room had the same unbroken stillness of the rainforest at night. Her mother’s snoring still faintly audible, Xia Hui sat beside the pool with her legs dangling over the edge. The cool water sent a shiver through her.
She wanted to swim. Stripping off her t-shirt, she paused before pulling off her underwear. She had never swam nude before, but then she had never imagined there’d be a night like this, either. She was stepping into a world of water. Lit by the moon, it expanded before her; it lifted her up and pulled her down. When had she first dreamed of all of this? When had such an impulse begun to gather within her? Xia Hui could only be certain that if she had never experienced it, she wouldn’t be able to imagine such a thing was real. Now she knew it was.
She could only do the breaststroke, and as she tried not to wake her mother, the awkwardness of swimming without splashing made it impossible to relax. Instead, she extended her arms and legs and floated on the surface of the water. Looking up at the ceiling, she watched the light scatter down on her and wondered how it would feel to have Su Ming swimming beside her. A ripple of excitement swelled within her, causing her to close her eyes and press her legs together. If Su Ming were here, what would he think? Would the world of water crush his self-confidence? She felt like a fish, searching aimlessly in the moonlight.
A reclining pool chair sat nearby. As she pulled herself out of the water and lay down, her skin sparkled in the light. Closing her eyes, she told herself, Xia Hui, don’t think about anything. Don’t overthink anything. Just relax and take it all in. In this state, Xia Hui left herself, slipping into an indistinct dreamscape.
She woke at sunrise to find a heavy towel covering her and realized she had slept through the night. Quiet filled the house. She got up and wrapped the towel around herself. Her t-shirt and underwear were draped over a nearby folding shelf. Xia Hui dressed and went to look for her mother. She could hear the sound of dogs barking in the distance.
There was no response, but a moment later she heard her mother’s voice: “Ai Feng! Microsoft! Be still! I’m trying to water these plants and I don’t need you making a mess!”
When Xia Hui followed the photos and oil paintings up the stairs, she could hardly believe what she found on the second floor. A long bar sat on the left, while a pool table lit by green hanging lamps filled the middle of the room. A row of white stools hugged close to the bar, and liquor cabinets lined the wall behind it. To the right a brown leather sofa had been placed before an imposing black television and a pair of branching crystal lamps. Xia Hui could feel the exotic softness of the carpet under her feet. The design on the floor was a strange motif of flowers and twisting vines.
On the third floor she found a treadmill and a few other exercise stations arranged in front of a large window. A pink mat covered much of the floor and instructional yoga diagrams hung on the walls. The centerpiece of the workout room was a freestanding abstract painting, which acted as a room divider. Squatting down, Xia Hui saw a shower room on the other side of the painting. There was also a wooden door that stood slightly ajar, and inside she glimpsed rows of brilliantly colored clothing.
Stepping around the painting, she pushed open the door and entered a large wardrobe. Built-in dressers on either side were packed end to end with clothes. Standing before the dressers, she could smell the perfume on the fabric. Silk blouses, wool coats, linen and cotton skirts, knitted wool jackets, and workout sweats were all neatly folded, and there were piles of lingerie in red, white, black, and gray. Vivid two-piece outfits hung in another section, and the floor was lined with dozens of shoes. Xia Hui didn’t bother examining them. What would be the point?
She screamed. Without her noticing, iPhone and Microsoft had come up behind her. They stared at her, their tongues lolling in their grinning mouths. Xia Hui felt like a voyeur caught in the act.
“Mom! Mom!” she yelled, her voice trembling.
Her mother rushed down the stairs. She was startled for a moment, then laughed and said, “Hui Hui, have you eaten breakfast yet?” Xia Hui pointed at the dogs. Her mother said to them, “You two go play downstairs,” and they obediently barreled down the staircase. Xia Hui and her mother followed behind.
“It’s the first day of the weekend. I asked your brother to come stay with us, but he said he’s hiking with a friend from school. I bet he’s got a girlfriend.” Xia Hui followed behind, saying nothing.
Her mother stopped and looked up at her, “Hui Hui, I still haven’t met Su Ming. Why don’t you have him come out so we can have dinner together? I won’t be in Beijing much longer. What do you think?”
Xia Hui smiled noncommittally.
“I’ll go buy groceries in a bit, you just stay here and read. The patio upstairs is nice. There’s even a sun umbrella. Oh and don’t worry about Ai Feng and Microsoft, they’re very well-behaved.” But Xia Hui wasn’t listening to her mother, she was thinking about Su Ming.
In the end, Xia Hui decided to call Su Ming. He agreed at once and took down the bus route.
Afterwards, she stepped out onto the balcony and leaned against the railing. A mountain range rose in the distance with clouds hanging from the peaks like heavenly sculptures. Following them down the mountainside, she saw the boulevard she had come in on. It stretched into the distance like an emerald passageway that had grown out of the earth. She wished she could lie under the canopy. She would close her eyes, without thoughts or concerns, and let the sounds of the forest come to her.
Flowers were blooming in pots behind her. Light reflected off the beads of water that clung to them, the same water her mother had sprinkled by hand that morning. A rich fragrance poured out of the blossoms, and plastic signs registered the common name of each plant. As her mind wandered from the names of the dogs, to the names of the flowers, to her own terribly ordinary name, she felt the same sense of loss that had been plaguing her.
She had no desire to smell the flowers. She wanted to rip them out with her hands, tear them to shreds, mash them into the tile. She knew she wasn’t in a healthy state of mind, but she couldn’t push the thoughts out.
Just as quickly, her train of thought circled back to her love of her mother. When Zhou Hua had moved from their small town to Beijing, Xia Hui had never thought she would end up living as comfortably as this. She could see how good it had been for her mother’s mind and body. Knowing what life in the village was like, she even thought for a moment about trying to stop her mother from leaving.
She was seized by a vague inclination to go to the third floor dressing room. Stripping out of her clothes, she began try on outfits. Each time she put on a new piece, she stood before the mirror and examined herself. She was drawn to the woman she saw looking back at her. Was that her?
She could remember every detail of the first and only time she and Su Ming had made love. They were on a crude dormitory-issue bed. Her nervousness made it impossible to enjoy, and the whole thing had been a bit of a fiasco.
iPhone’s head appeared in dressing room mirror. He looked her up and down with confusion in his eyes. She turned and smiled. The dog came in and lay at her feet, his tail wagging gently. She lay down on the carpet beside him. Spreading her limbs out, she ran her fingers over iPhone’s thick white fur.
Shutting her eyes, she listened to iPhone breathe. She sighed to herself, “Steve Jobs, you’re such a brilliant man… When I have the money, I’ll buy one of your iPhones, the latest model…” The carpet massaged her muscles while a voice inside her asked, Xia Hui, will you ever in your life live as comfortably as this? She wanted to hold on to this moment of comfort. Thunder rumbled softly in the distance. She listened closely, calculating in her mind the time when Su Ming would arrive.
When her mother came back, she began unpacking the groceries. Some went in the refrigerator and others were laid in a strainer to be washed. She’d also bought a whole Mandarin fish. She told Xia Hui she wanted to give Su Ming a taste of their hometown dish, Fragrant Mandarin, but that she didn’t know if the seasonings she could buy in Beijing were authentic.
As Xia Hui washed the vegetables, she told her mother that Su Ming was already on his way.
Her mother came over, grinning: “Hui Hui, I bought two bottles of red wine for you to drink tonight.” Xia Hui smiled weakly and nodded. The thunder was drawing nearer. When Xia Hui called, Su Ming said he had missed the bus stop and walking back.
The four cold dishes were already waiting on the table and the wine bottles and plates glistened. The uncooked Mandarin sat in a blue and white porcelain dish, giving off a cold glare. When Xia Hui had finished setting out the chopsticks, she sat down and watched her mother cooking in the other room. The stillness of the empty house was like a dark cloud that slowly fogged her vision.
She was thinking of nothing in particular, but when she heard the crackle of the fish sliding into the hot oil, her thoughts bounded ahead. She imagined a leaping Mandarin fish accidently pitching itself into boiling water. It didn’t scream or call out. Like all fish, it could only twist and gape in horror. This is simply their fate, and Xia Hui didn’t see how humans were any different.
She couldn’t stand to think about it any longer. Her cell phone rang. It was the security guard. After speaking to him briefly, she told her mother, “Su Ming’s here,” and headed for the door.
Her mother called after her, “Hui Hui, it started raining. I’ll sleep in the attic so Su Ming can stay the night.” Xia Hui hesitated before agreeing.
The sky had grown dark and rain was falling from a dense layer of slate grey storm clouds. The guard who had driven Su Ming to the house waited until he saw Xia Hui coming before heading back to his post.
Standing outside the gate in the rain, Su Ming gazed up at the villa. Rain poured over his face, and for a moment Xia Hui couldn’t discern his expression.
The unmistakable scent of the Fragrant Mandarin filled the living room. Zhou Hua happily broke off a piece of fish and placed it on Su Ming’s plate. He responded with a forced smile. The three of them toasted their glasses and began making small talk. The mood around the table was cold and politely mechanical.
When the rain against the windows began to quiet, Xia Hui’s mother stood from the table and smiled. “Ai Feng and Microsoft need to eat, I’ll go give them some food.” When she had left the room, Su Ming gave Xia Hui a puzzled look.
Xia Hui smiled at him, “iPhone and Microsoft are the dogs.”
His expression darkened.
“Are you feeling alright?”
He began to speak but stopped himself. Beginning again, he said, “I was thinking about something my graduate advisor told me. His father was a middle school teacher, and when he retired he got a dog and named it Confucius. My advisor was devastated. To him, Confucius was a saint among men.”
“So what happened?”
“My advisor’s father had started calling the dog Confucius when it was only two or three months old. It was going to remember that name for the rest of its life—it would have been impossible to give it a new one.”
Xia Hui looked at him, waiting for him to go on.
“When Confucius was one year old, my advisor killed it.”
“He killed the dog?” Xia Hui was shocked.
“He couldn’t bear having a dog named Confucius skulking around his feet all day,” Su Ming said flatly. He drew his finger across his throat, “He had to kill it.” Xia Hui stared at his hand in disbelief before meeting his gaze.
“Do you want a dog?” he asked her.
“They’re a lot of work.”
“Does that mean you want one or you don’t?” he asked impatiently.
“I don’t.” She felt like she was lying.
“You said you like dogs, that you like big dogs.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
There was a short silence.
“If you had a dog, what would you name it?”
Xia Hui looked at Su Ming but didn’t answer him.
He kept speaking in the same eerie tone, “You need a big house if you’re going to raise a big dog.”
“If you don’t have a big house, you just get a smaller dog. It’s not a big deal.”
“This house is so huge…” Su Ming’s eyes swept over the room.
“Even in ancient times, they knew, ‘In a palace of ten thousand rooms, the sleeping master uses but seven feet.’”
Xia Hui hoped that would stop his thoughts from running wild. Su Ming was her only hope of love and marriage. She didn’t want to lose him, for she knew she had run out of time and options.
Su Ming drank what wine was left in his glass, then filled it to the rim from the second bottle. “In books they say not to pour wine like this. They say you can’t taste the quality if it’s more than one fourth full.” He chuckled at himself. “I know I’m doing it wrong, but that’s how I feel like drinking tonight.” He swallowed a mouthful of wine, his cheeks already flushed.
Xia Hui understood his complex mix of emotions. She set a few pieces of fish on his plate and raised her glass. “Every person leads their own life, and we’ve got to live ours.”
“It’s just so… unequal…” Su Ming trailed off, his eyes drooping.
“The way some people live, we’ll just never even get close.”
“Don’t think about it then.”
“I’m not thinking about it.” Su Ming raised his head and looked directly at her. His eyes were red.
“My mom’s going home in a few days. She just wanted to meet you before she left, that’s all.”
“You don’t understand me…”
Xia Hui didn’t know to say.
“I’m pathetic, I know. Pathetic men should stay away from places like this, stay away and never think about them.”
“You’ve had too much to drink.”
“I feel fine.”
“So you didn’t want to meet my mother?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“You shouldn’t have come here to meet her?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Maybe we just chose the wrong place. Maybe we shouldn’t have met here.”
“Just don’t think about it, okay?” Xia Hui pleaded.
“Seems like you’re the one who’s thinking about it.” Su Ming raised his glass and drained it.
“I’m not a princess. I know what life is right for me.”
“Staying in this huge mansion, you didn’t overthink things?”
Xia Hui looked down and was silent.
“This isn’t for us…” Su Ming’s eyes were rimmed with pink.
“Please just don’t think about it.” Xia Hui went to take Su Ming’s hand but he pulled away from her. Standing, he took his glass and the bottle of wine with him, pouring another drink as he walked towards the stairs.
“Xia Hui, there’s a bar upstairs! Let’s go drink up there!” He was shouting.
Xia Hui hurried up the stairs after him. “Do you want the neighbors to hear? My mom works here, remember.”
“My bad… My bad…” Su Ming climbed onto a stool and leaned against the bar. Xia Hui went downstairs to make him a strong cup of tea. By the time she came back up, he had finished the second bottle.
“I want more…” he said.
“I want more!”
“Well, we’re out. We only bought two bottles.”
“Liar… This whole bar is full of liquor.”
“That’s not ours.”
“iPhone… Microsoft… dogs…” He chuckled once or twice.
“Can you just calm down?”
“I need a drink…” He rested his head in the crook of his arm and began making a strange noise, like he was crying. The man before Xia Hui was giving off a weak, helpless air, and it left a deep impression on her. As she went to him and touched his back, her eyes filled with tears.
iPhone and Microsoft’s barking startled her. Walking downstairs, she saw that her mother was soaking wet. “Hui Hui, help me dry them so they don’t catch cold.” Her mother was smiling. “They love the rain, makes them run around like mad. Wears me out, though.” She went into the kitchen and came back with a towel, whispering, “How’s Su Ming?”
“He had too much to drink. He just needs to rest for a while.”
“He didn’t like my Fragrant Mandarin too much, did he?”
As she helped her mother take off the rain-soaked shirt, Xia Hui found herself filled with resentment toward Su Ming. She squatted to rub the water out of iPhone’s fur with the towel. Thinking of Confucius the dog being put down, she had an abrupt urge to strangle iPhone.
Su Ming’s voice carried from upstairs, “More wine! I’m not done drinking…”
Xia Hui couldn’t stop her tears, but she lowered her face so her mother wouldn’t see.
“Hui Hui, did he finish both bottles?”
Xia Hui looked at her mother and sighed.
“Do you want me to go buy another bottle?”
“Don’t bother.” She tried to stay calm.
“Well, go tell him where the bed is at least. We can sleep in the attic.”
“He can sleep in the attic.”
“That hardly seems right.”
Xia Hui was silent. Zhou Hua bent down and saw the tears on her daughter’s cheeks.
“What’s wrong? Did you have an argument?
“It’s nothing…” Xia Hui stood and went to the sink to rinse the towel.
“Are you sure?”
“Everything will be fine tomorrow.”
Without saying another word, her mother began toweling off Microsoft.
But when Xia Hui turned to go, her mother said softly, “It just rained, so the attic shouldn’t be too hot. It’s just bare hardwood floors up there, so take a mat and a pillow and some blankets. Why don’t you go take care of him? I’ll wait down here for you.”
Xia Hui looked at the winding staircase and nodded.
When she had tidied the bar, Xia Hui helped Su Ming climb the stairs to the attic. Mumbling to himself, Su Ming gripped her arm like he thought she might try to escape. Xia Hui turned off the attic light, opened the wooden door, and lay down with him.
The wind was at the balcony door. It carried the sounds of music—a child practicing the piano in a neighboring house. The rain had passed, but moist clouds continued to push across the face of the moon. The sky was color of the ocean. Xia Hui was certain she would lose sleep. She felt stupid.
Her mother was waiting for her, but she had neither the desire nor the will to go downstairs. The tears on Su Ming’s face caught the moonlight. She wiped them away and whispered, “I’m sorry…”
Su Ming hadn’t fallen asleep. Moving towards her, he pulled off her clothes. He tried to enter her but wasn’t able to and soon gave up. They stared at one another, their faces pale in the dim light. Outside, the wind and music were still audible.
“I…” Su Ming’s voice was ragged.
“I know…” she said.
He rolled over without replying. Xia Hui went naked onto the balcony and leaned against the railing. Looking into the night, she couldn’t tell one direction from another. A limitless black filled her vision. It was a darkness that transcended past and present, a grand emptiness that was beyond reckoning.
The darkness was densest to her right, where the tree-lined boulevard lay. Having traveled that road, she knew it was not a passage through time that could deliver her to a simpler past. Nor was it a device to sidestep reality and reach the future of her dreams. No person can escape time, for it governs all life. When she came to this thought, she inhaled deeply.
In that moment she was thinking she would not be the least bit upset if Su Ming pushed her over the railing.
Jiang Yitan is an award winning novelist, poet and publisher. He was born in Zhejiang province in 1969 and graduated from Beijing Normal University’s School of Chinese Language and Literature in 1991. He has since published six volumes of short stories and multiple volumes of poetry. Some of his best known stories are “China Story” (translated by Eric Abrahamsen for Pathlight), “Transparent,” and “Lu Xun’s Beard.” He is a recipient of the Baihua Literature Award, the Shanghai Literature Award, and the Kaqiu Warren Poetry Prize.
R. Orion Martin is a writer and translator based in Brooklyn, New York. He regularly translates essays on contemporary art for magazines such as LEAP and Randian, and writes about Chinese contemporary art and comics for publications including The Comics Journal and Hyperallergic.
Illustration by Cherry Wen Wen Lu. Follow her on Instagram.