Chinese Stories in English
On the Balcony
Old Kang had been standing in the freezing cold wind for half an hour to show how much he welcomed Little Fish.
He finally saw her coming. Wearing a cap and with a scarf wrapped around her, she looked like a big rabbit jumping up in front of him. She waved her hands at him and complained in a sharp voice, "It's really hard to find this place! I went around and around in a big circle but couldn't find the way in. Are rich people’s communities all like this?”
Old Kang, an ordinary person himself, had just moved into a villa for the first time in his life, so he also felt a bit out of his element in such a place. He thought he should be more dignified to fit in with the atmosphere of this community of villas, so he smiled indulgently and didn’t say much, just led the way for her.
Little Fish's surname was Yu, a homophone of “fish”, hence the nickname. Thirty years old, she’d been a colleague in Old Kang’s office before he retired. She liked to dabble in poetry and wrote translucent, quick-witted verses which she signed with the plaintive pen name, "Old Girl Little Fish". Old Kang was able to attract a woman thirty years his junior as a close friend, not only because of their shared interest in writing a few lines of poetry, but also because of an important common experience with blind dates. The two had almost formed strong connections that way, and their actual combat experience was rich enough to write a “how-to” book. That was especially so for Old Kang, who’d blind-dated from the time his hair was black until it was snowy white.
Little Fish took off her down jacket and stomped her feet when she got inside the villa. "It's so warm in here,” she cried. “It really is a residential community for rich people. They really keep the heating on high." The house belonged to Old Kang's sister, who was on vacation in Europe for a half a year with her family. People say a house left empty and unattended can easily suffer damage, so she’d asked Old Kang to live in it temporarily to water the flowers, clean up and be a temporary "gate guard".
Old Kang and Little Fish had gotten together for mini-meetings more than ten times previously, but this time there was a sense of newness and strangeness they’d never previously encountered. The meeting had an air of distraction, or even pathos, a bit like old friends who hadn’t seen each for many years and suddenly meeting again on a snowy day, or like two strangers who’d just met at a wonton stand on the side of the road. Little Fish nibbled a bite of a cookie and drank a sip of tea in silence. In Old Kang’s presence, she not only felt a bit of the tenderness that siblings feel for one another, but also a bit of the coyness and naivete that a daughter would only feel in front of her father.
They drank two pots of tea and ate a plate of snacks, but then the feeling of being physically sated gave way to greater sense of emptiness. It permeated the empty room, leaving them nowhere to escape. Suddenly, as if he had made a decision, Old Kang got up and went to another room to search for something. He came back holding an old photo album.
The album included pictures of him when he was five, fifteen, thirty-eight and over fifty years old. Little Fish again leafed through it toward the back. She abruptly pointed to a black-and-white photo of a young woman and asked him, "So pretty! Who is she?"
Old Kang glanced at the photo and said, half proud and half modestly, "Is she pretty? Others have also said she was. She was indeed pretty when she was young.” He paused, then looked around the room mournfully and said, “That’s my ex-wife. We divorced after two years of marriage. We were not yet thirty at the time, and now we’re both over sixty. How could thirty-plus years go by so quickly?"
Little Fish was surprised. "You used to have such a beautiful wife? So how come you got divorced?"
"We were young and had a fight. I was in a snit and hid out in a friend's house for a few days without telling her where I was. There were no phones at the time, let alone cell phones, and she couldn’t find me. When I finally went home, I discovered she’d left, too. I didn’t know where she’d gone and couldn’t find her. We eventually saw each other again, later on, but we’d grown apart. We were young and impetuous, too, and neither of us wanted to give in and admit we’d made a mistake. We missed that chance to reconcile and couldn’t get it back, so we divorced. It took many years before I understood. It was such a little thing we’d fought over back then. I really regretted it, but to no avail."
"Well, did she get remarried?"
"I heard she met a man and got married soon after we divorced. It seems the guy was a worker in some factory and liked her very much. He had a problem, though. I heard he only had one eye – he had a fake eyeball, a glass one, and it always looked straight ahead."
"So, did you ever see her again?"
"I know where the building she lives in is, and which balcony is hers, but we never saw each other again."
"Well, why didn’t you ever get married again? Thirty years and you didn't meet Miss Right?"
Old Kang sighed. "It's not that there were no suitable women, and not that I didn’t meet anyone right for me. There was a middle school teacher, an especially nice person who treated me quite well. We almost went to get the license, but when we really went to go apply, I couldn’t do it…. Because I couldn’t forget my ex-wife. I still thought she was the best, and none of the women I met afterwards were as good as her in my eyes. You know, even though she’d long been married to someone else, I continued to have feelings for her, so I kept waiting for her to come back."
"No wonder you’ve been going on blind dates for thirty years and always failing. Truth is, you haven’t been on blind dates at all, you’ve just been going out as a way to occupy your time, and you’ve been lying to yourself about it as well."
Tears suddenly flowed from Old Kang's eyes. "Yes, I understood thirty years ago that I was going to grow old and die alone,” he said. “But do you know? I'm really not afraid of it, not afraid at all. I think it’s just fine to spend the rest of my life waiting for her to come back to me. And it doesn’t matter at all whether she does or not. You know, every evening these thirty-plus years, I’ve always taken a walk in Peach Garden Lane, 365 days a year, spring, summer, autumn and winter, in all kinds of weather, and never missed a day. You know why? Because her home is on Peach Garden Lane. I know which building, which unit and which window. Her balcony faces the street on the sixth floor. It’s full of flowers and plants. And I can see the blood-red geraniums from the street. I know she must have planted them because she likes flowers and plants, and geraniums are her favorite flower. She’s always been like a little girl."
"So why don't you go visit her?"
"I won't go see her. She already has her own family. I heard that her second husband treats her well. And I don't want her to know anything about me. I don't want to let her know that I’ve never remarried or that my hair turned gray when I was just fifty. The only thing I want to do is to pass under her balcony every day, to get a look at her shadow from a distance, know that she’s still living there and still cooking, planting flowers and listening to music. I want to know her life is peaceful, stable and happy.
“That’s why I always stand there for a while every time I walk under her balcony. I look up at the balcony to see how the pot of geraniums is doing, to see if the light is on in the room or if she’s out watering the flowers. Some of the flowers and plants are blooming, some are dried up and dead, and some keep growing bigger. Some branches and leaves haven’t been pruned and have worked their way out through gaps between the railings. The dead flowers get replaced by new ones, but the potted geranium is always alive. I can see the ball of fiery red every time I stand downstairs.
“Thirty years have passed like that. I can see a light on in the window every time I walk by below her home. Sometimes, faint voices or music float out from the window. The shadows of flowers and plants on the balcony play on the window, and in those shadows the figure of a woman is always watering or puttering around with the flowers and plants. Hers and the flowers’ shadows are etched like paper cutouts in the lamplight cast on the window. I’m content just looking at that shadow even if I can’t see her face. I’d recognize her with just a glance of that shadow even if I hadn’t seen her for fifty years. I just stand there quietly like that for a while, then quietly go away."
"Does she know that you walk by there every evening?"
"I don't know. Actually, I don’t want her to know when I walk by there every day. I just want to know that she’s still there. It’s like, I’m still worried that she’s not doing well, even though we’re divorced and I never see her. Every time I go there, I listen carefully to see if there are sounds of quarrelling or a woman's crying on the balcony. There aren’t, and never have been, so I feel relieved."
"Perhaps she’s never known that you pass by under her balcony and doesn't even notice a pedestrian stopping downstairs. She’s just living her own life, a life that has nothing to do with you."
"So, what does it matter? It's just my own business. It has nothing to do with me whether she knows or not. It's really just my own business."
"But you’re getting older. Aren’t you afraid that you’ll become more and more lonely as you age? Are you really not worried you might get sick or so old you can’t get out of bed, and not have anyone around to take care of you?"
"People are only lonely if they don’t have even one person in their heart they can miss. Tell me, bottom line, what do people live this life for? Have you ever thought about it? I've been thinking about it for thirty years."
"Did she consider how you’d feel about it when she first married someone else?"
"You know, every time I look in the mirror, I stare into my eyes in the mirror and imagine that one of them is a fake eyeball made of glass and I can't control the direction it’s looking. I couldn’t feel any more upset than when I imagine me and this glass ball looking at each other every day. If we hadn’t gotten a divorce back then, she wouldn’t need to endure such suffering. She married that guy to punish herself. Not to punish me, to punish herself. I know all about that. We’ve just used different methods."
"How do you know she’s been living there all along?"
"That pot of geraniums has been out on the balcony all along. It blooms year after year. I think that, as long as the geraniums keep blooming, she’s telling me that she’s still there."
"Actually, right now you want to let her know that you’re living in such a big villa, to let her know that you’re getting along fine. Really you even want to bring her over to the villa, even if she just sits for a while, just long enough to drink a cup of tea, and then leaves. That way you’ll feel a little better about how you treated her, right?"
"Yes. But I won't do it."
Little Fish thought for a long time, then abruptly declared, "How about this. Postpone your walk for a little while today, to see what happens. I'll go with you."
It was completely dark when Old Kang and Little Fish appeared in Peach Garden Lane. Each was keeping their visit a secret, and they were both a little nervous. Coincidentally, they each walked rather gingerly when they approached the building, and they looked up at the balcony on the sixth floor as they walked. They’d seen a light on the balcony from a distance, and there were indeed silhouettes of flowers and plants projected on the window, but no human figure.
They proceeded slowly and, just as they got to the building, they suddenly saw someone coming out from under the big peach tree opposite them. It was a woman. Little Fish saw that Old Kang's entire body trembled as he stared at the woman under the tree. He was unable to move, as if suddenly frozen. Little Fish wondered if the woman could be the ex-wife that Old Kang had told her about. She seemed to be waiting there for Old Kang to come along.
While she was entertaining that crazy idea, the woman had come out from under the tree and seen them. She was also obviously taken aback and unexpectedly stopped, apparently hesitant for a moment, and then walked towards them. She walked in front of them quietly, only glancing at them without saying anything, and passed on by. She walked into the dark building and disappeared. Next, the light in the window on the sixth floor snapped off.
Old Kang was still frozen there, motionless. Little Fish hurriedly asked him, "That was her, huh? She’s your ex-wife, right? Look, she was standing here and actually waiting for you. What does that tell you? It means she’s known for a long time that you pass by in front of her building every day. She would’ve seen you at the same time every day, but today you came later than usual. She got anxious when she didn't see you, so she came down here to wait for you, and it turned out she ran into you."
She sighed in relief when she saw that Old Kang had finally thawed out. He looked up at the darkened sixth-floor window and murmured sorrowfully, "It wasn't her."
At dusk the next day, Old Kang and Little Fish again appeared in Peach Garden Lane. They’d agreed that they’d walk to that building together after they met. Old Kang was still hesitant and didn't dare go in. Little Fish said, "Didn't you say you would last night?" Then, allowing no excuses, she yanked and drug Old Kang up the stairs all the way to the sixth floor.
Little Fish stood in front of the door and knocked impatiently as she caught her breath. Old Kang's face was pale and his hands kept trembling when he reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow. He nearly ducked behind Little Fish. At first there was only silence inside after they knocked on the door, but then they heard the sound of the door being opened from inside. The door slowly cracked open. The woman they’d seen downstairs the previous night stood there.
Little Fish had entered the rather small home before realizing that the woman seemed to live there alone. No trace of any other person could be seen. The condo was quite clean but there was a sense of desolation, a lonely melancholy. It seemed to have been vacant for some time. Little Fish took a look at the balcony, which was full of flowers and plants, most conspicuously the pot of geraniums that could be seen from downstairs. It had been placed on a specially made, tall flower stand, and was covered with flaming red globular blossoms. It stood out from the other flowers and plants in the group like a crane in a flock of chickens, so that people walking below could see if only they looked up.
Old Kang was flapping his lips open and closed, but wasn’t making any sounds. Little Fish was getting anxious when the woman suddenly spoke to Old Kang, "You must be here looking for Red Zhang, right? Actually, she passed away twelve years ago from an incurable disease."
"What?" Old Kang and Little Fish exclaimed in surprise at the same time.
The woman turned and went out onto the balcony and got the pot of geraniums. She carried it inside carefully and placed it in front of her guests. "Red knew for a long time that you passed by downstairs on your walk every evening at dusk. She planted this pot of geraniums so that when you saw it, it would tell you that she was doing well so you wouldn’t worry. Truth is, and you didn’t know this, every time you passed by downstairs and looked up at the balcony, she was hiding under the big peach tree across from the building looking at you. She always waited for you to go on by before she came upstairs. It was like that year after year, you looking up at the geraniums on the balcony and her under the peach tree secretly watching your back.
“Then she got sick. Her husband hired a nanny to take care of her, and that nanny was me. She was sick for two years. Whenever she couldn’t get out of bed, she implored me to stand on the balcony and water the flowers at a fixed time every evening. She said that she and I were rather similar in height and body shape, so from a distance it would look like her standing there. She told me you’d pass by here at this time every day, and she wanted to show you that she was still alive. Later, after she went through a year of chemotherapy but still wasn’t OK, she knew she was going to die. So she had me stay on to take care of her husband, and also told me to make sure I remembered to stand out on the balcony at the same time every evening, so when you passed by, you’d know that she was still alive and well."
Old Kang squatted down and leaned into the pot of geraniums. He closed his eyes and gently pressed his white-haired head against the blood-red flowers.
The woman continued, "Last night, all the time I was standing out on the balcony I didn’t see you downstairs. I didn’t know what was up with you, so I went downstairs to wait. That’s why I ran into you. I didn’t know what to say; it’s been thirty years, after all. Red’s husband, who later became my husband, passed away half a year ago. Before his death, he left this condo to me and told me I could find another man to marry. But he also told me not to leave here because I’d still have to show up on the balcony at the same time every evening, because he also knew that you passed by here every day....
“I’ve been thinking about myself. I’ve been married twice, divorced once and widowed once. I’m old now, and whether I get married again or not holds no interest for me, so I’ve been thinking I should go back to my hometown. But I knew you’d still come by every day. I didn’t know how to tell you all this, but now that you’ve come here yourself, I’m telling you. You can take this pot of geraniums, if you want it. If you don’t, you can leave it here and I’ll take it back to my hometown with me."
Old Kang left Peach Garden Lane with the pot of geraniums in his arms and Little Fish following along behind. Snowflakes were floating in the night sky as they left, and after a while, they were covered with them. Old Kang wrapped the pot of geraniums in his coat and walked very slowly, as though he were holding a newborn baby.
He never went to Peach Garden Lane to walk after that. He did go out for a walk at dusk, but he’d choose another path, provided it would definitely take him far away from that lane.
But Little Fish did make a trip to Peach Garden Lane in the spring of the following year. It was right when the peach blossoms were in full bloom*, and the entire lane was flooded by almost four miles of blossoms. They fluttered over and the filled the whole alley like snow. Little Fish stood under the two big peach trees for a long time and watched the pedestrians passing by, just like Red Zhang used to stand there secretly watching Old Kang’s back as he passed by every day. She raised her head once again, squinting to see the balcony on the sixth floor. Looking at it in the light of spring, it seemed the same, except it had been deserted and looked exceptionally bleak. The flowers and plants of the past had gone away somewhere. The window was in disrepair and was closed, with no light coming out. It seemed that no one had lived there for many years.
Only a few days previously, Little Fish had happened to hear a colleague in the office say that Old Kang had never been married, so where’d the talk about his ex-wife come from.
Now, standing there in the fading daylight, looking up at this mysterious balcony, Little Fish thought, “It's just that, none of it matters anymore.”
Yes, none of it matters anymore.
*[Peach blossoms symbolize purity and womanhood – Fannyi]
Text at p. 81; Translated from 人生屋 at:
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