14 One Person's Death Brings Punishment To Another…
In the end, a spirit that has suffered wrong finds its way back to punish its tormentors. Sometimes it assumes the shape of a cloud and returns to the world of the living as rain. The dead make use of its special form to continue their fight against their living enemies.
A stranger from another place, or should I say, a man in the guise of a stranger from another place, brushed past me in the stairwell. To be more precise, the first thing I noticed was a shadow abruptly appearing next to my own.
It was late at night, on the way back to my own apartment from Widow Ho's. The gloomy corridors were dead quiet, and the feeble glow from the inadequate lights, like the empty echo of a voiceless sigh, was absorbed, not reflected, by the walls.
Summer was just over, and it seemed like the fresh fall air was step by step climbing the stairs and entering our apartments.
In Ho's apartment, before I bumped into this stranger, or apparent stranger, we had dined together. The dishes she prepared were simple but delicious. There were stewed peanuts, chili cucumber sticks, fresh fried mushrooms in an oil dressing, minced dried beancurd, pickled duck stomachs, tendons marinated in oil, and a bottle of my favorite sweetened wine.
The fragrant odors wafted enticingly around our mouths, and the lamp enclosed the table in a soft rose glow. The faded floral-print cover on her sofa and her unique curios from the Qianlong period, such as twisted-neck vases, fans, and her gold clock with its book-shaped case, gave the room an ancient feel, a secluded charm. In the light from the lamp her clear skin and long, slender legs shone as her bare feet carried her back and forth across the carpet. The ceaselessly changing aspect of her exquisite figure, and her face turned always solicitously toward me, were also contained within this circle of light. The damp weather and the noise of the city outside could not possibly have interrupted the atmosphere in that room.
When Ho was among other people, she was wrapped in a persistent air of haughtiness, but when she was alone with me, she assumed an intense motherly air that made me love her beyond all reason.
Through all the years when I was growing up, I seldom saw such an intense appreciation of the small beauties of life in my own home. My father and mother were both perpetually wrapped up in their own work, with no interest at all in the little events of everyday life. As far as I can remember, my father almost never involved himself in such things, while my mother was always constrained by the pressures of time. I know that she loved me very much, loved me intensely, but it was an abstract, general kind of love, not the significantly more common maternal kind of love of a hen for the eggs she has laid herself. Many of the things around the home that had to be done, she was unwilling to do but nonetheless did, out of her love for me. But such acts on her part made me feel so uncomfortable that I never wanted her to get more involved in our daily domestic life. I have always thought that having ambitious, work-driven parents is not by any means a fortunate thing for a child. Quite the contrary: ordinary parents can bring their children much more of the gentle essence and devotion of a family.
Ho and my mother possessed a similar graceful beauty, but they were very different in personality. Ho always exuded an air of leisurely easiness. Unlike my parents, she was never pressed for time. Her passion for living came from the core of her being. All through my growing years, every woolen sweater and every pair of woolen drawers that I wore, she had knitted. She said that the woolens you could buy were never warm enough, and that fashion was repetitive. She wanted me to be different from the crowd in everything, to be special. Most of my clothes, and those of everyone else in my family for that matter, had been chosen for us by Ho with assiduous care. In addition to having the same refined feminine understanding as my mother, she also had this charming maternal appeal.
That evening, seeing the unalloyed enjoyment with which she prepared all these dishes truly touched my heart.
She said that really, it wasn't just anyone who got to enjoy this "lover's" treatment; that she felt especially close to me; that if it were anyone else just sitting there lending lots of words but never a hand, then the person would be out of luck for dinner.
Hearing this delighted me. I picked up the copy of Interpretations of The Book of Changes lying on the sofa and started thumbing through it, reading all the parts that she had underlined in pencil.
From childhood I had been aware of her love of reading. But our shared enthusiasm for it was something that came later, after I had grown up and done a lot of reading myself. Now, the more we talked, the more we began to realize how much we had in common.
She said that she had been reading The Book of Changes lately, and that it was like smoking marijuana.
I said that she should read something a bit lighter, that the ancients had said, "As you sit by your little window reading The Changes of Zhou, spring has long since slipped by unnoticed," and that life holds for us only a limited number of such "springs."
She said she was reading some lighter things too, like Zhang Jie's The Ark and Yi Lei's poetry.
The end of the '80s was one of those times of great artistic ferment and experimentation in China. Whenever Ho and I were together, we spent hours discussing literature and life. We talked about some of the male writers, but because of our own feminine view of life, it was the contingent of outstanding female writers that got most of our attention. We also discussed the work of such foreign authors as Borges, Joyce, Kafka, Poe, and Faulkner. The kind of enthusiasm and rapture that infused our discussions of literature in those days is gone now, a thing of the past. And I am afraid that we shall never again see a time as rich in artistic energy.
That day, as Ho spoke on unhurriedly, her eyes began to shine with an intense fervor.
Every time we raised our glasses to drink, she used a line from The Ark: "Here's to the ladies – down the hatch!"
There was always a special minty fragrance about Ho's apartment. It was the unsullied smell that you find in the bedrooms of women who live by themselves, not spoiled by the usual mix of male and female hormones. This odor was like the warmth of a perfectly adjusted rich blue flame playing delicately above the surface of my skin, penetrating to its most sensitive nerve endings to make my blood surge with eagerness, yet without any threatening explosiveness.
I could not take my eyes off her as she flitted about before me, behind me, like a restless shaft of silvery moonlight, in a pastel dress trimmed in gorgeously striking purple.
She had had quite a bit of wine that evening and was unusually animated, telling me in endless detail the things she had thought and felt as she read The Ark, while I kept nodding in agreement and appreciation.
The sound turned all the way down, the TV was nothing more than a background stage prop to the subtle air of intensity in the room created by the two of us.
She started reciting stanza after stanza of Yi Lei's poetry for me:
Graft me everywhere into your skin
So we shall bloom together in profusion.
Let my lips become the petals of your flowers
Let your leaves become my waving hair.
Your earthen hues become my breath,
And I shall be seen in all things.
Her luminous voice flashed in the room's half-light, words falling from her lips like sparkling liquid spheres upon my upturned face.
I told her that I too was very fond of Yi Lei's poetry.
That I shared her pleasure made her even more passionate, and without another thought she picked up the copy of Yi Lei's poems that was there beside her and started to read "A Single Woman's Bedroom," which was causing a great sensation at that time:
Do you know who I know?
She is one, she is many.
She appears suddenly from any direction
And as quickly disappears,
She stares straight ahead
With no scars of happiness,
She speaks to herself, silently.
She is beautiful, without vitality,
She is three-dimensional, she is two-dimensional.
What she wants to give you, you cannot take,
She cannot belong to anyone.
…She is the I in the mirror.
Divide the whole world by two
And you are left with one,
A self-motivated independent entity
An entity endowed with creative energy.
…She is the I in the mirror.
My wood-framed mirror is at the head of my bed
Where it works its magic 100 times a day.
You cannot come to live with me…
Because my mind was preoccupied that evening, I wasn't giving Ho my full attention. Although I was touched by her excitement, something else was grinding away in the back of my mind.
I really wanted to talk to her about what had happened with Ti. I wanted to tell her about this affair with a man I didn't love. But what would she think? Would she think I was a bad girl, unchaste? Would she stop liking me?
After I'd thought about it for several days, it had become clear to me that I was not in love with Ti. I was attracted to him only because he had aroused in me some nameless desire, but this desire, like a leaf caught carelessly in the surge and suck of a flowing river, had been buoyed and battered out of confusion toward clarity. It was a process both painful and saturated with wet fantasy and desire.
I desperately wanted to talk to Ho, who was older and whom I trusted and was deeply attached to, so that I might make use of her incisive thinking and experience in resolving my own chaotic confusion. This made me realize just how much I needed her.
I wanted to tell her that over the years she had always been the one I truly loved, that I cherished my memories of the way she loved me and looked after me when I was little, that I thought always of her intimacy and tenderness, and that as the months and years fell away, these unexpressed feelings grew stronger day by day. I didn't need anyone else to enter my life or my body. I didn't know what it was that had led me into this unfortunate mess. What was I to do? My desires had pushed me to the edge of a precipice. One more step and I would be lost.
My sexual secrets and everything that I had discovered had become nothing, a blank, empty space in my mind. I felt that all that he had done was lead me through the entrance to another phase of life, nothing more. He was desire made flesh, and I had boldly confronted his probing. He was like a tourist. He had simply visited a young female student's body. We had shared a part of our bodies with each other, a few organs, just like sharing labor in the fields. The itinerary of his journey meant nothing to me. And beyond this, I could see that where he had traveled, that place I had given to him, was in reality no more than an empty space, a kind of illusion.
But Ho was a house made of mirrors that belonged to my innermost being. In it, no matter where I was, I could always see myself. All its blank spaces were my silences, all her joys were smiles reflected on my face. As she watched over me day by day growing up, her fine fingers tightly gripping the barbed railings of life, my own hands felt her pain, and drops of fresh red blood seeped between my fingers. The way she would stand just outside her door, with one hand raised to shield her eyes from the piercing sun, the other resting feebly on her hip, watching me as if I were some kind of big bird leaving the nest to begin my lonely quest for food, made me feel like she was my mother, but she was definitely not my mother. From when I was very small, she had stood there helpless and alone, waiting for me, waiting for me to become a woman, the air around her filled with anxious concern and longing. The way she treated me left me dumb. I would try to say some thing, but I could never find the right words. Only my body itself could tell her.
But on that evening, this woman who had always been so thoughtful and attentive seemed to have lost control of herself. She ignored my responses, ignored my silences. She indulged herself in her intoxication with the ideas and feelings expressed in these poems by other people. Her cheeks were flushed the color of the wine, and her excitement buried my words and wishes.
I was on the verge of interrupting her a number of times, to talk about me, to talk about the two of us, but the wished-for words wouldn't come.
Finally, at a break in the TV program, I got up. I said I was tired, that I had to get up early for school and was going home to get some rest.
Only then did she seem to become aware of something, and her eager loquacity halted abruptly.
Coming over to me, she looked closely at my face; then, feeling my forehead, she said, "Do you feel ill?"
I said, "No, I'm tired, that's all."
When she saw how distressed I looked, she continued with concern, "There's nothing wrong, is there?"
I answered, "No. We can chat another day. There's something I want to talk to you about, but another day – okay?"
She said, "Well, okay. So you go home and have a good sleep."
At the door, she kissed me on the forehead and said, "Good night, my sweet."
When I left her apartment, I started slowly up the stairs. The corridors were deserted and quiet, and the wavering, stealthy shadows as obscure as code. Digging in my pocket for my key, I was totally wrapped in my own thoughts.
It was at that precise moment that I encountered the man I didn't recognize.
As he slipped quickly past me, I caught an odor of rotting soil or befouled water. Famished and filthy and looking utterly exhausted, he had the appearance of a man hounded incessantly by death. It seemed as if he had been ensnared by some ghostly force that had driven him from known roads, to flee endlessly from place to place to place.
I noticed that his hair was as thick and unkempt as wild grass. His cavernous eye sockets were set deeply into his dark face, the light emitted from them more like a feeble reflection flickering through a fissure in the earth than the glint of eyes. When we met unexpectedly in the corridor and brushed shoulders briefly as we passed, I felt his body sway imperceptibly as if it had been touched by some invisible force and suddenly become tensely alert. And he immediately shifted the bag he was carrying to the shoulder away from me.
His wariness aroused my wariness.
After he had slipped past me, I turned back to watch him.
I felt like I had seen this stranger before, a long time ago. But just how long ago, and who he was, escaped me.
When I got to my own apartment, I stood in front of the open window trying very hard to recall some clue of my past connection with this man. The light from the moon was glaringly bright and a restless wind sighed in the eaves of the building across the street. Some eerie birds flashed past the window, their cries echoing through the sleepy air.
Tired and sleepy, I curled up on my sofa, my eyes lightly closed.
I saw a number of past years and months rising up out of the dust, and, borne on wings, group after group of people I had once known flew past the window, the earth and mold they shook off their bodies smashing as it fell. I picked my way carefully through the morass of memories, with garbage, foul odors, and unfamiliar grasses and toad-stools growing rampant everywhere. A forest of chestnut trees in the distance with a small path leading to it was the only inviting thing to be seen, but halfway there the path was cut off and it was impossible for me to continue.
I stared into the depths of my memory, but there wasn't a single trace of anyone.
But just then, a name was lifted from the silence as if by the evening wind. Uttered by many lips, it floated from the streets to my window. Beyond my grasp, it trembled and flickered with blood-red light against the black backdrop of the night. Vaguely, I saw a corpse standing up slowly. When I looked closely, I saw that it looked very much like the Ge woman, except that her face was somehow swollen and a deep scar on her neck had pulled the corner of her mouth to one side. Her protruding lips were like twisted flower petals covered with blood. I saw her remonstrating angrily among the ranks of innocent ghosts, but her desolate cries in the emptiness came back only as the faintest of echoes.
Dreadfully frightened, I listened intently.
Eventually, that faint echo was drowned out by the roar of a huge truck going by outside.
Opening my eyes, I stood up and went over to the window. I closed one side, thought for a while, and then closed the other. But locked up within my feelings, I still couldn't sort out my connection to the unexpected stranger on the stairs.
Finally, I let it go.
After taking a shower, I got into bed and turned out the light.
By this time it had started to rain, and the huge drops clattering on the street below sounded like the hooves of countless horses or beasts galloping by.
…The noise outside seemed to have pulled me into a huge party. A woman spinning in one corner of the dance floor glided over and looked at me with burning desire, her warm hand persistently seeking mine. Only when she at last took my hand in hers did I realize that it was Ho.
She asked me to dance.
I said that the two of us couldn't dance together.
She said, Why can't we? Listen. It's the latest music, males and females dance the same steps. The magnetic music pulled us onto the dance floor, and, holding my hand, she guided me out among the dancers. Our feet moved forward, back, in the crowded space, but we didn't bump into anyone, and so we danced our androgynous dance.
Under the bewildering changes of the constantly flashing colored lights, the faces around me kept changing shape. Ho and I held each other closely, afraid that the other might turn into someone else in a moment of inattention. Like the sound of the little drum in an opera orchestra, her heart beat wildly against my breast. Her body emitted an intangible heat as she pressed herself tightly against me. She held my young buttocks firmly in her hands, so exciting me that I began to gasp for breath.
With her bright eyes she coaxed me as we danced lightly down a sinuous, narrow, sloping corridor to a railing. Beyond it, I saw, was a deserted garden. We stopped. Then, in the dim light, I followed her into the garden without question, thinking of nothing but her.
When she started undoing my blouse, the sound of my wildly beating heart so unsettled her that her fingers began to fumble with the buttons. I said nothing, letting her do with me as she wished. When she had undone my blouse, she didn't take it off; she simply spread it open and ran her fingers through my hair, pushing it back from my forehead to reveal my entire face. Then she stepped back several paces so that we were not too close together, yet not too far apart; that is, we were not so close together that she could not appreciate my features, nor so far apart that the dim light obscured them.
Then she began undoing her own blouse and stood facing me in the same attitude in which I faced her, so that we could enjoy each other. A vague anxiety was unsettling me. I longed feverishly for her to reveal her beauty to me totally. Her every movement and gesture overcame me with its perfect beauty, and filled me with desire.
She was my mirror.
We gazed intently at each other for a long time, her eyes looking vaguely dejected and at the same time inquisitive. I had never before seen such a suggestive look in such an intelligent and passionate female face. Her short, neat, glossy hair and the serious lines at the corners of her mouth perfectly embodied her calm profundity and her rich life experience.
It is quite safe to say that at that moment I saw her far more clearly than she saw me.
A giddy feeling of joy began to rise up from the soles of my feet.
When she came over to me and kissed my cheek, it was just as it had been many years earlier – her glowing skin lightly touching mine; the familiar, delicate fragrance of her sinuous figure; from the center of my being, her voice softly calling my name. Just as it had been in those earlier times, my pulse quickened and I began to tremble, until at last I listened to her with my heart, held her within my heart of hearts. At the same time I felt ashamed of my liaison with Ti, my "fall," ashamed because I had betrayed her, hurt her.
Suddenly, I felt weak and helpless and struggled desperately to breathe. Inexplicably, out of nowhere that familiar "third hand" was reaching out toward my body, and ignoring all else, I eagerly received it. As we turned in dance, I was bathed in a shuddering consummation. Everything around me seemed to be melting, and my skin tingled with tense, numbing excitement.
As our passion subsided, we drooped with exhaustion and stood apart as our breathing returned to normal.
Then all at once my dance partner's formerly slim, graceful legs caught my attention. In an instant they had become as strong and thick as tree trunks. My eyes slowly traveled up those legs, as sturdy as those of a work horse, to discover that my dance partner had changed into someone else, a male. Taken aback, I said, What's happening?
He laughed slyly.
I said, I don't need you.
He said, Your lust needs me.
My face flushed red, and I said, In my heart I do not need you.
He said, You don't know yourself. Your real inner need is, in fact, me.
Feeling like I was the object of some joke, I looked anxiously everywhere for Ho.
I backed farther away from the man and shouted, I don't need you, I don't need you at all…