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8 The Inner Room

For women, the inner room is referred to in a different way; it has a different name. It is a wound, it seems, that comes along with birth, that others are not allowed to touch, that secrets itself in shadow as deep as the obscure darkness within the womb that quickens the heartbeat of men. Our maturation process involves our gradual acquiescence to and our seeking for and ultimate acceptance of "entry." During the process of seeking, our girlhood ends and we enter womanhood.

One morning shortly after eight, when I arrived at Yi Qiu's place as usual, I had to go to the toilet because I had had a bowl of thin gruel and a glass of milk before I left home.

Yi Qiu was putting on a blouse that was so tight she could hardly do up the buttons. Her plump breasts threatening to tumble out, she used a bare foot to point to the westernmost corner of the big room. "Nnn! There!" she said.

Only then did I notice a white door curtain hanging against the wall, but no doorway.

"Where?" I said.

She waved me over. "I'll show you."

I followed her, her bare feet padding across the rough but clean floor like a pair of big fat bugs.

Lightly lifting the curtain with one hand, she gestured, "Here. Most of the time I don't use the communal toilet. I go here."

I was totally surprised to find that this big square box of a house, in fact, had a "sleeve" attached to it. There was a long, rectangular space behind the curtain, which really did stretch out like the sleeve of a sweater. There was a triangular steel stand that had been painted blue, with a washbasin on it. A pair of underpants, a bra, a pair of stockings, and a handkerchief were hung to dry on a crooked length of wire that ran at an angle from one corner of the ceiling to a screw above the doorway. Like a miniature airplane, a big mosquito with transparent wings was perched securely on the wire, its stomach distended with blood it had probably sucked from Yi Qiu. A simple toilet that looked like a wooden stool stood in the center of the room, its bowl speckled with rust.

Yi Qiu said, "Xi Dawang fixed it up for me. You can't flush it like the ones in apartment buildings, but you can rinse it out with the water from the washbasin. It's connected to the sewer."

"Xi Dawang?" I asked. "Who's Xi Dawang?"

Yi Qiu smiled. "My cousin." She started tidying her hair as if the person she mentioned was about to appear in front of her. "Actually, he's my boyfriend."

I went into the toilet and dropped the curtain. The seat was wet and not very clean, so I sort of squatted rather than sitting right down. When I was finished, I put my toilet paper in a big bag for waste paper beside the toilet. As I stood up, I suddenly caught sight of a blood-soaked wad amid the waste paper in the bag. Its strident red color seized my eyes. It was like a budding flower that had burst into blossom hidden among a heap of white paper. My heart pounded wildly for a moment.

I had seen older women doing this sort of thing in public toilets. They were very open about changing the paper, making no effort to hide what they were doing. It seemed it was something that everyone did; there was no need to be secretive about it. Nonetheless, I would always turn away in embarrassment, unable to watch. But even though I didn't look directly, I could still see them dropping the red wads of paper into the filthy pit. I thought it was very strange, but that was all, because it was something that concerned adults.

When I saw that my companion Yi Qiu also had this problem, I was amazed. Only then did I begin to realize that this was going to happen to me too, and I couldn't help feeling confused.

When I came out of the "bathroom," I pretended nothing had happened and without a word, I opened my exercise book.

After a while, Yi Qiu said she had to go to the toilet, and disappeared into the "sleeve."

Unable to suppress my curiosity, I raised my head from my book and looked at the curtain.

Through a gap at the curled edge of the curtain, I could just make out Yi Qiu sitting on the toilet. She had something in her hand that she was rubbing herself with. I could see that it was red in color. My heart started to pound wildly all over again, so I dropped my head and forced myself to calm down.

Even today, I still believe that Yi Qiu was the catalyst that initiated my passage into womanhood, because when I got out of bed the morning after I had witnessed this, I discovered a small patch of blood, like a living crimson plum blossom, among the printed green flowers on my sheets.

I was fourteen that year.

When Yi Qiu opened the curtain and came out of the "sleeve," I had my head down and was practicing my written characters with grim deliberation. They were square and solid as bricks. She said, "How strange. You're so thin and frail, but your characters are so sturdy and solid."

I said, "What's strange about that? My mama says that looking at a person's writing is like looking into her heart."

"Heart?" Yi Qiu thought about it, but she couldn't see the connection between written characters and the heart, and said, "Your mama's an intellectual. Intellectuals are a pain, they want to connect everything to the 'heart.'"

"But it makes sense," I answered.

"What sense? I don't think your heart is anywhere near as rigid as your characters." She opened her own exercise book and said, "Look at how round and soft my characters are. According to your mother's theory, I should bawl when I look at a falling leaf. In fact, I never cry. What is there that's worth crying about?"

Because of the weird business with the red wad of paper that had just happened, I was confused and illogical and couldn't explain myself clearly.

I said, "She doesn't mean your heart, she means your temperament; well, not really your temperament, it's Anyway, Mama's always correcting my characters. She says people who write characters like mine will get more and more stubborn, more unreasonable and and"

Just then someone outside shouted, "Yi Qiu!"

We immediately fell quiet, straining to hear who was there.

"Yi Qiu!" Again a shout. There was definitely someone outside, but I had never met anyone at her house before.

I watched with great curiosity as she went to the door.

A tall male came into the room, with black, flashing almond eyes, a lowering brow, and a narrow forehead. He was sturdy as a gatepost and gave the appearance of having an endless store of vitality.

When he saw that there was a strange girl in the room, he smiled stiffly and seemed a bit too reserved, but he looked very sweet.

Yi Qiu introduced him: "This is Xi Dawang. I told you about him." Then she pointed at me and said to him, "This is my new friend, Ni Niuniu."

He came over to me, holding out a big, raw hand. "Hello," he said. "Yi Qiu has told me about you."

I shyly offered him my hand. His palm was oily and damp with sweat.

He and Yi Qiu sat close to each other on the bed, across the table from me. Yi Qiu and I had put our homework aside, and the three of us were sitting a bit awkwardly around the table as if we were having a chat, but not knowing what to say.

He picked up my exercise book and bumbled out, "Your calligraphy is very beautiful."

In those hands of his, which had probably been carrying bricks for many years, my exercise book looked very thin and fragile. He was turning the pages with great care, one by one, as if it were not an exercise book at all but a collection of expensive silks.

"My calligraphy isn't the least bit beautiful," I said.

Without responding to my comment, he fished some tomatoes from his rather worn military haversack, and wiping them with his hands, said, "Have one, please."

Yi Qiu passed one to me immediately.

All three of us started to eat, and with the tomatoes suddenly easing the tension among us, we started to chat.

From Xi Dawang's conversation I gathered that he had been on regular service in the air force as ground crew in a small northern city, working mostly as a lineman, a ditch digger, and in a factory manufacturing oxygen. Later on, he left the force because he had developed a brain disease.

I asked what kind of disease can affect the brain.

Neither of them answered.

When I finished my tomato, I got up to go to the "sleeve" to wash my hands. I noticed that Xi Dawang was wiping the red juice off his hands on his trouser legs. Yi Qiu was going to go with me to wash her hands, but when I got up she said, "You go first. You go."

As I was washing my hands, I watched them through the gap at the edge of the curtain.

Like bolts of lightning, they were into each other's arms. Xi Dawang madly clasped Yi Qiu to him, with his thick, strong arms enclosing her shoulders, like a prisoner who had not eaten the tender breast of a fat chicken for many years and now suddenly had before him a huge portion. Yi Qiu eagerly pressed herself against him, moving her breasts against his rib cage like plump hands passionately brushing the strings of a harp.

I dragged out my washing as long as I could, then went back to my chair and opened up my exercise book as if I hadn't seen a thing.

By this time, they were sitting separate again.

For a while nobody said anything.

To lighten things up, Xi Dawang started to tell us that one evening at dusk, when he was in the air force, he had sat down for a rest on a mountain slope. Leaning against a large rock, he was idly picking some of the brilliant yellow wild blossoms of the "gold watch" flower when he noticed an owl not very far away from him devouring a marmot it had caught. Putting down the flowers, he hid himself and watched quietly. Unlike other birds, the owl has its eyes on the front, not the sides, of its head, with the feathers around them radiating outward in a circle so that it appears to have a face, though, in fact, this is not so. Eventually the owl saw him; then after they stared at each other for a moment, it disappeared as silently as a shadow. It frightened him deeply to discover that an owl can fly silently, without a whisper of sound.

Xi Dawang said that the next day he fell ill. He firmly believed that his sickness was brought on by his staring into the owl's eyes.

"When you're in the mountains," Xi Dawang said, "you live among unfettered forces, and communicate with the silent stones though they have no way to speak."

When he loosened up and started to talk like this, I discovered that there was indeed something about him that was not quite right.

His eyes were focused straight ahead, but he wasn't looking at anyone. It seemed as if he were holding a very urgent conversation with some little person inside his head. I also saw that his hand was continuously stroking Yi Qiu's waist, and that her waist was a substitute for whatever it was that was in his mind. A definite nervous twitch pulled at the corner of his mouth, as if his fingers were at that moment discovering some as yet unperfected pleasure at Yi Qiu's waist, as if his desire for this unspoken place was nerve ending by nerve ending being ignited trapping him in the throes of sexual hunger.

Yi Qiu responded to his fingers with an unbroken thread of silvery laughter, a laughter that in fact came from that same distant and secret place, that dim, obscure place from which desire emanates. It was "that place," grinning like an open mouth, that was laughing.

I kept writing in my exercise book but couldn't stop listening to them.

Then Yi Qiu told me that she and Xi Dawang were going to the other room to discuss something personal.

The two of them got up and went into the inner room.

I was left alone in the outer room, separated from them by a wall. I suddenly felt isolated and left out of life. That inner room had an indefinable attraction that so seduced my power of concentration that it was impossible for me to focus on my lesson. But what was going on in there was really beyond the scope of my imagination, because there was little in my own personal feelings or experience that had any connection with it. That area of experience for me was essentially blank. But at this moment it was as if that room were at the center of a powerful magnetic field that had captured me in an unidentifiable tension from which there was no relief.

Finally, I could no longer control my curiosity or my "thirst for knowledge," and I crept silently over to the door of the inner room.

I listened very carefully for a while, but they weren't talking. All I could hear was a faint sound of movement.

The door to the inner room was of traditional design. Vertical and horizontal wooden slats divided the top half of the door into square panes, which were covered with a layer of white window paper that let through a yellowish light. The paper was covered with water stains, and there were many large and small holes poked in it. Because it was darker in the inner room, the holes looked like black eyes watching me.

A little afraid, I put my eye against one of the holes and peered in.

The first thing I saw was a painting on the wall of what appeared to be a broken bathtub, with blood-red water pouring out through a crack. There was no one in the tub, but there was a frightened-looking cat standing beside the gush of red water.

When I looked down I saw a clutter of old furniture scattered about the room, and finally I saw the military camp cot and the two of them tangled together on it, moving regularly like a pair of sleepwalkers, not without some sense of pattern, but rather as if, without conscious effort, they were moving in response to each other. They had taken off all their clothes, and Yi Qiu lay with her arms and legs spread out, her full, round breasts jutting firmly upward. Her eyes partly closed and her head turned toward the door, she looked worn out, like a different person altogether. With Xi Dawang sitting astride her hips as if he were riding a horse, she moaned softly again and again. His sturdy legs were doubled under him, gripping her on both sides, and the muscles of his buttocks were tightly contracted. With both eyes tightly closed and his face turned upward in an attitude of abandon, he strained his entire body jerkily toward the ceiling, while one hand worked feverishly between his thighs and his breathing became increasingly labored. Suddenly a white spurt erupted from his hand, and, like a toppled mountain peak, he collapsed with a great groan on top of Yi Qiu

Shaking with fear outside that door, I experienced two different feelings: at first, every pore of my skin opened and dilated and I started to breathe heavily. My mouth hung open like the maw of a dead fish, and my entire body seemed to have increased in size, as if I had been smoking opium. The door in front of me also increased in height and breadth, and I pressed even closer to the window. Then I was overcome with a violent nausea and felt a sudden urge to throw up

It has been said that it is only before and after the occurrence of the real and fleeting phenomena of life that we experience them. The actual events that we think we perceive are only dreamlike fabrications invented by our own bodies.

Only now, more than ten years later, when I recall from among those already faded and dim past events that disturbing scene I covertly witnessed (perhaps only thought I witnessed) from outside the door to Yi Qiu's inner room, do I finally understand that the scene as I perceived it was of my own making, a product of my imagination at that moment.

The creative imagination is the mother of all memories.

My attention to the accurate depiction of the fragmented memories of past events is not motivated by a passion for personal reminiscing, nor am I fanatically nostalgic. The reason my focus persistently returns to the bits and pieces of the past is that they are not dead pages from history; they are living links that connect me to my ever-unfolding present

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