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"Feathered Serpent may be viewed as a twenty first-century Chinese version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment." — Chen Fumin, Literature Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
"Xu Xiaobin's mysterious and meditati ve writing goes much further. Her aparent desire is to emphasize that which is unknown and unknowable in the human heart, in the character's destiny, and in the civilization he or she inhabits." — Jin Siyan, acclaimed author in present-day China
"A unique bok worth a patient reading and understanding; its richness, its depth, and its beauty all demonstrat e that Chinese contemporary women's literary writing has arrived at a high level." — Chen Xiaoming, a top critic and professor of Chinese literature at Peking University
TWILIGHT IN GOD'S COUNTRY
At three fifteen in the afternoon on a late spring day in the closing years of the century, when the bright green and red swatches of winter clothing had not yet completely disappeared from downtown streets, the doors to the operating ward of the city's most well-known hospital for brain surgery swung slowly open. As quietly as a boat rowed over calm waters, a gurney emerged. A nurse headed the procession, holding up an intravenous bottle, and in the usual order following the gurney were the head nurse, an intern, an assisting physician, and the surgeon in charge.
Although the young woman, whose name was Yushe, had obviously not yet emerged from a full general anesthesia, with the help of the rays of the afternoon sun you could make out her pale face with its bluish yellow blotches. Her head was largely swathed in bandages, giving her face with its bluish yellow tinges a bit of a ghostly air. It was not a beautiful face, its only redeeming feature being her extremely long eyelashes. Right now, with her eyes closed, the lashes completely cover her dark eye sockets, reaching right down to her cheeks with their tint of greenish yellow.
She was one of those women whose age doesn't show, this being especially true in the dim light of the afternoon. Like reflections in a soft golden pool of pleasantly cool water, her completely blurred facial features changed at will, shrinking or expanding in size, gathering together or drifting apart.
Of course, she had nothing to do with Yushe, my feathered serpent painting, with which she shared her name.
At that moment, some people who had been sitting on a sofa came to the gurney, but the dim light of the afternoon rendered them featureless; while my attention was drawn to an apparently young, blond-haired, blue-eyed male foreigner who was standing quietly in the corner.
The first of the people to go over to the gurney was the lady named Ruomu. Seventy-five years old, she was wearing a silk-floss-quilted black vest with cloud patterns embroidered in gold. The fragrance she exuded, as delicate and exquisite as an ethereal grove of bamboo, made the young women around her seem foul by comparison. It was a kind of aristocratic fragrance so deeply embedded in her being that no one could take it from her.
Ruomu's snow-white skin was unusual, something associated with women of the 1940s or even a bit earlier. Today such truly snowy whiteness, which was a result of the skin never being directly exposed to the sun, has largely become a thing of the past. So when the head nurse first saw her she felt a bit overwhelmed. There were no wrinkles on Ruomu's face, but, quite out of keeping with this, there were big bags hanging below her eyes like two chilly, burnished pendants. Her nose was reminiscent of the hooked beak of a raptor, and her lips, shaped like the leaf of the peach tree, were daubed with crimson lipstick, giving them a rich red luminescence. These, too, were some of the marks of a declining aristocracy. There is no way that a later age can carry on the strengths of a previous generation. In the past Ruomu had the kind of beauty that could overturn cities or topple empires. The lines of her face were delicate yet firm, a perfect contrast to the fuzzy lines of Yushe's face. Even though she was over seventy, the power of her beauty was overwhelming. Despite the fact that there were no wrinkles in her old face, it remained, nonetheless, a bit frightening.
With a very obvious look of gratitude in her eyes, Ruomu raised her intertwined hands to block the progress of the oldest of the doctors. The moment she did this, it gave the doctor a bit of a fright, as to him those hands appeared to be a set of beautifully preserved white bones.
The operation was a success — an unprecedented success. The chief surgeon had performed a frontal lobotomy, skillfully removing the germinal layer of the patient's brain. In guiding his precision scalpel through the complex network of nerves as tangled as unkempt hair, the surgeon had not damaged a single one. The decision to operate was made as a result of intense pressure from the female head of the patient's family. Her reasoning went this way: she wanted to have the germinal layer of her daughter's brain removed in order to preserve the girl's mental health and allow her to live out the rest of her life as a normal person.
Now her wish had been realized.
This beautiful seventy-five-year-old woman was none other than Yushe's mother. Right now her attention is riveted on her daughter, who is still under the anesthetic. Slowly, the loving mother's tears begin to ooze forth, as warm as spring waters bubbling up beneath a snowy sky.
In the early years of the 1960s, this now famous scenic area had not yet been recognized as such. Quite to the contrary, it was seen as a barren and desolate retreat for some of those who didn't fit in with the society of that time. Rising up fairy tale-fashion in the middle of this copse of tall deciduous trees was a small log cabin. Beyond the eye-catching golden glitter of leaves, an intense blue corner of the heavens exuded an inexplicable aura of tranquility.
There are mysteries in life that are beyond our ability to control. All we can do is yield to their power to carry us to those ancient visions floating about in the heavens. But those old stories, worn away as they have been by the wind and rain, can never fulfill us. What I want to describe is the fantastic changes in the scenes of my story that make it different. We must adapt to such changes ceaselessly.
In the twilight, these forests, with their great trees ablaze with a mysterious golden radiance, made the rest of nature seem like a lifeless graveyard.
There is also a lake. Fundamentally, in this story of ours, we should have eschewed such seemingly fairyland scenes. They are obviously not that realistic. This is especially true of the lake in front of the log cabin. Seemingly born out of the blue, the lake took form before the backdrop of the forest. The water of the lake was as blue as a translucent piece of crystal. Looking rather like coral, the weeds on its bottom sprouted countless beautiful tendrils. In the early 1960s, when Ruomu accompanied her husband when he was banished to this place, under absolutely no circumstances would she put her hands into that water. She was afraid that it contained a blue dye that could poison people, and that if she were to put her hands in it, the dye would get into her joints and she would never get rid of it. It was only after her little daughter stuck her hands into the water in play that Ruomu finally overcame this taboo. The little girl's name was Yu, or "feather," which she carried right from birth. It was only because she was born in the year of She, the "snake" or "serpent," that, pushing things a bit far, I threw the two words — "feather" and "serpent," or feathered serpent — together. Of course, there were also some other reasons, which you'll have to look for carefully as the rest of the story unfolds. Yushe's birth was a great disappointment for Ruomu, who had been hoping for a son. And the little girl was a long way from sharing in the kind of beauty her mother could have expected. Aside from the amazing eyelashes, there was simply nothing exceptional about her. But when those eyelashes fluttered, they made you think of the opening and closing of a black feather fan. That's what led Ruomu's mother, Xuanming, to give her the name Yu.
The names of Yu's two older sisters, on the other hand, were Ruomu's concoctions: at the time of the birth of her first daughter, silks and satins held a special interest for Ruomu, hence she named her Ling, a kind of delicate satin; when her second daughter was born, Ruomu had taken up playing the xiao, or vertical bamboo flute, hence that daughter's name was Xiao. At Yu's birth both her sisters were attending school in a large city a long way from the family's log cabin in the desolate retreat.
At that time, Ruomu's mother, Xuanming, had just entered her sixties. She was born around the close of the nineteenth century, and her entire body gave off the melancholy gloom of that era. When Xuanming was alive, Ruomu would always sit in the wicker chair in front of the window and slowly clean her ears using a special solid gold ear spoon. Yu could not remember Ruomu ever going into the kitchen. Whenever it was time to cook, Ruomu would take up that solid gold ear spoon, while Xuanming would jump to her tiny feet and disappear into the kitchen. Those tiny bound feet were exquisite beyond compare.
As Yu remembered, Xuanming's feet were singularly special, and Yu had a passion for anything and everything out of the ordinary. In the evenings, when Xuanming had taken off her shoes, tiny little Yu, lifting up her grandma's feet in both hands, would kiss them. Every time she did this, Xuanming's dignified face would brim over with affectionate amusement. "Smell bad?" she would ask. "Bad," Yu would reply. "Are they sour?" "Sour." This indispensable little daily ritual of theirs always pleased Xuanming. Relegated to a lonely corner, those black satin shoes were reminiscent of the little folded paper boats that Yu liked to make. Their toes turned slightly upward, just like the bow of a real ship, and each featured a diamond-shaped piece of green jade.
For Yu, everything connected with Xuanming was both enigmatic and alluring. She had a very large chest made of a fine variety of rosewood called jin hua li. One of the most revered materials used in home finishing in the 1990s, proclaimed to be "worth more than its weight in gold," it was the finest material for hardwood floors. The cabinet had twenty-two drawers of various sizes, the keys to which Xuanming would clutch tightly in her hand. She could very quickly and accurately pick out the right key for each and every one of those drawers. Later on when she had lost her sight in both eyes, she could still do this. The moment she ran the tips of her fingers over those cold bits of metal, she could determine precisely which one was which. Xuanming was very precise in everything she did. There were countless sums planted in her head. After she had gone blind, many of the seemingly symbolic sort regularly traversed the lacquer-black darkness before those sightless eyes. Like little fireflies those numbers gave off a dull silver glow, bringing light to the remaining years of Xuanming's life.
One evening around dusk (many of the scenes in this story of ours are set at this time), Yu had squirreled in under the bed to play with her cloth doll. Yu liked playing under the bed, where she would stay for hours, feeling a kind of security in the shadow she found there. From under the bed she would see that pair of black satin shoes set with diamond-shaped jades come into the room and stop in front of the rosewood chest. Holding her breath, Yu would watch as, one by one, her grandmother opened its twenty-two drawers. In each of the drawers, there was a violet blossom shaped from pieces of violet-colored quartz. The twilight glow gave an unusual ethereal aura to these violet-colored blossoms. Xuanming would link the translucent, glasslike flowers together in sequence, to form a lamp — an absolutely gorgeous lamp, in the shape of a Chinese wisteria arbor. Just as with the keys, from the very outset Xuanming had worked out the coded sequence of these blossoms. These flowers all looked the same, but Xuanming knew they weren't and that if even one of them was out of sequence the lamp could not be put together.
Yu was simply enchanted. With riveted attention she watched her grandma's little game. In front of the twilight-filled window, the lamp revealed a beauty all its own. It was a dream — a dream played out before the restrained luxuriance of green leaves outside the twilight-filled window. Yu could not experience that dream, but her fingers could clearly feel a kind of glassy chill in the air.
In the twilight is a lamp made of violet-colored quartz. Its strings of blossoms give off a sound like wind chimes. Yu knows it is an expensive sound.
Facing the lamp, Xuanming may steep a fragrant cup of tea, but under the light of the lamp it will slowly cool.
For a long time now I have not been much for talking. Because I was very late in starting to talk, my father mistakenly thought I had been born mute. But I was quite aware that the reason I didn't like talking was that grown-ups never believed me. I saw things differently than they did. This was a major problem that reared its head again and again and was ultimately the root cause of all the misfortunes in my life. For example, were I to look out the window at night at some clothes that had been hung out to dry as they fluttered in the wind, I might just think it was a bunch of amputees dancing; or were I to hear the rustle of wind through the rosebushes, I might get so scared I'd start to cry, convinced that the house was surrounded by slithering snakes. In the lake across from the entrance to the house, with its water so clear you could see the bottom, on some twilit evenings (impossible to say precisely which ones), I would catch sight of a huge freshwater mussel. Sometimes the dark shell would reveal a long fissure as it started to open. The first time I saw this mussel, I cried out in terror, but eventually I got used to seeing it. On those occasions, I would simply go and get either my father or my mother, and taking him or her by the hand and holding it firmly while rooted to the spot, I would use my other tiny hand to point into the lake while shouting, "There!...There!" But it didn't matter which of them it was, I would be taken unceremoniously by the arm and told, "It's time to go home and eat!"
I also often heard sounds that resembled whispering, but just as often they were obscure and indistinct. Occasionally I would be able to make out some words, but couldn't altogether understand them. Nonetheless, to me, these whispers seemed like heavenly decrees. Frequently, I would act according to their obscure instructions. As a result, the things I did usually left the people around me feeling puzzled. Because I was so small, my actions didn't draw all that much attention, and when they finally did, a lot of time had already passed.
Back then, I still couldn't talk, and by the time I could, I had no desire to discuss those things. Oftentimes at twilight, I would stand staring out over the lake in a trancelike state, when in the dim light of dusk the many species of strange flowers along its shores would be quietly closing their petals. In those moments when sunset and moonrise shared the evening sky, these blossoms would take on darker tones, their petals becoming as translucent and fragile as glass. To my ears, when squeezed between the fingers, they would emit a chaotic, tinkling sound. At such times I might also see that huge mussel lying quiet and absolutely still on the bottom of the lake. One evening when there was a thunder-and-lightning storm, slipping out of the house unnoticed, I went down to the beach with my hair dancing in the wind like smoke, my face alternately obscure or lit up by lightning flashes. That evening, with no moon or stars, the lake was a blanket of darkness. Just as I was making my way through those huddles of strange flowers, a huge bolt of lightning lit up the whole lake, and I saw that huge mussel start slowly opening. It was empty; there was absolutely nothing inside. I bent down to get a closer look, my hair floating in the water like a pale green jellyfish. At that moment, in concert, the rolling thunder, lightning flashes, and pouring rain crushed down upon my little six-year-old girl's body. At that time, I still didn't know what fear of thunder and lightning was. All I felt was a kind of excitement, as if something was about to happen.
But after a while, the gleaming rays of a flashlight were added to the flashes of lightning. This mixture of light sources broke the images of both myself and the lake surface into myriad facets, reminiscent of the rococo stained-glass windows of European cathedrals. At the same time, I began to hear my grandmother's hoarse and exhausted cries.
A lamp was slowly approaching and I could smell the fragrance of tea leaves.
In an album of photos that Ruomu put together, there is an image of Xuanming when she was very young. It was taken near the end of the reign of the Qing Dynasty emperor Guangxu. Although Xuanming was only nine years old at the time, she was already astonishingly gorgeous. Everything about her indicated that she was destined to become a beauty with a heavenly allure the entire nation could admire. But the political upheaval at the end of the century downgraded that destiny. Her beauty was eclipsed by the turmoil of those times. Or else you could say it was changed, replaced with an unfortunate, chilly gloom. In that photograph, it was the girl standing behind Xuanming that gave it a special value. Looking fat and shapeless draped in a palace gown, with big eyes in a round face and a meticulously painted mouth, she was obviously totally lacking in vitality. She could not in any way be regarded as beautiful. But serving as a vivid symbol of sacrifice, that girl's name has been recorded in the annals of history. She was Zhenfei, Emperor Guangxu's favorite consort, and one of Xuanming's paternal aunts.
That was a midsummer day in the twenty-fifth year of Guangxu's reign and also the last summer in Zhenfei's life. There are many different accounts of how she died. The most common versions started with Zhenfei meddling in state politics, for which she was roundly condemned by the scheming Empress Dowager Cixi, then locked up on nothing but a basic sustenance diet. Finally, following Cixi's issuance of an Imperial edict, she was thrown by a eunuch named Cui Yugui down a well, where she died. But Xuanming insisted that that was definitely not Cixi's intention.
Xuanming said that Cui threw Zhenfei down the well without waiting for any order from Cixi. If this had not been the case, there was no way that Cixi would have been afraid of seeing Eunuch Cui afterward, nor would she have had him removed from his position of authority and dismissed from the palace as soon as she could arrange it. Having Xuanming and her aunt Zhenfei photographed together was a special favor for Cixi that she arranged. In the sunset years of her life, the old dowager enjoyed the beauty in small things, the kind of beauty that could be cuddled. For Cixi, with her failing old cataract-ridden eyes, little Xuanming's striking beauty made her think of her own teenage years. Then she sniffed the odor of bottle gourd blossoms, and the raw silk fragrance of the delicate folding fan that waved in her hand. She invited little Xuanming to come and sit on her lap, but by this point in Cixi's life her limbs had become as thin as sticks of kindling. Xuanming very carefully curled up her own legs, afraid that those withered old bones beneath her might suddenly snap.
Over the next several decades, this event became a regular and unchanging theme in Xuanming's conversation. It would always start out like this: In the twenty-fifth year of Guangxu's reign, Empress Dowager Cixi cuddled me closely in her arms...In the decades that followed, this theme was to develop into a most unusual tale: Xuanming was one of the most beautiful Manchu girls in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, and the most doted upon of all of Cixi's great-granddaughters. Cixi had on many occasions summoned her to enter the palace, and intended to have her installed as a young princess. But the death of the old empress dowager turned all such plans into empty illusions...
Time always turns history into fairy tales.
Her mother's talk convinced Ruomu that she was the descendant of a Manchu princess. As a result, in everything Ruomu did, she always demanded of herself the standards of a princess. Even during wartime disruption, Ruomu always combed her hair meticulously, using a hair pomade popular among older women of the time, made by soaking paulownia wood shavings in water. Ruomu would arrange her rich and abundant hair in a very heavy coil. On one occasion only, after the air-raid sirens during the war with Japan had sounded three times, her hairdo was knocked askew in the jam-packed air-raid shelter, the coil tumbling down like a black waterfall, leaving her feeling as painfully embarrassed as if she had been stripped naked in front of a crowd. Following the custom of people of the Manchu ethnic group, Ruomu walked without moving her body from the waist up, a practice she stuck to throughout her entire life. Even into her seventies, with her face as pale as snow, she still wore russet-colored traditional Chinese dresses made from gambiered Guangdong gauze and walked with her body as rigid as a ramrod, leaving in her wake the traditional fragrance of jasmine and lavender.
In actual fact, however, Ruomu's family on her mother's side had absolutely no ties with the Manchu ethnic group. Ruomu's maternal grandfather and grandmother were both full-blooded Han Chinese, but the family held office under the Manchus and accepted the Manchu political banner system. Yet, there was not, indeed, a drop of aristocratic Manchu blood in Ruomu's veins.
Yu had a high fever that persisted for seven full days, scaring her mother out of her wits. Xuanming came up with the idea of getting some white whiskey and giving Yu a rubdown. When Xuanming's decrepit old fingers contacted Yu's skin, it had a chilly feeling, like a piece of pottery. It was as delicate and lustrous as if she were the descendant of some aquatic creature — so delicate that if you touched it, it would shatter. But despite this, Xuanming carried on her massage. With her large hands, she vigorously rubbed every inch of her granddaughter's little body, a body so feeble it didn't seem to have any bones. Xuanming was getting so tired that she gasped for breath. With the two pieces of jade on her black satin shoes jiggling because she couldn't hold herself steady, she kept chattering away as she rubbed. She said this child must be the reincarnation of a snake; otherwise, how could she be so cold, so cold?!
When Yu awoke she saw Ruomu in front of the twilit window cleaning her ears, her gold-colored ear spoon a waving spot of golden light. For a long time Yu couldn't figure out where she was. Watching her in the golden rays of twilight, Yu noticed a strange protuberance in her mother's abdomen, a protuberance that spoiled her charming and graceful figure. Her mother was wearing an ocher-colored cotton cheongsam printed with black flowers, actually black chrysanthemums. Yu could imagine that in the natural world a genuinely black chrysanthemum would without a doubt be frighteningly beautiful.
Her father, who seldom came home, showed up one weekend. The first thing he said when he saw Yu was: how come this kid is so thin? He was the only one in the family to pay any attention to Yu's weight. Before Yu had a chance to think of a response to her father's question, the door to Ruomu's room opened. The room had a cold, gloomy atmosphere, but the father braved its chilly breath and entered, his face swathed in an attitude of unavoidable martyrdom. Then Yu heard the sound of suppressed voices and the heavy sighs of her father. She waited outside with persistence, hoping to get a chance to have a private chat with him, but he didn't come out.
Yu realized very early in life that her mother and maternal grandmother didn't really like her. Whenever her grandmother saw her she babbled out, "Our family will decline now a demon has been born..." Her mother swung her head around and stared at Yu. Those absolutely empty eyes filled the little girl with fear. Nothing could have been more frightening than that absolute emptiness. It made her think of that huge freshwater mussel and the time when the shell opened to reveal there was nothing inside, bringing an abrupt end to all her fantasies about it. That kind of emptiness filled her with fear, a fear that made her sick.
She didn't want to admit it, but, in fact, she enjoyed being sick, because when she was, her mother and grandmother were a bit nicer to her. Her grandmother would make her a bowl of wonton, then sit beside the bed watching her eat and recalling the good times of the past. Her grandmother might tell her about the pastries shaped like ram horns that oozed honey as soon as you bit into them, and which were sold in the company store during the family's years on the Gansu-Shanghai railroad. Just hearing about them made Yu's mouth water. She loved to eat, but in her time, when there were no pastries, she had to settle for a bit of watery wine or wontons with mushroom stuffing made by her grandmother. There were always plenty of mushrooms in the woods around their home.
Forever dissatisfied with the realities of life, Yu's grandmother Xuanming lived entirely in her world of memories. Her eyes would light up whenever she indulged in her reveries, but then reality would intrude, disillusionment would blanket her face, and she would mutter and pout. And whenever Father encountered such moaning he would drown it with his own. Very obviously, he disapproved of Grandma's attitude. Father and Grandma were always at odds in Yu's family, and everybody in the family knew this.
After Yu had recovered from her illness, she enrolled in elementary school. The school was located in the nearby forest. Her two elder sisters, however, went to school in the large city located a long way from their home. Their father had said that even if it had been farther away, they definitely could not hold back the girls' education. Yu also knew that the name of the lady looking after her sisters' education was Jinwu. But Yu could not see that her mother expressed any gratitude toward Jinwu. For a time Yu's curiosity and interest in Jinwu completely dominated her life. In her mind, she dreamed up many images of Jinwu, but she couldn't find a single trace of Jinwu in the family's eight fat photo albums.
The snowfall that day was so heavy that the entire world was white — the kind of absolute white that admits of no lacunae.
Languidly and without cease, it floated softly earthward, the flakes so large they frightened you. When she was very small, Yushe had already discovered the wonderful variety of hexagonal shapes that can be seen in a kaleidoscope. In order to pick those beautiful hexagonal flowers, she broke open the kaleidoscope. The result was total disappointment. She found it was nothing more than a tube made of thick paper, with three long slips of glass and some broken bits of colored glass inside, and not a single hexagonal blossom.
Through the open window, Yu caught some snowflakes in her tiny hands to bring them inside. As she looked at the hexagonal ice crystals, their exquisite beauty was something beyond man's doing, they quickly melted. Yu tried futilely to think of some way to preserve these six-pointed wonders, but eventually she did come up with the perfect solution.
In her art class at school one day, her teacher told the students to paint something they liked, the thing in life they liked the best, to give to the person they liked the best. Using poster paint, Yu completely covered a large, white piece of paper in an exquisite blue. When the blue had dried, using a deep, rich, snowy white, she covered the paper with a series of hexagonal snowflake designs, each of them unique unto itself, each revealing through the unsophisticated simplicity of a child's hand a unique kind of beauty. The blue and white she chose were so gorgeous they dazzled the eye of the viewer. From her own desk, as if suddenly compelled by something to do so, the teacher went over and planted herself beside Yu, where she remained until the painting was finished. As soon as Yu put down her brush, the teacher picked up the painting and went up to the dais. She asked for the class's attention and told them to look at Yu's work. She said she wanted to hang it in the classroom and that the students should learn from Yu, should emulate her, because she painted so beautifully. Then she said no, that she wouldn't hang it in the classroom because she wanted to enter it in exhibitions, exhibitions for the work of young artists. Then she said no, no, not just painting exhibitions; she wanted to enter it in international painting competitions for youth and children; she hoped her student could win a prize in an international competition...Deeply moved as she was, the teacher had so much to say that she was taken completely off guard when Yu bounced up to the front of the room and without a hint of hesitation took back her painting. This happened so quickly it took everyone by surprise, leaving the teacher and all of Yu's classmates completely dumbfounded. Just as Yu turned to leave, the bell rang, signaling the end of class.
Without so much as a glance behind her, Yu left the classroom. When she got to the reception office at the school's front gate, with one hand she held the painting against the wall while with the other she wrote, "For my mother and father," in lopsided characters in the bottom right-hand corner. At that time in her life, her hands were still so small that more than once she almost dropped it. So she had to take extra care not to dirty its gorgeous shades of blue and white. As she was finishing her little inscription, the parents who were arriving to pick up their little charges began milling around at the school entrance. Just as she always did, Yu had climbed on a high stone terrace to wait. She looked a bit more lively than usual; but, although she was still the same tiny little thing, she had, quite amusingly, assumed an adult air. Solemnly clutching the rolled-up painting, she focused her gaze on the horizon. The clothes she was wearing that day were made out of one of her mother's old outfits. Originally, it had been green, but after so many times in the washtub mixed with other colors, it had acquired the tone of an ancient bronze artifact. So from a distance, and totally out of keeping with who and what she was, Yu looked like a tiny bronze statue.
In dribs and drabs eventually her classmates had all gone, but no one had come to pick up Yu. With the painting getting heavier and heavier, she started a countdown, but the numbers just kept mounting up. After a while, the school yard was empty. As more time passed, it started to snow, the heavy flakes fluttering slowly earthward, huge in size and falling one by one. Yu tucked her painting under her clothing and stood there in the snow, taking no heed of the shouts of the old grandpa in the reception office. Standing at the window, he called out, "Which class are you from? Quick! Come on in and warm yourself in front of the stove. You look frozen!"
Yu had been standing there so long that the melting flakes had soaked through her clothes and then frozen solid again to clad her in icy armor. From the outside, it looked like a white, gleaming layer of frosty snow, but it wasn't soft — it was frozen solid. Just at that time, a bicycle came wobbling along and stopped at the school gate. Yu saw that it was old man Li, who looked after the public telephone. As he raised his arm to rub his nose, which was a frozen rosy red, the arm that had been wounded on the battlefield in the war to assist Korea in the struggle against American aggression, he gave a squinting smile and said, "Let's get you home right away. Your mom has just given birth to a little brother for you!" Yu stared at him blankly, apparently not understanding what he had said. With his good arm, Old Li quickly picked her up and set her on the backseat of the bicycle, smiling as he said, "Your father is busy looking after your mother, and he asked me to come and fetch you. Oh...who wouldn't want to have a son! Your mother is almost forty, she's really blessed to have a son at this late age!"
Yu sat quietly on the bicycle's backseat. Because they were cold, she brought her hands to her mouth and blew on them, the pale, whitish mist of her breath dissipating quickly in the passing currents of air. At that point in time, she had no idea what had happened nor of the significant part it would play in her life.
When Yu got home, she saw her mother was in bed, looking very relaxed and comfortable, with a tiny little fellow lying beside her. The tiny little fellow was asleep. He had a skinny face, as wrinkled as the shell of a walnut, and only a few sparse strands of blondish rather than nice black hair. The little fellow was truly not the least bit good-looking — you wouldn't even say he was lovable. He was not in the least like Yu imagined a little baby would be. But what Yu felt really strange about was how the family could be so solemn about the little fellow's arrival, and where, in fact, he had come from. It all seemed so strange to Yu that she reached out and pressed on its wrinkly little nose. That's all she did, but it was enough to elicit a little cry, rather feeble at first, but it quickly turned into a storm.
Yu's heart gave a tremendous thump and she jumped back, overwhelmed with fear. She was totally flabbergasted that such a tiny creature could without notice produce such a loud noise, and that his face, like that of a little old man, was so expressive; a face that, with its ever-changing patterns of wrinkles, was reminiscent of the lovely textures of a slowly opening chrysanthemum blossom. While she was still caught up in this startling wonder, she suddenly felt a heavy blow on her cheek, a blow so hard that it was beyond the ability of a six-year-old girl to bear, and she toppled to the floor. As she fell, she knocked over the tea tray beside her and four porcelain teacups with gold-rimmed phoenix-head covers shattered as they hit the floor.
Still in a dazed state, Yu saw her mother's distorted face so close to her own that she could clearly make out the dilated, dull yellow pupils of her eyes. Yu knew that they looked like this only when she was extremely angry.
Before Yu had fully recovered from the first blow, she was struck again on the other cheek. Even Yu herself could never remember how many times her mother hit her that day. She didn't even have time to cry. All she knew was fear. She had no idea why her mother's behavior changed so radically that day. All she had done was softly tap that little nose — it wasn't really anything at all!
After crawling out from under the dark green satin quilt, the mother had put on a light-colored wool-and-cotton-mix blouse-and-trouser outfit. On her tiny feet, the grandmother also came stumbling into the room. As soon as Yu's mother saw her own mother, she started to cry, as if she, not her daughter Yu, had been the one to suffer a beating. The sounds of her mother's crying, talking, and mumbling all penetrated into the very marrow of Yu's bones. "Poor me, for a whole day and a night, I haven't been able to close my eyes," said the mother. "It's hard to know what to do. That little brat just waited for a moment when I wasn't looking and pinched shut my little baby's nose. If I hadn't noticed this right away the poor little fellow could have died!" In her heart, Yu was shouting out that her mother was lying, that it wasn't true; but except for her bitter crying, not a sound came from her, Yu's outpouring of tears stifling her heart.
The old grandmother's face dropped as she listened to her daughter's words. She responded by saying that very early on she had realized there was nothing good about this selfish little granddaughter, and asking Ruomu if she had forgotten that when Yu had just been born, old man Li had read her fortune and said that she was destined to hinder the birth of male heirs, and that, in fact, in Ruomu's two subsequent miscarriages, the fetuses were already male in both cases. Thinking about it for a while, the mother agreed, adding that this was precisely what had happened and that if she hadn't been reminded by her own mother, she would not have remembered it. She also spoke self-pityingly of how much suffering those two miscarriages had brought her, and of the fact that both her hands were still numb and that she couldn't clench her fists. It seemed that the more she thought about it, the more wronged she felt, and she started wailing again — mumbling, sobbing, talking.
The pain in Yu's head made her think it had exploded. In the midst of this chorus of mumbling, the grandmother turned to Yu and in a loud voice said, "From now on you must never again strike this little guy. Understand? He is your little brother, a boy. He is going to carry your family line, and is more important than you are. Understand? Your mother can't have any more babies. Understand?!" Yu could see that the usual cool beauty of her grandma's eyes had been replaced with raging flames. Yu knew that her uncle — Grandma's only son — had died in the turbulent years of fighting and that after her husband died, she had to move in with her daughter because she had no place else to go, which had led to endless bickering between the two. Yu had heard all the nasty things her grandma said behind her mother's back: "Shameless bitch! Can't live without a man? Heartless bitch! Poor me — for the sake of the likes of her, I sacrificed my wonderful son! That rotten...! That stinking...! That good-for-nothing...!" And Mother was no slouch in this line either: "You old widow, if you're so good at this, so good at that, how come when Father was still around he preferred sleeping with showgirls, not you!"
Her mother and grandmother's heated exchanges often left Yu gaping dumbstruck with fear. But now, suddenly, they had joined hands to deal with her, the focus of their alliance being the little guy on the bed with that face as wrinkled as the skin of a walnut.
On the other hand, when there was none of the foul language, the grandmother and her daughter were usually refined in manner. The grandmother had little in the way of education other than a few years in a traditional old private tutorial school, but when it came to paying a bill, even the sales clerks couldn't outdo her on the abacus. As far back as Yu could remember, her mother never went into the kitchen. Whenever mealtime approached, the mother would sit in that wicker chair in front of the window and clean her ears using her solid gold ear spoon, which, of course, had been a gift from her own mother.
Yu deeply admired her mother for this. At that time, in her dreams, a beautiful middle-aged woman often put in an appearance, always dressed in a cream-colored traditional silk jacket, buttoned down the right side, her hair combed in waves, skin white as snow, and lips sporting a dark shade of lipstick. Yu was fully aware of her own longing to grow up, to become just this kind of woman. Yu's fantasies then were quite straightforward. She longed to dwell in a fantasy-filled dream, a dream like an indestructible kaleidoscope, with its endlessly intriguing colorful patterns. What Yu liked more than anything else was sleeping. Sometimes she was so eager to get to sleep that she even forgot to do her homework. Then dreams came to her in endless strings, to the point that she had trouble distinguishing dream from reality. If she encountered something upsetting in her dreams, recognizing it as part of the dream, she would usually manage to prod herself awake. Painfully shy, she would go as far as feigning crudity or blind stubbornness to hide such feelings. She was so afraid of people that often, when the family had guests, she would slip out at the first opportunity and not come back until the middle of the night. If she didn't get a chance to slip out, she would lock herself in the bathroom, then crawl out through the little window and use the branches of the mulberry tree in the backyard to climb over the wall. Fortunately, at that time the family still lived in the little log house, so none of the walls were very high. Because of her fear of meeting people, Yu could go without meals or sleep. She didn't really know what it was in her life that frightened her, but at this time, with both her mother and her grandmother unexpectedly turning hostile toward her, she suddenly felt that this thing that she had so blindly feared for so long was suddenly close to revelation.
From the very depths of my heart I loved my father, despite the fact that he seldom came home and was always so cold and serious. I remember one occasion when we still lived in that big city, just when Mother was about to bawl me out for something, Father suddenly pulled out a theater ticket and, waving it about, told me to leave right away, that if I didn't, I would miss the beginning of the show! I quickly stuffed the ticket in my pocket and took off like a shot for the local theater — I was a dyed-in-the-wool movie maniac.
The lights had already been turned off when I entered the theater. I started on my way into a row of seats and as I stumbled and bumped my way along, the people in the row behind me rebuked me, calling out things like: "Hey, kid! Sit down!" In a confused panic, I almost sat on someone's legs. At that moment a hand delicate and smooth as a piece of jade took hold of me and gently and patiently guided me into an empty seat. I tried to get a better look at the person who owned that hand, but it was so dark I couldn't see a thing.
The film's opening music was still playing, its strangely bizarre style totally new to me. I found it a bit unnerving, and without thinking about it, I moved closer to that person beside me and once again that gentle hand very lightly grasped my arm, easing my tension. Just then I saw a woman's hand appear on the screen. It was precisely that hand just as I had imagined it, that hand as delicate and smooth as a piece of jade that had made me feel secure. The girl was doing the nails of that hand, using a red nail polish. The scene was shot from behind her. She was dressed in rags but had a beautiful figure and long brown hair that reached her waist. At this point a very pleasing baritone voice queried, "Zhuo Ma?" The girl turned around and a close-up revealed a pair of brown eyes set behind long eyelashes. The radiant luster in those eyes filled my own heart with light. At this point the audience's gaze was transferred to the fastidiously dressed baritone who had just walked on-screen, but I didn't ike his flashy green and gold outfit. I felt that in his golden threads, he fell far short of the radiance of the girl in her dilapidated duds. The story's development proved my instinct was right. The man was a headman. His love for the girl ended in her having a baby. After that he invented endless excuses to avoid seeing her, leaving her to swallow disappointment, until finally, with her own eyes, she saw him making love with another woman. Her revenge was frightful: with her own hands, she strangled their child — that innocent child who was the product of their love. The moment she killed the child, the theater echoed with incessant cries of horror.
When I saw that beautiful pair of hands reaching out for the child, I suddenly slipped out of my seat and for the longest time didn't dare raise my head, until finally that hand as delicate and smooth as a piece of jade helped me up. I was totally awestruck: to my utter surprise, the young woman sitting beside me had turned out to be the actress in the movie! At this point, my eyes had already been adjusted to the light level in the theater for a long time. I could see very clearly the unusual radiance of her brown eyes.
When the movie's closing music started, the screen was filled with the white of falling snow and a back view of the girl with the beautiful figure, dressed in rags, staggering off into the distance. I watched in amazement as the entire screen was filled with fluttering snowflakes. The close-up of snowflakes was exceedingly beautiful: the beautiful snow blanketed everything — both the beautiful and the ugly.
As we were leaving the theater, I heard the people around me discussing whether the girl would put an end to her life or not, but that didn't worry me in the least. I persistently kept my eyes on the back of the young woman ahead of me who had been sitting beside me. She kept disappearing then reappearing in the crowd. But my mind was definitely made up: to catch up to her, talk to her, even just one sentence! I actually did catch up to her once, but just as I got close enough to touch her, I hesitated, and right at that moment the crowd pressed between us again. My heart was in my throat the entire time. I truly didn't care whether that woman in the movie lived or died. What concerned me was this living young woman with her radiant brown eyes and lovely hands.
We have already mentioned that Yu knew very early in her life that her mother didn't really like her. But the mother said this was because Yu "was not likable."
Yu very much wanted to be a likable child, but it was beyond her ability. When she was very small she discovered that if you wanted to be a likable child, you had to say things you didn't mean. But she would sooner have killed herself than done that. Falsehoods aside, she even found it hard to say things that were true, because she had discovered that when the things in your heart were turned into words they lost much of their special value, and that whether a lot or just a little, whatever you put into words was bound to contain some element of falsehood. Because of this, she very seldom said anything. The result of this reluctance to speak was her "being unlikable," and there was nothing that could be done to change this. But today, for the first time in her life, Yu hated her stupid mouth and lack of courage. She thought that if she was a little girl who "was likable," she would have been able to smile sweetly at that young woman and, taking her by the hand, invite her home. Things would have been going smoothly, definitely not as they were at that point, with her throat seemingly sealed with a coat of lacquer, a muffled thunder pounding in her heart, and not even the slightest sign of bold action on her part.
Once she had passed through that rather barren little wood, she could see the front door of their home. Her heart was filled with despair, so when that long brown hair suddenly appeared among the scrub, for the longest time Yu couldn't believe her eyes.
"You and your father are not the least bit alike."
The young woman smiled, her brown eyes flashing brightly in the evening glow.
The long brown hair floated on, while Yu stood rooted to the spot, her throat still sealed shut: "She knew I was following her; for sure she knew!" thought Yu, her face suddenly turning crimson. "But it's hard to believe she suddenly turned up in this woods like a fairy just to say something like that! For sure, she's a fairy!" When Yu thought of this word, her mind became a blank. Memory and illusion were inseparable. Every time she recalled that event, the young woman, whose name was Jinwu, always made her entrance in the form of a fairy, a fairy who suddenly appeared in a mysterious forest. Dressed in pale pink satin and enshrouded in her long brown hair, she would suddenly disappear then reappear like a pink cloud against the background of an evening sky. That incomparably lustrous evening glow seemed to represent some kind of irresistible force. Facing that force, Yu's kaleidoscopic little heart was deeply touched, breaking into countless translucent fragments. While she was caught in that kind of controlling pressure, the fairy would whisper to her, "You and your father are not the least bit alike."
Although that whisper was very soft, it was terribly unnerving, since at that moment the sky was reverberating with background music. Yu's memory was clogged with countless examples of just that kind of intimidating background music, so what she heard was a kind of magnified whisper — a terrifying unearthly gibberish.
Only a long time after the event did Yu finally tell her mother her tale about the fairy. The mother raised those exquisite eyebrows arching out on either side of her nose as she said, "What fairy? That was one of your father's students. She's a mixed-blooded whore who's had parts in a couple of movies."
Yu didn't eat supper. With her nose dripping blood, she went into her room and bolted the door. After a while she smashed everything around her to bits, leaving her room looking like the inside of that kaleidoscope. In complete contrast with her gentle appearance, Yu had a fiery temper. She used the pieces of a smashed vase to mutilate her own body, spilling her own fresh blood. Following her own childish yet determined way of thinking, she repeatedly told herself that what she was doing was real, that only this was real. Yu felt that only through her own physical suffering could she ease her mental pain. Mother doesn't love me, she told herself, Mother doesn't love me — to this six-year-old girl this was the fatal fact, and it smashed her heart to smithereens.
The mother and grandmother in turn banged on the door to Yu's room, calling softly, then loudly. The sound of her mother's mumbled crying penetrated straight into her brain. What was strange was that the mother always made herself out to be one who suffered. When Yu had reached the point where her pain had crushed her desire to live, it was surprisingly her mother who would receive others' compassion. When Yu withdrew into her room, she could see a corner of the sky through her window. Her attention always wandered back to this corner of clear blue sky, which was gradually shrouded in darkness. Yu felt that she was able to see beyond the surface layer of the sky to something much deeper — a kind of color that inspired terror. When she looked at it, she recalled the whispers of that young woman. They were the gloomy sky's bedtime prayers, which had a kind of frightening power that was very difficult to convey in words.
The sounds outside her room gradually faded away. It was already impossible to distinguish the colors she had seen in the sky. She heard the front door open and apparently someone came in. Yes, the sound of those footsteps was very familiar. It was her father. Then she heard the sound of suppressed voices and her father's heavy sighs.
The darkness reverberated with the whispery sound of her mother's voice.
Her mother was saying that she thought that brat Yu had something frightening about her. The look in Yu's eyes made people think she had cannibalistic tendencies, and that they had better not let her too near the baby.
Father sighed and said, "Please don't complicate things. Okay? They're organizing another political movement out there, so I've already got more than enough on my plate."
But mother continued on as if she hadn't heard him: "Anyway, she'll soon be on winter vacation, so the best thing to do is send her to stay with your big sister for a while."
Yu knew that the big sister she referred to was her father's elder sister. This aunt, who had never married, had a vicious demeanor and Yu had always been afraid of her.
This suppressed conversation continued without pause, stopping only when the fragrance of fresh tea wafted out of the grandmother's room. Yu was standing absolutely still in the hallway, which was so black that as her eyes bored into the depths of the darkness, the darkness became for her a kingdom of quietude. But now the stillness was shattered by a kind of terrifying whispering. Just at that moment Yu could clearly see Xuanming standing in the corner dressed in black. Unable to suppress her fear, Yu let out a loud cry as she barged into her parents' room. But an even greater fright awaited her: she saw her normally rather sanctimonious parents locked in each other's arms, the yellow and white of their naked bodies clearly twined together in the darkness. As she stood there not knowing what to do, through the darkness she heard her mother shrieking angrily, "Get out! Get out! You brat! You brazen bitch! Get out of my sight!"
In a panic, Yu flew to her own room. The grandmother, who had fallen into a deep sleep, was snoring loudly in company with the roaring thunder outside. Little Yu felt that there was no place for her to flee to. Those three words — "you brazen bitch" — burnt like a branding iron into her heart. Many years later, when she recalled that scene, she still felt that searing pain in her heart. Shame totally blanketed the six-year-old girl's life, a totally unjustified shame that had no connection with her, but she still had to bear it. This condemnation made her feel that she was the one at fault. From that day forward, she always felt that she was always in the wrong. In everything that she attempted, even before she started, she would have overwhelming premonitions of defeat. In the end she really was defeated, soundly defeated by all those around her.
Her father came out and spoke to her. She felt that she couldn't bear his indifference, but she couldn't explain things to him — not for her entire life. When her father was talking, she didn't take in a thing that he said. Her attitude incensed him, and he flicked his sleeve in anger and turned to leave, but suddenly he heard a small voice mutter something and he stopped and said, "What is it?" She looked up at him, and as soon as he saw that pair of eyes, easily hurt and as soft and sensitive as water, he relented. In a gentle tone he said, "What did you say, Yu?" Her reply was very clear: "Is Jinwu pretty?" When she said this her face turned deathly pale, as if preparing herself for a vicious slap in the face. Caught off guard for a moment, her father eyed her warily as he asked, "My little girl, what leads you to ask me such a thing?!"
From that day on, Yu knew that there were some things a child should never ask, let alone do. But there wasn't a soul who could stop her from thinking such things. She shut herself in her own world. An idea had firmly taken root in her brain: she was determined to meet Jinwu face-to-face.
When Yu discovered that where she had seen Xuanming standing there was a clothes rack with black clothing hanging on it, she told Xuanming about it. When she heard this Xuanming said nothing. Several days later, talking to herself, Xuanming said, "I'm not going to live that much longer. My soul has been scared away by that little demon!" From that day on Xuanming and Ruomu called Yu "that little demon" behind her back. Xuanming would say, "The family will decline now that a demon has been born into it." But Xuanming, in fact, was to live a very long life, almost becoming a centenarian. The evening before she passed away, she still managed to play her wonderful "threading the lamp" game, but didn't have enough time to dismantle it, so the lamp just hung there in all its startling beauty. Ruomu had taken it away to sell it, but no one wanted to buy it. It seemed it was the kind of rare treasure that could only belong to one person, and that person had died before she could pass on the secret of its construction. It was only after the passage of several generations that the lamp was finally presented to the country's most well-known museum — by Yun'er, the daughter of Yushe's older sister, Ling. Only after the comrade in charge in the museum had done a lot of research did they finally decide to accept the unusual lamp. But it was displayed in an inconspicuous corner, with no explanatory material identifying the dynasty and reign to which this cultural relic had belonged.
Yu shut herself in her room and didn't eat for several days. Gnashing their teeth, her parents and grandmother kept reminding one another to ignore her. None of them considered that the eccentric behavior of this young girl was worthy of their attention. All of them clustered around the little baby with a tiny penis. All their hopes rested on him. His every cry and smile elicited an eager reaction. He was going to be the genuine uniting force in this family, with its plethora of yin and paucity of yang.
It was apparently four days later, at three o'clock in the morning, when a muffled sound, like something heavy hitting the ground, rudely awoke Yu's parents. The mother sat up quickly, saying, "Yu, it's Yu," as her entire body began shaking violently. Without uttering a word, the father shot outside, with the mother right on his heels, but she didn't forget to put on her quilted satin jacket and trousers. Sometimes the mother liked to go for theatrical effects. If Yu had been just a bit older, she could have understood why her mother frequently indulged in the misconception of seeing herself as a young thespian longing for the season of love. But Yu was too small. She was only six years old; and, like any six-year-old girl, she longed to keep her mother to herself, to be the pampered child nestled in her bosom. But her mother had forsaken her, and to Yu, an introverted and sensitive six-year-old girl, this was like having the heavens collapse.
Actually, all Yu had done was open her window and throw a chair outside. As Yu's father and mother rushed outside, a real drama was taking place — perhaps the very drama that the mother had been hoping for. Like a specter from the netherworld, Yu slowly made her way to her parents' bedroom. She knew that there was a tiny cradle lying there, like a fat silkworm cocoon, shrouded in the warmth generated by the parents' bodies.
Stretched out beside the little cradle, Yu could see that the little fellow still looked about the same, but in the moonlight that walnut-skinned face looked a bit smoother, rendering the little guy a bit better looking. He was sound asleep. As the changing light crossed his face, it would light up for a moment, then disappear in shadow. Quite inopportunely, Yu at this moment thought of that movie she had seen. When that pair of beautiful hands reached out toward that innocent child, it suddenly started to wail. It seemed like this wailing was signaling someone that this little something was alive. But the way it was wailing distorted the child's face: suffused with crimson, it seemed to have taken on a savage expression.
But in the shadow of this dark night, Yu had not noticed her little brother's expression. At that moment, the window was lit up by a slanted shaft of dim moonlight. Yu thought the window looked like a gargantuan snowflake. Snowflakes are supposed to be beautiful, but this one, because it was so huge, looked absolutely sinister.
The grandmother's snoring stopped for a moment, then quickly resumed. Yu thought that the sound was a kind of hidden hint, rather like that inconceivably unsettling whispering, and that it had an irresistible power.
That huge snowstorm was recorded in the historical annals of the region. When the snow finally stopped, both the sky and the lake took on a deep shade of blue that had never been seen before, and the trees stood erect in a swatch of dark green. There were reports that this part of the nation's north had had disastrous snowstorms before, so the people who live in the area should pay special attention to the weather report. On that occasion the weather report was: tomorrow afternoon will be cloudy, then will clear; the wind will be from the north, then will shift to the south; winds will range from force two to force three; temperature high will be three degrees Celsius...
On that day, a lot of people were out shoveling snow. Lots of things got buried in the snow. The strangest thing that turned up was a painting shrouded in a frozen layer of snow. The one corner that wasn't covered clearly revealed that it was a painting of snowflakes against a blue background. The flakes, both big and beautiful, breathed a kind of childlike simplicity. The people who saw it all whooped in wonder, but it eventually ended up in the garbage can along with all the other pickings.
Like a magnified whisper, the sounds of the weather report resounded among the people sweeping snow: "There is a high-level trough in the country's northwestern region."
Copyright © 1998 by Xu Xiaobin
Prologue A Clustering of Queens
Chapter 1 Twilight in God's Country
Chapter 2 Trial in Absentia
Chapter 3 Yin Lines
Chapter 4 Yuanguang
Chapter 5 Youth
Chapter 6 Empty Corner
Chapter 7 A Play
Chapter 8 The Square
Chapter 9 Moon Art Exhibition
Chapter 10 Forest of Tombstones
Chapter 11 CrossOver
Chapter 12 Finale and the
Posted December 28, 2012
If anyone expected conformity in a network of Chinese women, Xu presents a world of eccentricity. These women are artists, killers, courtesans, thieves, aristocrats, workers, or pathologically anti-social dreamers. They move through a century and a half of history, driven almost entirely by their own inner demons, regardless of any social change around them. The writing is so dreamy, it conveys a choiceless sense of cruel destiny. It's a haunting parade of dreams and nightmares, which are utterly unique to each individual woman.
--author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
Posted January 19, 2010
No text was provided for this review.