​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Confused Starlight
The Night Mums Bloomed (Wu Sumei)

      Skirts phoned Heroine before returning to South Flat. “A beautiful woman’s coming there on holiday. Do you want to straighten up the place to welcome her?”
      A two-second pause before Heroine realized that Skirts was talking about herself. She smiled. “Not only that. I’ll even bring out my husband and share him with you.”
      “Even rabbits don’t eat the grass around their own nests. Still less would an educated and well-balanced person like me.”
      After some more bantering, Heroine asked Skirts when she would arrive.
      “Day after tomorrow.”
      “OK, I'll clean up the place and have Rice pick you up.”
       “No, definitely don’t do that!” said Skirts. “I don't want to ride in Rice’s old wreck.”
      “Only a Mercedes would be worthy of you, and that just barely. Well then, Should I roll out the red carpet at the station and arrange for an honor guard?” Heroine was satirizing her.
      “Shrew. It’s a shame poor Springtime Cheng fell into your clutches.”
      “Yeah, Springtime awaits you to rescue him from the boiling cauldron. When you get here this time, remember to be gallant.” Heroine was laughing.
      When she hung up the phone, Skirts pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from under a pile of cosmetics. “Why can’t I find my lighter?” She ran barefoot into the kitchen, opened the gas valve, turned on the switch, and stuck the end of the cigarette a little way into the greenish flames. She basically never used her kitchen, except the gas, which she used primarily to light cigarettes.
      This would be the first time in four years that Skirts Zhou had returned to South Flat. Even though Springtime Cheng and Heroine had gotten married during that time, she hadn’t gone back to attend the ceremony. Her father had moved to Cloud County, too, so she only had a few distant relatives left in South Flat, people she wasn’t close to. Even if she ran into them on the street, they’d have to look twice before they recognized each other.
      She had a mediocre relationship with her father and saw him at most four or five times a year. It was always when her father was on a holiday. He’d get himself fixed up carefully from head to foot and arrive at the restaurant early to wait for her. She was usually unkempt and listless. Her father would reach for the check first, and while she understood that she should pay for herself, she didn’t want to have that much dialogue with her father.
      Her father lived in the old section of Cloud County. He and a woman had opened a convenience store. Skirts went there once. The woman was thin and rather charming. She sprawled over the counter listening to
Huangmei opera on the radio and humming along softly. The store was dimly lit. There were bottles and jars strewn all around, and boxes of merchandise in piles.
      When she got to South Flat, she saw Rice as soon as she got off the train. He was wearing a white tank top and a pair of western-style shorts with a leather belt around his waist. She walked up and slapped him on the chest. “It’s been years, Rice. You’re a lot better built now.”
      He took the bag from her hand and admired her openly. “You were the flower of our school, but you’re even prettier now.”
      “Plastic surgery.” She took off her sunglasses and pointed to her nose.” “A thousand yuan.”
      Rice’s eyes grew wide.
      “You got married, I guess,” Skirts said lazily as she got in his dilapidated old truck.
      To her surprise, he retorted, “Who would I have married?”
      “Wasn’t there anybody you liked,” she asked, laughing.
      Rice smirked and concentrated on his driving. Skirts leaned against the window and looked out. All at once South Flat, the place she was familiar with, had suddenly gotten smaller, narrower, less lengthy, more crowded, shorter. The place held fully eighteen years of her memories, all the minutia of her life for those years.
      She sighed. She didn’t like taking walks down memory lane. Strolling through the past, things might look the same, but the people will have changed. It could choke a person up. But in the end she’d wanted to come back here for a look. There’re always some things you have to see with your own eyes before you can really believe it. She’d returned this time precisely to endure that painful procedure.
      Springtime Cheng and Heroine stood at the corner waiting for her. Skirts waved to them. Heroine had cut her hair and was quite a bit heavier than before, but Springtime was still tall and thin and wearing glasses. He lived up to his school nickname – "flag pole".
      He smiled and greeted her. “How’s things, Skirts?”
      “Still going good. Just can’t find a husband.”
      “Hey, don’t start complaining the minute you get here. Act like it’s a homecoming.” Heroine patted Skirts’ shoulder as the two hugged.
      “OK, first let me wash off the road dust and give me a welcome-home dinner, and when I'm full of food, I’ll fill you in on my family’s painful revolutionary history.”
      Heroine pulled her aside and whispered, “Do you mind if I ask someone else over, too?”
      “Is it an old boyfriend of mine?” Skirts winked at her.
      “Damn, we haven’t seen each other in years and you’re not circumspect at all.” Heroine rolled her eyes.
      While Skirts was washing up, she heard Springtime say in a loud voice, “Come on in, Easy.” Her heart skipped a beat. She lowered her head and held her breath, half her face still covered with cold water.
      When she went into the living room, she saw a pretty, long-haired woman in a black, knee-length skirt standing beside Easy Huo. She had dazzling eyes and an acerbic smile.
      It was a rather strange scene. Springtime coughed lightly and introduced them.
      Studious Yuan. It was a name for a well-bred young lady, and Skirts knew as soon as she heard it that this was a highly educated woman with a high-grade career. She may have gone in through the kitchen, but she’d come out through the dining room. Skirts raised her eyebrows and squeezed out a smile, but when she saw the cold look in the woman’s eyes, she suddenly felt lifeless.
      She turned her eyes to Easy and he nodded to her. “Nice to see you, Skirts.”
      For a moment she couldn't find a suitable response to such formal politeness. All she could manage was a dry “You, too.”
      And that’s the first conversation they had when they met again after such a long time. She’d often imagined the scenario when they’d see each other again. He’d always had a meaningful look in his eyes, but now, he just looked cool and collected.
      She had five cups of baijiu white lightning at dinner, drinking a toast to each of the others in turn. Heroine frowned and didn’t drink as much. “Don't expect me to take care of you.”
      Skirts patted Springtime’s shoulder and said, "Your wife’s just being a proper lady, Springtime. Have you ever had her pour a bucket of cold water on you when you were drunk, to sober you up?"
      “We operate under a planned economy in our family,” he laughed. “My wife controls the amount I drink.”
      Skirts clicked her tongue and turned to Rice. “What Springtime said is an example of why you need to be very, very careful when you choose your wife.”
      Rice broke straight out in a grin.
      They all played mahjong after dinner. She sat in the honored guest’s seat between Easy on her right and Studious on her left. Skirts was an expert player, but she just went through the motions because the stakes were so small. She often blatantly passed good tiles to Easy. Heroine kept giving her sideways looks.
      Skirts was smoking as she tossed a tile out. Easy reached out to draw a tile, but Studious suggested that he pick up the tile Skirts had discarded. Easy was a bit embarrassed but his hand changed direction and he picked up Skirts’ tile.
      Neither Rice nor Springtime objected. They went along with Skirts and lost money to Easy. In that one night Easy won more than two hundred yuan. He knew it hadn’t been a real contest and wouldn’t take the money no matter what they said. He and Studious left together at ten o'clock.
      Skirts knew she’d been too presumptuous and even coquettish feeding tiles to Easy, but he’d turned a blind eye and ignored their past. Meanwhile Studious had sat there beside her and accepted it like it was none of her business. When Skirts closed her eyes, Studious’ emotionless face swayed in front of her eyes, delicate, peaceful and reserved.
      These last few years she’d always speculated about what kind of women Easy had around him. None of their faces looked like that. Skirts was most leery of this sort of woman, a woman whose innermost self couldn’t be fathomed, a woman who showed no more reaction than the ocean when a stone is dropped in and swallowed up, never to be heard from again. She herself lived in brightness while that woman stayed in the dark. Her every move would fall within that woman’s expectations, and the anguish, it would crash solidly into her heart.
      The guest room in Heroine’s home faced south. That night Skirts lit a cigarette and stood at the window, looking down on tiny little South Flat. The fourth floor condo was the highest in town, and none of the buildings there had an elevator. Only a smattering of lights struggled in the tranquil night. The town had gone early into nighttime silence, and the people had gone to sleep calmly and stress-free.
      There was a confused jumble of stars in South Flat’s night sky, giving the town the look of a drunken man’s hallucination. Skirts looked up and was momentarily dazzled, dazzled by her own existence and changes.
      She had fond memories of this exquisite little town. As she recalled it, the place was always drizzly. Moss seemed to be everywhere, spreading story upon story. Skirts hadn’t been in the habit of carrying an umbrella, so she was often soaking wet when she got home. She’d had a warm home at that time.
      When she got up the next day, Heroine was already setting the table for lunch. She looked at the drowsy-eyed Skirts and joked, “Are you over the jet lag?”
      Skirts reached out her hand and covered Heroine’s brow. “What country’s Chinatown do you think you’re in?”
      They’d all had dreams of going abroad. One day when they were sophomores in high school, the English teacher abruptly announced that this would be her last class because she’d soon be going to the United States to study.
      This put the classroom in a boil. Everyone was fascinated by the term "go abroad," even if they weren’t clear about exactly what it meant. They only knew that their gentle teacher’s departure for a far-away place was imminent. She was excellent enough to be able to go.
      With her chin resting in her hands, Heroine had said longingly, “Skirts, I want to study abroad, too.”
      “Don't dream so far ahead,” Skirts answered with a laugh. “Be careful or you’ll have to repeat sophomore year.”
      “Don’t you want to?”
      “I do.” Skirts hesitated. “But I’d rather go to England.”
      “Then let’s agree on this. You go to England and I’ll go to France.” They both laughed out loud.
      This was destined to become a joke. A year later, something happened in Skirts’ family that would bring an end to her old life. Even more possibly, it should have put her life in a sharp decline.
      Heroine, for her part, had always been a moderate if not bland female, quite qualified to remain in the middle of the pack in all respects. Getting ahead was too much work for her. She didn’t do well in the college entrance exam and went to work as support staff at the South Flat Health Center, and married Springtime in ’99. He’d opened a straw mats workshop. It wasn’t a get-rich-quick business, but they were on their way to a comfortable life.
      When they were fifteen, Springtime had given Heroine a letter. After hemming and hawing for a long time, he asked her to give it to Skirts. She hesitated before taking it. When Springtime left, she sat alone on a swing next to the playground and slowly tore the letter open. She read it word by word. At sunset, in a slight breeze, she swung on the swing as she tore the letter to shreds. The ground was littered with pieces of paper so small that their original order couldn’t be discerned.
      Easy was a Department Manager for a joint venture. There wasn’t much room for promotion, but the salary was acceptable. The work had become a rather boring sinecure.
      The first turning point in his life had come from following Skirts. It was when they were on a break during the college entrance exam, and they were in a standoff under a blazing sun. They’d been baking there for fully an hour. After finishing the exam in her favorite language class, Skirts had decided to drop out – she wouldn't take the exams in any of the remaining subjects. He wanted her to finish the tests. To force her to change her mind, he’d tossed out a sentence that he’d regret for the rest of his life. “If you don’t go back to the test hall, I won’t go, either.”
     He loved her so much, and thought he could move her with such forceful language. He couldn’t have expected it, but he’d put his money on the wrong number. Skirts really did harden her heart. She’d abandoned herself to despair and didn’t hesitate to drag him down with her.
      The minutes and seconds slipped through their fingers as they watched. As they watched, they were cast aside by time, to a faraway place. As they watched, the door slammed shut on their fate, along with the door to the exam hall. In the 102-degree heat, Easy’s hands and feet grew cold. He stared wooden-faced at Skirts. She showed no expression; her eyes were empty holes.
      Later, Easy had a recurring dream that he and Skirts were boating on Lake Tai. The weather changed dramatically and a storm capsized the boat. Skirts didn't know how to swim. She grabbed on to him tightly with both hands and seemed determined to drag him down to his funeral. He couldn't break free as she her arms wrapped around him like suffocating rockweed. He could feel the two of them sinking inch by inch.
      Then he’d wake up, shocked at the horror of it. He’d sit up and take a deep breath, smoke a cigarette, have a drink and take a cold shower. He was resolved never to make the same mistake again.
      He didn’t have the confidence to repeat senior year and went instead to a last-chance college. It was deserted there during the days but crowded and noisy in the evenings because it accepted adults who wanted to take refresher courses or do research. The parking area by the front gate was filled with cars and motorcycles, and over time, a bunch of hawkers selling mutton kabobs set up booths here.
      In such a place, Easy didn’t have ideal friends to hang around with like he would have had in a regular university. He gradually put his devotion to his first love behind him, and once he’d stopped longing for her, he understood that his complete blindness that year had been nothing more than the makings of his own funeral. She could have comforted him, not left him with a lifetime of regret, at least as a gesture to put an end to the quarrel. But she hadn’t. She’d tacitly approved of his sacrifice, even though it was of no real benefit to her.
      There was no way Easy could let that go. When he saw Skirts again, an idea flashed in his mind. She owed him. He believed without doubt that, even though she’d been young and impulsive, she’d had an obligation to persuade him to finish the test, to stop him from ruining his life, to save him from himself. He believed that true love was when two people would jump into the water at the same time, but the one who didn’t know how to swim would do the right thing and let go of the other’s hand. He’d done his part, but she hadn’t done hers.
      He’d met Studious Yuan at the turn of the millennium. She was two years older than him. Her father was the deputy mayor of South Flat, and the guy often hinted that he need only become a part of the Yuan family and a government job would be readily at hand. Easy knew that there was no future in continuing to work for the joint venture, no matter what, and that he needed to blaze a new trail in his life. Thus Studious became the second turning point in his life, the difference being that this time it was a turn for the better.
      He wasn’t in love with Studious, at least not deeply. She was soft on the outside but hard as steel inside, with a kind of reserved incisiveness. Easy hesitated about whether he really wanted to marry a woman who always thought things through so meticulously. At bottom, he was afraid that most of the freedom would be pared away in a life with her, and that he’d become a pawn in her chess game.
      Studious’ feelings about him were also lukewarm at best. She quietly watched him playing hard to get while he considered and reconsidered the pros and cons.
      Two other men were pursuing her as well. One was the slightly bald owner of a private business in his early thirties. The other was one of her father’s subordinates, by nature a timid fellow who was neither servile nor overbearing, but whose every smile was obvious flattery.
      Easy was undoubtedly a better catch than they were. At least he looked dignified and she was proud to be seen with him when they went out. The content of a marriage didn’t matter so much as long as it appeared outwardly satisfactory. Otherwise it would invite people’s tedious sympathy.
      Studious was quite confident of the outcome until Skirts showed up. She’d heard a long time before about what had happened between her and Easy, how two A students had skipped the second session of the college entrance exam and shook up the whole school. Easy Huo and Skirts Zhou had been expected to score well and win glory for South Flat High. What had happened? The Principal was so angry that his heart condition flared up again, and their home room teacher had overturned the desk in his office.
      Skirts Zhou had left South Flat the next day and reportedly went to Guangzhou. Easy Huo was disheartened. He’d quietly taken the next session of the exam and was eventually admitted rather disappointingly to a second-rate college. Many people advised him to take the test again the next year, but he insisted on going to college right away and left South Flat in early September. When Studious witnessed their cool reunion after so many years, she’d noticed the melancholy in Skirts’ demeanor.
      As soon as Studious closed her eyes that evening, she heard the sound of a struggle in the deathly darkness. This rattled her to her bones. The song was not yet over, and it was going to be a long night, filled with dreams.
      Skirts walked aimlessly by herself through South Flat’s tiny commercial district. She was wearing her sunglasses. Her eyes glanced around at the colorful clothes in the windows, gaudy colors. The clothing was made from poor quality fabrics and was long out of style, showing South Flat's backwardness in the world of fashion. A few years previously she’d loved this place. She’d stare at the windows, a look of longing on her face. The goddess’s apparel of yesterday’s dreams had become a farce.
      Skirts had long been gone from this place. Her whole person was out of step with what she saw around her. And she was getting further and further away, but she didn’t know exactly where she was going. The farther she got the more unwell she felt, but still she kept stumbling forward.
      When she turned to head back, she realized she didn’t know where she was. The town was peaceful, even dull, slow-moving and rather colorless. It was like a wild daisy compared to the majestic lotus of Cloud County.
      The city had been etched all over Skirts' person. The luxurious aspects weren’t part of her, but she’d come to like them or at least grown accustomed to them. She saw the scene in South Flat from an outsider’s viewpoint and felt indifferent, alienated and incompatible.
      Her eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, but her entire body exuded frigid cold as she walked alone down the street. She felt no warmth of homecoming, only the sentimentality of seeing places she’d frequented in the past.
      All of them were firmly implanted in their own ways. They had a network of relationships that they could enjoy to their heart’s content, living in peaceful calm day after day, year after year. She’d become a stranger, uprooted even from the place where she’d once lived, and the various events of her past life were mere flotsam in her memory, hardly discernable.
      She bought a pack of Salems from a shop at the end of the street and smoked while she walked. The passersby looked at her with raised eyebrows, but she remained perfectly composed and looked back with astonishment or disdain. Then someone recognized her and called out her name clearly, “Skirts!”
      She stopped and saw a slender woman in dark clothing. She had to think a moment to recall who it was. Auntie Gu, her mother’s sister.
      Auntie Gu walked over and looked Skirts up and down. “You’re taller. Where’re you living now?”
      “Cloud City.” Skirts hesitated, wondering whether she should take off her sunglasses. She threw her cigarette away to show respect.
      “Your father’s OK, I assume.” Auntie Gu didn't seem to need to know the answer and kept on talking. “I felt sorry for your mother, lying in bed with nobody to take care of her. You weren't there at the time, and your father’s too cold-hearted. None of us neighbors could do anything for her, really.”
      Auntie Gu was just like she’d always been – never anything good to say about anyone, always talking about old grudges whenever you ran into her, and going through the grizzly details right to your face. Skirts answered with silence.
      Auntie Gu kept on talking. “Your mother was a good person. She got that kind of sinful illness….”
     “Auntie, I have something to do and have to be going.” Skirts didn’t want to listen to anyone judging her family. Auntie Gu still had a bellyful of things to say and was quite unhappy to see Skirts turn around and walk off.
      The Zhou family was after-dinner conversation for the people of South Flat in 1999. Their affairs were like an exciting theatrical production, one scene after another from the Beijing opera “Newborns Don’t Yet Stink”. Then one by one they’d left the stage. The family got to be old news in people’s eyes only after Skirts’ father, Prosperous Zhou, moved away in 1999. People gradually stopped talking about them. If people did mention them occasionally, it was only to hash over a few old banalities about loathsome husbands, sick wives and crazy daughters.
      Shortly after Skirts left, a steady flow of large sums of money started being remitted from Guangzhou. The postman always road up on his bicycle, put one foot down on the ground and shouted, “Old Zhou, a remittance from Guangzhou.”
      Only those few words, but still leaving plenty of room for imagination. It didn’t take long before everyone in South Flat knew where the 18-year-old Skirts had gone. Prosperous Zhou didn’t care one iota about people’s bizarre suppositions. He stuffed his pockets with a smile on his face and went out gambling, or slipped it to a young girl migrant worker at the textile factory.
      The following year, he requested long-term sick leave from his employer and became a complete loafer. He was indifferent to his wife and hired an old woman as her nursemaid. He felt that was more than enough to satisfy any duty he had to her. He certainly didn’t follow his daughter's wishes to get the best treatment for her. Further, in a short letter to the family, he deliberately concealed his wife's condition. Of course, he sometimes told his daughter the truth about the deterioration of his wife's condition, to get her to make more money faster. It all depended on much he needed money at the time.
      He had his own rationale. The hospital couldn’t diagnose his wife’s illness, so how could they prescribe the right medicine? Since the hospital couldn’t do anything, the illness must necessarily be terminal, so naturally there was no need to throw good money after bad. It was better to settle in at home and do the best one could while facing death, to live one day at a time. What else could be expected of him?
      During her illness, he’d waited single-mindedly for her to die. He hoped that she’d just let it go and bring his worries to an end, and let him enjoy another period of salad days before he was completely decrepit. His wife was a virtuous woman by nature and knew that she had no possibility of recovery, so she suffered her husband’s curses in silence. She hung on, if barely, for two years, then passed away quietly on an autumn night. It wasn’t until half past ten the next morning that the old nursemaid found her stone-cold body.
      Half an hour later, someone found Prosperous in the young textile worker’s bed. As soon as he heard that his wife was gone, he immediately pulled up his pants and rushed home. In high spirits he issued commands regarding the funeral arrangements as if he’d been planning it for a long time. Several women stood far in the background pointing at him. They said “That Prosperous Zhou can’t wait to beat the drums and set off firecrackers.”
      Then they cooked up a theory that Prosperous was the real executioner. If he’d been around when his wife’s illness came on, he could certainly have done something to not let her die. He’d cut off her medicine on most days, which kept her from treating herself and gradually dragged her towards death. He was not only absent at the crucial moment, he was asleep in another woman's bed. You could say his wife hadn’t died from her illness, but from anger.
      Prosperous had his own explanation. Her illness right then was untreatable, and it was better that she be set free than live on in misery. “I couldn't bear seeing her waste away day by day,” he said. “The sooner she died, the sooner she’d be reborn. There was no need for her to endure all that pain.”
      When Skirts arrived at home, she only saw a small black box. That was one result of the decision to sacrifice herself that her mother had made in pain. Another result was that Prosperous was all dressed up and ready to go at the age of forty-five.
      Many people whispered in her ear declaring, not without embellishment, that Prosperous had abused her mother. They told her how he’d been hanging around with a migrant worker girl; how he’d not given her mother proper care for her illness and had even stopped medical treatment; and how he did nothing but wait for her to die. He hadn’t honored Skirts’ intentions with regard to the money she’d sent back over the past two years. Her mother hadn’t meant anything to him, and if he ever thought of her at all, it was only to wish that she’d hurry up and die.
      Skirts left South Flat at the end of the seventh day after her mother’s death. During her period of mourning, she hadn’t turned against her father or tried to get revenge as people wished she would. Nor had she interrogated him about his actions or asked for a return of her money. When she was face to face with her father, all her anger just turned into endless tears.
      If she’d known that all her sacrifices would be trampled down into worthlessness, and especially that her father would use the money to chase other women, she never would have left her mother. She certainly wouldn’t have torn her heart apart on that midsummer’s day and dug a grave for her first love with her own hand. She wouldn’t have gone south to Guangzhou and embarked on that road with no return.
      The last two years turned out to have been a scam. Her emotions had risen and fallen based on a few isolated phrases in her father’s letters, but in the end, she’d learned that the letters had only squeezed the youth out of her. As she knelt numbly before the  memorial tablet and burned one thin paper funerary gift after another, she fully grasped in a flash all the affection she’d felt for her mother. And she saw that everything was turning to ash, that everything was gone with the wind.
      She didn’t return to Guangzhou. She stayed in Cloud City, not far from South Flat. There was a time she went to the university for an English language refresher course. There were times she went to night clubs wearing heavy makeup. There was a time she bought a fake diploma and lied her way into a white-collar job in an office building. She got acclimated to Cloud City in just one short year.
      For Prosperous, life in South Flat lacked any interest, and he was also worried that Skirts would no longer care for him, so he sold his house in a hurry and moved to Cloud City, too. He bought a storefront with money Skirts had sent him previously and opened the convenience store selling cigarettes and sundries. He made like he just wanted to spend his golden years there.
      His woman might have been the migrant worker from South Flat. Or maybe he’d hooked up with her in Cloud City. Skirts hadn’t asked. She just thought she had an unexpected stepmother and laughed off her distress.
      She’d already made the decision to bid her father adieu, so she didn’t ask him about his life. For his part, Prosperous didn’t know Skirts had already written him off and there was no way to keep the relationship going.
      If it weren’t for something that happened in March 2002, Skirts would never have returned to South Flat, back to this place she saw as part of a prior life. During summers there, a type of brilliantly colored caterpillars would often drop out of the lush trees, accompanied by the sound of much buzzing. The locals called them "hairy stingers" because, if one of them should touch you, your skin would break out in an unbearably itchy rash.
      Skirts had been stung by them numerous times. Easy had always carefully helped her apply some medicinal soap, and in only a short while, her skin would cool off and the itching would stop.
      Skirts had always remembered his gentleness, and still did. She’d never forgotten him right up to the present. Back then when she’d dragged him down with her, she’d felt shamefully satisfied inside. She’d been determined to cut herself off, but the empty future loomed before her like a black hole. She’d been so afraid that she’d pulled Easy into despair with her. She hadn’t wanted to rouse him for fear that, if she did, he’d no longer love her. She’d rather that he hate her afterwards, because hatred is love transformed.
      But during her few days in South Flat, Skirts had met most often with Rice. Rice had dropped out of high school before finishing his first year and opened a trucking business. He wasn’t like Heroine, who couldn’t get time off from work, nor was he as busy as Springtime, so he shut his business down for a few days and drove Skirts in his worn-out truck to see the scenery around the lake and the mountain to the far west of South Flat. The lake was Taihu, and the mountain was Yangshan. Many years ago, their gang had gone rafting on Taihu, and they’d also stolen fiery red bayberries from a farm on Yangshan.
      There were clouds in the nighttime sky that summer of 2002, and also stars that hadn’t been seen in a long time. Rice stopped the truck by a river and walked down the stair-like bank with Skirts. Recently many people had died along this stretch of the river, with their bodies floating downstream. This caused shocked concern among the populace and also brought out curiosity seekers. The causes of death weren’t clear. Even though the corpses had been fished out of the river and carried away, the spirits of the dead still lingered. The crystalline waters were dark now, sluggish, mysterious, as though it were another world.
      Skirts took off her shoes and set them aside. She extended her feet and let the river gently wash against them. When they were children, Easy had often scared her by saying there were demons in the water who would grab people and drag them under.
      Now Easy was going to get married. An invitation had been sent to Springtime's family, and its bright red had stabbed Skirts’ eyes. She’d held it in her hands and turned it over and over, examining the two names in the corner, Easy Huo and Studious Yuan. They couldn't wait one moment to send them out, knowing that she would soon be returning to Cloud City. They just couldn't wait to present this good news to her. Was it revenge or a demonstration of power?
      They’d done it deliberately. Or maybe it was just that her arrival had precipitated this long-delayed marriage. Her appearance here had brought these lovers together, each with their own motivation.
      Skirts decided to go back to Cloud City the next day. She didn’t want to say any false best-wishes to them. Her Easy had long since ceased to exist, the young Easy that she'd sent to his grave, the sincere youth she’d forced to taste the cruelty of life. It was time to make a clean break and go home.
      The river was rippling along. Her feet felt like they were floating. Looking up at the stars with her hands on the ground, she told Rice, “It’s really like when we were kids.”
      Rice was squatting beside her. He looked up, seeming perplexed, and asked, “What happened when we were kids?”
      She stared at the sky and murmured, “Under the distant stars in a peaceful sky like this, there’s nothing you can’t put behind you.”
      Rice didn’t know how to answer and just said, “Oh.”
      After some time, Skirts lowered her head slightly. Looking straight ahead into the gloomy darkness, she said, “The first time my mother got sick, it was in the spring. She stayed in bed for a long time without moving. I walked over and saw tears on her face. Then she said, ‘I’m not well.’
      “The doctors said it was a strange disease and they couldn’t find the cause. He said they couldn’t even give it a name. Rice, do you understand that my mother had a nameless disease? How very strange. Unprecedented. Bleak. Lonely.”
      Her voice got lower. The land on the other side of the river, which was now a factory, was her former home. Her mother's soul might still be still there. Perhaps she was staring at her that very moment.
      A boat came by, its engine roaring. The calm of the river was broken.
      What Skirts didn’t tell Rice was, one night in March 2002, the left side of her body had suddenly lost all sensation. It was the same symptom her mother had had. She’d called emergency with her right hand and told them, distressed, “I’m not well.”
      Skirts knew that she’d been carried into some vortex, and was falling deeper and deeper, and the deeper she fell the more helpless she became. Fear of the unknown enshrouded her like the deep blue of the starry sky.

21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Internet Compositions, p. 34
Translated from
here, also from 豆瓣小组 at https://www.douban.com/group/topic/4678008/

To get Chinese text by return email, send name of story to jimmahler1@yahoo.com