​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Burned Cloud (page 1)
Lu Min

      Layman encountered a woman on his way down the mountain to buy medicine. She was looking around with an unhurried expression on her face, like a tourist who'd come there by mistake. The two brushed shoulders as they passed. Layman didn’t stop, nor did he tell her there was nothing to see up the mountain, and no people.
      He bought the medicine, as well as some fresh rice, vinegar, bamboo paper and soda crackers. Since he’d become a vegetarian, he got hungry quite easily. Visitors who came up the mountain would bring tea leaves and snacks, but it still wasn’t enough. The main thing they brought to the mountains was pain.
      The visitors would begin bringing out their pain when they sat down, before they had tea. Their helpless tears would flow during the recitation. Some of them, including men and the elderly, would sob out loud, and Layman would listen patiently, seldom asking questions or offering advice. They didn't need it, and their moods were better by a half when they finished. Then they’d follow Layman while he walked around outside. They’d question him from various angles about his past and the details of his current life. They were straightforward enough that the heat would well up in their faces: What did you do before; Why do you do this; Have you had kids; What books do you like; Have you never been online. He answered every one.
      They looked in on the places where he ate his meals, slept, read the sutras and wrote. Some took the lid off the pot with the half bowl of beans cooking inside. Some pinched his thin sleeping pad. Some opened his book of sutras. “Wow, they’re written top to bottom.” By then their emotions would’ve basically stabilized, the places where tears had flowed would be dry and they’d show a little cheerful embarrassment: “Your way is better, but unfortunately I can't get up the mountain.” “It’s late, but I’ll see you again next time.” The next time they came they’d bring fresh tea and fresh pain.
      As they said their goodbyes, some visitors would notice the small wooden tablet on Layman’s wooden home. The words "Cloud Gate" were carved on it and inscribed in inky black. “Oh, ‘Cloud Gate’. Is that your Buddhist name? Or the name of your home? Or the mountain?”
      Layman would smile and wave his hand, but he couldn’t articulate anything. There were a lot of mountains in the area, most of them unnamed, and that mountain was especially unworthy of mention. Walking fast you could reach the top in forty minutes, and from there you could look down on some shrubs spread thinly over the craggy hillside.
      Layman had come there five years previously on an unplanned visit and found an old building on the mountaintop. It had several rough wooden rooms and a backyard with a stone-lined pit for collecting water sent from Heaven. He walked around it, front and back, and it felt like a place he’d lived in in a prior life. It was quite cozy. In the end he fixed the place up on his own, moved in the things he wanted and took up residence.
      He’d carved the words “Cloud Gate” himself, just for something to do. Someone said he should carve another to make a matching set. “Never thought about it,” he said.
      Someone else asked why he hadn’t simply left home to become a monk. “I’m not qualified.” The questioner nodded his head knowingly. “So you stayed a layman. That’s good, too.” The guy added some more sympathetic remarks, like he was sighing in relief for Layman. This way of referring to him, “Layman”, probably started that way. The people down the mountain obviously needed some kind of name for him, so let them call him whatever they wanted.
      It was nearly dusk when Layman returned to Cloud Gate that day. He busied himself heating water for a bath to use the medicine. He had a stubborn, itchy rash that broke out every year at the end of spring and the start of summer. He’d had it checked out but the cause couldn’t be identified. So be it. His trip down the mountain that day seemed to have aggravated it. His entire groin was covered with patches of inflamed, itchy blisters. When the bathwater was almost ready, he heard someone at the front door.
      “Layman! Layman!” It was a woman’s voice.
      Someone coming around at this time? All he could do was straighten up his clothing and go answer the door.
      The woman came straight in. “You’re Layman, aren’t you? Doh, you’re wearing ordinary clothes.” Her tone of voice was impulsive with a touch of ridicule. He recognized her. It was the tourist he’d encountered on his way down the mountain.
      Layman nodded and gestured for her to sit down. He poured her some tea and brought out a half strip of incense. After he’d lived here for half a year, inexplicably, he’d started having sporadic visitors, mostly on holidays. He was rather uncomfortable at first – it was completely outside his expectation. Later he felt better about it and slowly formed a system for receiving guests. He wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but he was sincere. He lived on this hill at the sufferance of these people, after all. If they felt like coming up the mountain occasionally to see him, and if it helped them get along with their lives down there, it was a good thing. It was the same as mutual assistance.
      The woman drank two cups of tea, one after the other, and looked around. Without waiting for an invitation, she got up and walked around like she was inquiring about the lodgings at an inn. “How many rooms? Where does the water come from? Do you cook everything with firewood? Have to be careful with that. Hey, there’s a vegetable garden here.”
      Layman watched her as he answered her questions. He often used his sense of vision to judge his visitors and revise what they said. This woman had nothing between her ears and no appearance of the worries he commonly saw in people. She was impulsive and didn’t wait for him to answer before asking the next question. She’d laugh for no reason, but it seemed a bit frightening. Maybe it was the scar on the upper left forehead that made her frightening. It was covered by her hair when she was still but could be seen when she raised her head in laughter.
      “I want to live here. I want to be a lay follower of Buddha, too,” she said lightly after seeing the vegetable garden and the cistern.
      Layman got the feeling that she’d said it, not just lightly, but like she didn’t care, as if the idea didn’t frighten her.
      He’d had many questions and requests from visitors over the years. They wanted to sever various kinds of worldly relationships; to be self-sufficient; to get abortions; or to give him a large donation. They asked him to do things like write an inscription or a hand-written copy of a sutra (actually he could just make do with a calligrapher’s brush); to name a newborn child; or to go down the mountain to admonish a certain person. People seemed to think that he could do anything, and the more he said he couldn't, the more they thought he could. Sometimes he was indeed able to succeed by a stroke of luck, or to resolve some problem without knowing how he did it. He didn't know if he could do anything this time, and out of caution he didn't say anything.
      “This mountain isn’t yours, and the house isn’t, either. Anyway there’s a lot of empty rooms, you know.” She looked like she’d already made up her mind. “I’ve brought all my things with me. They’re in a car down the mountain. The two of us can go down and bring it all up in one trip.
      Layman suddenly thought of his bathwater. It must be cold by now. At the same time, he realized that the itching had gone down a bit. “But … what am I thinking about that for?” He was quite embarrassed.
      “Is it taboo, because I’m a woman?” She was mocking him. “Aren’t you a lay follower? And now I’m one too. We’re certainly not ordinary people.” She emphasized "not ordinary".
      “No, it’s not natural for men and women to want to be separate.” It was that he didn’t want to live with anybody, not even for one night. He probed tentatively, “But lay persons… aren’t always able to do such a thing.
      “'What kind of threshold is there,
Amitabha?'” She recited something Buddhist to show that she could do it and then looked up, laughing and revealing her scar. “Anyway, I don't want to see anyone ever again.”
      “Me, either.”
      “Oh.” She’d finally heard what he was saying. “Would I be in your way? Well, I believe you’d be in mine. Let’s do this. First we go down and get my things. Go there fast and come back fast.” She started out in front of him as she spoke. “I’m reasonable....
      Out of courtesy, but also so he could hear her clearly, he followed along behind.
      “I’m reasonable, and I don't expect you to give in voluntarily. We might as well spread it out in the open and make the comparison to see who needs this place more.” She seemed to be discussing merchandise that was in high demand. “Whoever has more capital can collect the winnings. Wait’ll I stop to rest and I’ll tell you about my affairs. It’s up to you whether you tell me about yours. After I’ve heard what you have to say, we’ll take another look to see who should leave and who should stay.”
      That wasn’t entirely unreasonable, and it would’ve been hard to argue with her.
      Layman felt quite unsettled. A few years ago, he’d been worried about someone with power driving him away from this place, someone like the government, the original homeowner or his descendants, a tourism development company, perhaps even hunters or beekeepers. After living here peacefully for a long time and coming to regard the place as his own, and even as the place where he would live out his life.
      He sometimes had a vision of a future in which he was very old. He could no longer go down the mountain to buy things, nor could he accept the tea and the pains of visitors. He’d almost stopped feeling the need for food or drink, and he met his end calmly. The words "Cloud Gate" on the tablet had become indistinct by then, almost like they’d never been written. This vision was of course somewhat beatified, but in any case he’d never thought that another person with the status of layman would come along and compete with him for the place.
      If you talked about it from a Buddhist point of view, you’d say there must be a reason for it, that results are entangled with antecedents. The theory of cause and effect says that nothing can stand against it, and every material or immaterial thing must accede docilely. And thus, a dose of humility and acquiescence was also mixed in with his unsettled feelings.
      There was a stretch of rather bad road on the way down the mountain. A small, bright red car was stopped in the shade there. All four wheels were in the mud, but it looked brand new and the protective covering was still on the seat. She clumsily opened the rear door and the trunk, and took things out: clothes, towels and bedding, and lots of bottles and cans. A round mirror and hair dryer were stuffed in a plastic basin with some other things.
      “There’s no electricity at the summit,” he told her, speaking quickly, “and no internet, and express mail can’t be delivered.”
      She squatted right down on the side of the road and pulled the hair dryer out of the basin. She took a phone, a power strip, a charger, a camera and additional stuff from other bags and threw them in the car. She thought about it, then handed the things to him and pointed with her chin. “Sorry to bother you, but please throw this stuff away for me. There’s a trash can over that way, fifty meters.” He took the things, all tangled up in a pile. His heart was as heavy as they were.
      They were on their way back up the mountain. They breathed heavily as they walked because they were carrying things, but she continued to talk incessantly, asking questions between gasps for breath.
      “My hometown is in the next county over. How about you? Are you a local, too?”
      “I can't hear any accent. You been to college?”
      “I didn't even graduate from a small, high-school-level vocational school. How old are you? Are you forty?”
      “More than that.”
      “Well, that’s a fair amount older than me. What's your name?”
      “My family name is Mu.”
      “Layman Mu, can you call you that?
      “If you want.”
      “Then, me, I’m... Layman Jiang. Ha, ha, Now my name is Layman Jiang. Ha, ha.”
      “It was getting dark on the mountain road. Her sudden laughter startled two birds in the forest.


      He had the habit of rising early. He’d run up and down the mountain for twenty minutes, then do push-ups, high knee lifts and stair step-ups in the courtyard. His upper limbs had always been a bit under par, and he’d often thought about buying a pair of stone dumbbells, but small ones would be useless and big ones would be too hard to get up the mountain. Later he said to heck with it, he didn’t necessarily need a respectable set of muscles, anyway.
      Halfway through his routine, he was sweating and the blisters on his groin had begun to itch again. He really wanted to get rid of his clothes, but then he remembered he had a guest. He stopped in the middle of yard, slowing his exercises judiciously, and turned his head to look. There was no movement yet in the woodhouse where “Layman Jiang” was staying. He was about to let out his breath when a shadowy figure slammed open the door. “Ha, ha. These wooden doors here have seams all over. I’ve been watching you for a while, for sure.”
      He resisted scratching and bid her good morning.
      “Too many mosquitoes here. I didn't sleep at all. Look at my arm.
      “The room you’re in was used to store firewood.”
      “But I didn't slap the mosquitoes. A layman can't take lives, right?” She seemed rather proud of herself.
      “I have some mosquito incense coils. I'll get a few later on.” As soon as he said it, he felt it wasn’t right. It sounded like he meant a long time later.
      “Have you smelled the porridge? I got up a long time ago and made it.” She scurried off toward the kitchen, but when she got half way there, she turned back and went into her room and got some canned goods.
      “I brought olives. Got some red tofu squares and dried radish in soy sauce, too.” She set the table carefully, looked left and right, then abruptly turned and walked away. When she came back, she was holding a handful of wildflowers that she’d picked. She complained that there was no vase and she’d have to put the flowers in a small bowl.
      His old wooden table suddenly appeared colorful, but he struggled to keep a stern look on his face. He lifted his chopsticks half way but then picked up his bowl of porridge and went outside without taking one pinch of the fixings. He sat in the courtyard, going through the motions of eating but not tasting the food at all. He heard the sounds of her sipping and chewing, and after checking through the window that she didn't need any more, he mopped up the last drops of the thin porridge. He felt embarrassed again.
      He spent the whole morning copying sacred texts. For her part, she took the mosquito coils and returned to the woodhouse for a nap and didn’t get up even for lunch. He made chow mien with mushrooms and greens as usual. Later in the afternoon, when he got hungry again, he got the soda crackers and set them out. She finally came out at that moment, looking like she’d had enough sleep. She poured some water and reached out to take a cracker, leaving crumbs on her chin and jacket when she ate it. "One of these days I’ll go down the hill and buy some other stuff. There’s imported animal cookies that taste very buttery!"
      He didn't say anything. He bought the most common things when he went shopping, except he chose good quality incense that made him and his guests feel peaceful when he lit it. He had some savings from earlier years, and visitors donated produce that was in season, so he was never pinched. The needs he did have were mainly psychological. Things like the bustling of the autumn harvest or the reunion of family and friends would make him feel sad and tired. If there were two chairs, one soft and one hard, he certainly wouldn't sit on the soft one. If both chairs were soft, he’d rather stand.
      She wiped her mouth and patted away the crumbs when she finished eating. Talking to herself, she went over where he’d been copying sutras to get a pen and paper. She wrote out a shopping list, mumbling the names of things as she wrote them down: “Macao egg rolls; animal cookies; Oreos; Truffles brand chocolates; instant coffee; granulated sugar. You, will you try something new? My treat.” She was gushing like she was preparing for a picnic outing.
      “I don’t need anything. I went down the mountain yesterday.”
      “How often do you go?”
      “I wait until I’m short on rice, noodles, dry goods, things like that.”
      “Oh.” She didn’t think much of that idea. “I plan on letting go! Things I was reluctant to eat before, I’ll buy them all now, and not be afraid of getting fat. You saw my car. I’ll sell it and be able to afford imported chocolate and imported cookies.” She laughed, but her smile wasn’t very pleasant to look at. Now he understood that her frightening look when she laughed wasn’t entirely due to her scar. It was because she didn't know how to laugh, didn't understand what "laughing" is. It was like someone who doesn’t play chess moving the black and white pieces around the board – just superficial movement of her facial features.
      “Don't keep staring at my scar.” She gave her bangs two tugs. “I could actually go to a plastic surgeon to get rid of it, but I keep it on purpose to remember my dad. It’s where he cut me with the back of a kitchen knife. He did it offhanded while he was making stuffing for dumplings. But the sharp edge was toward him while he sliced me twice, so he hurt himself twice. He bled more than me.”
      He’d been sitting half slumped over but jerked straight up when he heard that. He stared her, and she also looked at him unblinkingly.
      He’d heard many visitors’ stories since coming up the mountain. They’d wallow in the events of the past, sounding either intoxicated or miserable. Or perhaps you could say that misery is a kind of intoxication. Sometimes he’d compare their stories to his own, but of course this didn't make sense. For all of us, our physical existence is made up of our own past incidents like bricks make up a wall.
      “My dad split the next day,” she continued, “leaving me home alone with our family’s bankbook and two of his ATM cards on the table. You couldn’t imagine it, but I never saw him again after that.” Her eyes still didn’t blink, like she was in a staring contest.
      His eyes were tired and he looked away.
      “Hey, aren’t you going to ask why my dad cut me? Is this how you talk to people, just listening?” She looked up and laughed, as though she’d found an agreeable shortcut to conversation. “I know people are always making special trips up the mountain to talk to you, and they think it’s such a high-grade conversation. Well, I can do that, too. I can receive gusts like that after you’re gone. But you should ask me why he did it, so it’ll seem more like chatting.
      So he asked, “Your dad, why did he do it.”
      She avoided answering, however, and only clucked her teeth. “It didn't hurt me at all at the time, but I did feel hurt for my dad. It really would’ve been right for him to slice me with the sharp edge of the blade and decide things right then. He couldn't look at the old me anymore, and I didn't want to live with him looking at me.” Her eyes stayed perfectly round with her eyeballs equally distant from her upper and lower eyelids.
      He, on the other hand, wanted to blink.
      “To tell the truth, I’d been waiting for my dad to cut me. He really was stupid enough. He was just going to make dumplings right up to then, right up to when he started to chop up the filling and happened to turn his head and glance at me. He suddenly ‘discovered’ that my stomach was big. He was really too slow. I couldn't have stood it if he’d been any slower to make the ‘discovery’. You understand? I couldn't hide it anymore. I’d been covering it up for a long time, from summer vacation to winter vacation, and I was sick to death of the fucking cover-up. I was scared to eat my fill, and I had to fucking gasp for air every step I took. Hey, can laypeople swear?”
      “I don't.”
      “I’ll be careful from now on. But you should’ve asked, asked me, inside my big belly, who’s was it? My dad cut me twice and stopped. One side of his face was dripping with my blood, but he didn't care. He just asked me like this: ‘Who’s? Tell me who. I’ll go hack him to death.’ My dad could’ve done it. There was this boy in junior high, he wrote me a note. My dad found out where the boy lived and broke all the bowls in their cabinet. Hey, ask me, ask me who’s it was.” The way she looked, she was a little impatient with his wooden expression.
      “Who’s was it?”
      He found there really was a difference between asking and not asking. Even the simplest inquiry produced some feeling of getting involved. He even narrowed his eyes and concentrated.
      “That’s the problem. I don't know who’s it was. I didn't see clearly. I didn't want to see. I was in the city at the time, training to be a kindergarten teacher, and I went back to home during the summer vacation. I left the bus station and took a motorcycle taxi. He suddenly pulled me under an abandoned bridge.... All I remember is that he person was very fat and stank of sweat. I straightened my skirt and hurried home. I absolutely couldn’t let my dad know. There was no way he’d accept it. I felt sorry for him. I just didn't expect that my stomach would get big.”
      She stopped talking like she was waiting for him to ask something, but he was silent. She didn’t mention it.
      She giggled after a moment. “I was completely liberated when my dad left. I didn't need to hide it anymore, so let my belly go and ate, and I didn't have go to teacher training. I never even went out the front door. Four months later, I got up in the middle of the night to go number two. But it wasn’t a bowel movement, it was a flesh-and-blood child.
      He wondered if he should ask something. “What should I ask here?” He was somewhat concerned, but even more he was perplexed, perplexed about why she showed no pain. By this time other female guests would’ve gone through three packages of Kleenex.
      She looked around animatedly and suddenly took out her shopping list to add something. “Your chopsticks and chopping board are too old. I’ll have to get new ones. Oops, I almost forgot to write down vases. I’ll buy one tall one and two short ones. I’ll be able to put flowers and grasses and leaves in them. You think I shouldn't, that vases are really strange things to have, but you just nip the ends off things and put them in, and add some clean water, and put them somewhere you can see them. It’s strangely comforting.”
      He came to a decision. “Look at her," he thought, "she’s still playing the same tunes. This place really isn’t suitable for her."


      He saw his mother that night. He hadn't dreamed for several days and was glad of it. He thought he’d reached a state of dreamlessness.
      …. He was still on the playground, between the canteen and the basketball court. His mother had come from miles away and appeared suddenly. People were coming and going on the playground and the flow of traffic cut him off from her. He knelt down directly facing her. She buried her head in her hands and cried out loud, then suddenly reached out and slapped him, slapped him very hard. In the dream his whole head swelled up and hurt. Many co-workers and students stood around watching him in eerie silence.
      He came to realize he was squinting and abruptly woke up. That last part wasn’t a dream but a memory. He’d been promoted to associate professor in the spring semester of that year, one of the youngest on the campus; and exchange students headed to the University of Göttingen were going through the formalities. Without warning he wrote a note to the administration to tell them he was leaving. It was only because a problem in the laboratory delayed him for two days that he got word his mother was jammed up in the playground. He’d previously had a long discussion with his family on the phone, and his mother refused for the life of her to go along with him. She’d hurried over and slapped him in public, that hard. He understood: It was her way of washing her hands of him. In all these years, among all the guests who’d come to visit him from down the mountain, there’d never been a relative of his.
      This was something he’d hoped for in all his years of loneliness in the wilds. He really didn't want his situation to be intruded upon and broken up by "Layman Jiang".
      On the surface, the next few days were similar to the first. He ate breakfast alone in the courtyard. She went back to bed after eating, and only came out in the afternoon to eat soda crackers with him. Dinner was fairly early, and he carried his bowl into the courtyard as before. The foodstuffs he’d previously purchased, rice and noodles, would last him for almost a month, but now they were being consumed twice as fast. He calculated the time until they would run out and hoped that he’d be the only person in Cloud Gate by then.
      His counterpart seemed to have the same idea. She acted like she was Cloud Gate’s future master and looked things over even more closely. She was constantly adding things to her list of things to purchase: peppermint seeds, black pepper, black kernel rice, glutinous rice, pecans, sesame sugar, preserved fruit, etc. In addition to food, she wrote down every idea that popped into her head, as though she were devoting her brain to self-satisfaction.
     He really wanted to have it all out with her. The way she was, she might as well live down the mountain, in town, in her own apartment. Wouldn’t that be more convenient? Laypeople could live at home, after all. But then he worried that she could counter him with the same question. He had, indeed, asked himself that. Did he have to rely on Cloud Gate, and hold on stubbornly, in order to have solitude? This showed that his inner devotion was insufficient....
      He closed his eyes. He was willing to have that dream again, to once again kneel down before his mother, to once again be slapped until his head swelled up and ached.


      “Right, candles! I need to buy more kinds of candles so each place has its own style. And I can change styles, too, animal shapes, fruit shapes. On holidays I can light the scented kinds.” She wrote a few lines on her paper, “whish, whish”. She could never wait to light candles even before it was completely dark outside, walking around like it was some sort of entertainment, watching her own shadow move across the uneven, rough wooden walls, changing from dark to faint, now big, now small.
      He didn't use candles much when he was by himself. One reason was that the building’s walls and doors were wood; the other was that the candles melted too fast, dripping a river of wax, which he felt was an absolute waste. He usually sat and meditated for long periods in the evening and the moon provided enough light. Even if there is no moonlight, he could still see the soft radiance of the objects in the room if he was meditating calmly. Light that had accumulated during the day delineated blobs of muddiness as a bonus. When he opened his eyes after a long meditation, everything shone with inherent clarity and his inner self obtained seventy or eighty percent joy and happiness.
      “My dad taught me to how to do this, and I also taught it to my son.” She used both hands to cast shadow pictures on the wall, a dog, a cat and a dove, none of which looked very realistic. “You must’ve played this game with your children, too,” she probed in an abundance of curiosity.
      The room suddenly swayed before him, as if Cloud Gate were drifting in space. He wanted to deny it, but then he thought that he shouldn’t lie, so he nodded. To his surprise, he realized that his reluctance to light candles wasn’t due to caution or frugality. He couldn’t endure the swaying of the candlelight.
     “I only played that with my son twice and then stopped. A lot of fun games, like water pistols, wooden figurines, clown noses, I only played once or twice so as not to get too affectionate with him. Now that I think about it, I knew from the beginning that things would end up like this.”
      “A son?” He felt frustrated as soon as he asked the question. He actually moved back a step. He’d started to be concerned.
      “Which son are you asking about? I had more than one.” She said. She felt proud that he’d taken the initiative to ask a question. The candlelight reflected off her teeth when she smiled.
      He thought, “It’d be great if she could stop smiling at every little thing,” but he didn’t say a word. It was almost time to meditate.
      “I was talking about my second child just now. My first son, I didn't even wait until he was able to play games.” Her tone was obviously serious. “Having a baby is as easy as having a bowel movement, but you can’t just flush it away like you can with poop. It was always crying, ‘wah, wah, wah’. I was only seventeen years old. Where could I go with a child in tow? I couldn't pull my mother up out of the ground to help me, and I don't think she would’ve wanted to come back to life just to be my mother.
      “I was really impatient with that child, really annoyed. Fortunately, an older neighbor lady took it on herself to help me out. She also took on the job of selling off all our family’s possessions. She brought all kinds of people over. They’d go all around the house looking left and right at our stuff. It seems none of it was worth anything, and no matter how much she sold, it was never enough. One day the neighbor lady brought another woman over, an out-of-towner, and the two of them took turns holding the child for me. By then I’d already been stuck at home for three or four months – no, more than that. I was stuck at home from the time my dad left, so it was more than a year. I was dying to get out, to go anywhere. I just wanted to get away.
      “I was looking in a mirror combing my hair and saw the two women turning the child over and examining him from head to toe. I suddenly understood and was happy as all get out. This time they wanted to sell off the child. I had a mind to conceal it, thinking that I couldn't sell him like a piece of furniture or household electronics, not for that low a price. They had lots more experience than me. They were talking it over, nitpicking about what was wrong with him – ‘a stubby nose; back of the head too flat; jaundiced; hadn’t had enough milk; the bastard of a rapist. It’d be one thing if she’d been raped by a college student, but an unlicensed motorcycle taxi driver, how can the child ever amount to anything?’ And many other things.
      “Everything they said was reasonable, and I was really worried they wouldn’t want him. Take him! Hurry! Just buy me a train ticket to Shanghai or Guangzhou or Beijing or Nanjing,’ I told them.”
      The candle was burning fast. When it burned to the bottom, the flame jumped brightly and lit her up. Sure enough, she was laughing again, with her mouth wide open. It looked like a freeze-frame picture.
      He got up in the fading candlelight and went to his room to meditate. He wanted to spend an extra half-hour at it that day, to brush away the shadowy figures in the candlelight.