Chinese Stories in English
On the Fringes of the Angels of Death
A shadowy figure is walking between the dilapidated walls downtown. It's a weak, thin, middle-aged man. His clothes are ragged and dirt covers his entire body. Staggering, he comes to the ruins of a Wal-Mart underground parking garage.
A sign reading "Grim Reaper Group Headquarters" stands among the ruins. He goes in. Several vehicles immediately surround him, their horns honking. They're certainly Angels of Death, manifestations of the Grim Reaper.
The world has changed drastically. Assisted by the Lord of Supercomputers and Lord of Nanomaterials, vehicles have gotten smart and attained self-awareness. Their control, operating and micro-circuitry systems have been restructured. The various Vehicle Lords have joined in with the Lords of Supercomputers and Nanomaterials to gain complete control over human society, and have forced humans to be their flesh and blood slaves.
In the Vehicle Lords' organization, the Grim Reaper Group (formed basically by consolidation of the former Traffic Management Bureau, Vehicle Licensing Department and Driving School) is the most well-known. Its headquarters has been set up in a Wal-Mart's underground garage. In addition to drinking gasoline and diesel, the Group also needs the fresh bodily fluids of dead people to complete their metabolic processes. In spite of this, the man has openly entered the Grim Reaper Group's headquarters.
He requests the cars to allow him join them.
"Why?" The Angels of Death ask. They think it's a strange request.
"So, you didn't notice that I'm one of the walking dead? I'm a true ally of the Grim Reaper." He says this sincerely. Ever since he separated from the woman who was the love of his life, living has been the same as death for him. But one day he saw Angels of Death strutting arrogantly down the street, and it cheered him up. It was as though he'd run into some true friends, and he hadn't been able to resist following them here.
His request to join the Grim Reaper Group has left them a bit confused and they don't know how they should respond. They've never accepted a human into the group before. But being a vehicle is a very open-minded existence, so they tell him to come on in. In this way the man becomes part of the Grim Reaper Group. He will henceforth walk on the fringe of the Angels of Death.
The Grim Reaper Group is a new sociological organization of the large-scale, technology-intensive type. It was set up with a highly unified internal structure and a harmonious, orderly corporate culture. It has tens of thousands of vehicles of various types – they are the material carriers of death. It presented the market with a glossy, totally unique face when it debuted, with attendants crowding around acting imposing and dignified. You'd have no problems once you were on the road in their vehicles because they'd keep everything under control. Their steering wheels would never again be grasped by human beings, and they'd just go wherever they wanted.
And so the man is swept up into the Grim Reaper Group. He follows along with the deafening screeches of machines singing. He rolls forward in company with vehicles large and small. He embarks on this new journey like he's drunk or mesmerized, sniveling sorrowfully as if he's entered the Cave of the Immortals on a tour. In short, since leaving human society, his mindset is utterly changed.
He sets out like he's saying goodbye to his past. He rides in the lead vehicle, a ten-wheel Bentley truck. For forty thousand kilometers he's a mid-level cadre in the Grim Reaper Group. Death's heads and skeletons have been painted all over the body of the truck, representing the innumerable people who've suffered and died wrongfully under its wheels.
The man begins to talk to the Angel of Death. "You've got a tremendous convoy. Where are we going? "We really don't know where we're going," the Angel of Death replies. "Wherever we get to, that's where we're going. Maybe there's some sort of set goals in the Supercomputer Lord's programming, but we can't rightly say what direction the Grim Reaper's vehicles are headed. Isn't this what humans call 'freedom'? So now you know, I guess. Death is freedom. We don't have license plates."
In fact, they're going across the continent from east to west, carrying death to any place where there's a demand for it.
"That's great," the man says. "Maybe it's just what I need. My life before this was a waste."
The Angels of Death drive on a highway built during humanity's heyday. They travel along casually and unrestrainedly, stopping here and there for breaks. Viewed from the front vehicle, the faces of the Angels of Death are big, square and always grinning, not cold or rigid. Only when the convoy brakes do they show the chill demeanor that would make one's hair stand on end. Along the way they adorn themselves with the blood and body parts of humans and animals. They stick feathers on their bodies like the chiefs of American Indian tribes in the old days. Their savage beauty makes the man feel dizzy and inadequate. He comes to understand that everything he has previously experienced, living or dead, is actually infantile and not worth considering.
He can see these things so clearly only because he's sitting at the head of the column. Once he saw a ten-wheeler speed up suddenly to chase after a little girl who had strayed onto the highway. It went round and round her like a cat playing with a mouse, until finally it pounced on her and crushed her to death.
Another time he saw a bus pick up over a hundred men, women and children. Then it spewed them out on the road and herded them like a flock of ducks for a hundred meters. Finally it attacked them from behind and smashed every last one to death.... That's when the man first realized how safe his fragile body was, hidden amidst all that iron and steel. Oddly, it didn't seem like he was being given sanctuary by the Angels of Death. He was more like a dog walking along beside his master.
He'd climbed off the truck and leaned forward for a closer look at the mass of protein smashed up by the bus. The people's flesh had been torn to pieces and blood was spread all around. But incredibly, he could tell that right at the moment of death, some of them had been masturbating desperately. He wondered why they'd had to do that. After all, though, it's just the way it was. What's the point of being human? Later he'd helped the Angels of Death mix the fresh blood with gasoline and pour it into their fuel tanks.
The column passes through a city where some huge, unfamiliar buildings still remain. They look like high-rise mausoleums. The surviving humans infest the streets like rats, but when they see the Angels of Death drive up, they let out a terrified yowl in unison and turn around to flee. Suddenly there's no one on the street. Then the Grim Reaper Group's bulldozers come roaring up. They tear down the buildings, crushing the people hiding inside to death.
"They're scum, of no use to us other than fuel." The Angel of Death speaks coldly, as if it were just stating a fact.
The man suddenly wonders whether his woman might be among those who have just died. If a truck had been about to hit her, could he have rushed up and blocked the wheels with his own body…?
When the column passes into the countryside, he once again sees stretches of desolate loneliness, a wasteland of barren fields. Only a few old men and women are left there, waiting silently in their broken-down houses, curled up like hibernating snakes. The man can't help thinking of his own parents.... But the Angels of Death don't care about old people like that. They feel their blood is too thin and bland, lacking in nutrition.
The Grim Reaper Group battles with other automotive groups to win monopoly rights over the roads. War is one of the principal themes of this age, as is death. Without war, it would be difficult to efficiently satisfy the desire to taste blood during the long, dry drive.
The man has seen vehicles go into battle as individual soldiers, and has himself taken part in ambushes with a small squad. But the most spectacular sight was large contingents facing off against one another. That made the man's adrenaline boil as though he'd returned to the days of his youth.
With more troops than could fit on the highway, tens of thousands of vehicles had charged across the open country. The two armies were lined up in formations like opposing Great Walls and, when the order was sounded, their horns all honked in unison. With chaos and darkness everywhere, and no sunlight or moonlight, they charged recklessly toward each other and hit each with bone crushing, terrifying force. The collisions then had more power than thunderbolts, and a noise louder than collapsing mountains.
The Grim Reaper Group always prevailed, no matter which group it was up against. After a hard-fought, wide-open campaign, a mountain of vehicle remains would be left towering above the desolation, like bodies in the fabled elephant's graveyard. Tires, suspension systems, rivets, clutch assemblies, crankshafts.... all piled hideously together for the ages. Even the Angels of Death themselves were not inclined to go out and look at such scenes. They were long since inured to them.
At such times the man would pick up his camera and wander alone through the sea of metal debris, with hands trembling and eyes agape, diligently filming the scene. He seemed to draw from this all the power that mankind had heretofore dissipated.
He was also recording the history of the Angels of Death for them in detail. It used to be thought that only humans have history, but in fact that's not the case. Humans, just like the dinosaurs, have come to the end of their history. A new species is occupying the center stage of evolution. The man realizes that his former mindset and the way he'd been looking at things were really too narrow.
Many casualties were left at the conclusion of each battle. They would collapse wounded in the streets, every breath a moan. Other vehicles who had become ill would also be weeping softly. Often this was caused by impurities in the fuel, since humans had previously polluted the world. Broken axles, failed microprocessors, dropped crankshafts, non-functioning transmissions.... Such conditions were common. In essence, the Angels of Death were composed of matter, energy and information, which showed clearly that they had physiological limitations. They could not transcend the cycle of life and death. The man would become very anxious at such times. He already considered himself one of them.
Using the mechanical skills he'd learned in college, he worked together with construction vehicles brought in by the Emergency Services Group. He repurposed human blood collected in peacetime to make rapid repairs to the Angels of Death. Some Angels of Death recovered from their injuries and got back on the road because of his help. But many couldn't be saved. The man knew this was variable. He'd been taught as much in the first half of his life.
One time he picked up a book and read from it to the Angels of Death who were about to die. He read from one of Shakespeare's plays:
"To die: to sleep;
"No more; and by a sleep to say we end
"The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
"That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
"Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
"To sleep, perchance to dream!"
"Thank you. When you speak, even death becomes an art." An Angel of Death on its last breath was staring directly at him. The paint on its body was peeling and it looked like a friendless old man.
"It was the right thing to do."
"You're a friend of the Angels of Death. You'll be rewarded for that." Having said that, the Angel of Death leaned its cab to one side and rumbled its last breath. It seemingly had not felt the fear of death even the least little bit. The man, on the other hand, was stunned speechless. Looking at the pile of metal as big as a small mountain, he was profoundly moved, and also envious to no end.
A thought comes to the man one day. "What worries an Angel of Death?" he wonders. "Is it that they'll die, like human beings do?"
A vehicle, intrigued by such a novel idea, strives to answer. "No. Why would we worry about that? Saying the Angels of Death are afraid to die, well, it's downright blasphemous."
"So, what exactly do you worry about?"
Everyone starts talking at once. "Occasionally, it seems we worry that we've gone past our destination. We're going back and forth, you know, with no real destination." An ATV says that.
"But what's the use of having a destination, anyway?" a limousine interjects. "We don't need that garbage."
"Right. And we don't worry about matters of belief, either. We're gods ourselves, eh?" A hazmat truck mutters that.
"We've never hated anyone, so what've we got to worry about?" a light agricultural vehicle comments. "As for those bloody battles, that's just a part of everyday life, indispensable entertainment."
"Well, is it love? We do lack love, after all. Love in this place smacks of death!" A dump truck loaded with rocks shouts excitedly.
"No. Everyone knows we have a very delicate relationship with the Eros Group," a long-distance bus says quietly. "Even if we manage to get a little love, it's way too exorbitant. You've got to get hold of a lot of gas-blood mix to trade for it. So we knock ourselves out chasing down gasoline and human blood for the sake of love. But both these resources are too hard to find, so we haven't had a taste of love for a long time." The bus sighs deeply.
"So it doesn't matter whether we want love or not," a ten-wheeler concludes. "We won't wear ourselves out, body and soul, just to get love. Only human beings are that stupid."
The words feel like a knife stuck in the man's heart. Only then does he realize that he hasn't yet recovered. "Oh, I finally understand," he says, laughing at himself.
"Ah, you can't understand," an Angel of Death consoles him. "We can see that you're in love. You really should join the Eros Group. Haven't any of your friends told you to do that? That's weird."
"Friends?" the man thinks to himself, "I don't have any friends."
When humans ruled world, everyone had a life but it was distinctly death-like. No one cared about anyone else. Everyone who came up to him, they were all skeletons and pretended not to know it. There was only that one woman who'd been good to him. They'd been 'soulmates', to use the English word.... But he doesn't know how to explain these things to the Angels of Death.
"It was entirely my own decision. Because I think the Angel of Love hurts people too easily." The man speaks morosely, covering his face with his hands. At that moment the vehicles shout in unison, "OK, no more talking, we're hitting the road."
The column moves on. Towards evening, the sunset releases its rays of terror like a fiery flood. The Angels of Death go a little further and then stop to rest. They're already enveloped in darkness by then.
The column lies out horizontally like a shimmering strip of giant whales, gray backs floating up from the depths, covered in blood. Blackness oozes from the dark clouds that break up the moonlight. It's as though spears lay across the earth, intertwined, continuously floating, sometimes deep and sometimes shallow. A noise like owls hooting echoes 'wah-wah' in the valley, cold and desolate, shattering heaven and earth. Sorrow and anxiety batter man and beast alike.
As the man thinks about that day's conversation with the Angels of Death, a dark screen of paradox enshrouds his heart. He climbs up on the cold roof of the truck and sits in silence, clinging to his knees. He recalls all he's been through in his life of defilement and failure. He'd had goals, of course, but no path to reach them. He can't keep from crying his heart out.
He falls in a heap and goes to sleep, tired and hurt from crying. Before long the Angel of Death wakes up and, seeing how the man looks, takes the canvas from its own body and gently covers him up. More Angels of Death drive over slowly and form a circle around him, protecting him from the wind's chill with their steel bodies.
One day the column drives up to the rim of a volcano. The ten trucks crouch in the bushes like vicious tigers, not moving at all, as if pondering a question of some religious significance. Tens of hours pass before two horns suddenly screech, "Huh, you're a brave one, a lone human who dares to stay with the Angels of Death."
"So what?" By then he's been with them long enough to take things in stride.
"So what? We've decided to kill you." The Angel of Death's whole body shakes with laughter as it says that.
The man is startled and wonders to himself, "Is this a joke? They're a different species from humans, after all. They're so capricious. How could I have forgotten – Death is in their nature. "
But he soon calms down. Not willing to show his weakness, he says, "Kill me? All right, go for it!" Surprisingly, he feels like what he's been hoping for is finally coming to pass. Hasn't he been wanting to die? He could die here under their wheels, his body crushed and his guts spilled out on the ground. He didn't need the woman to come and pay her respects at his grave.
When they hear the man's answer, the Angels of Death swipe their windshield wipers to show their approval. They start driving but suddenly screech to halt. The man is thrown from the cab and off a cliff. But just before he hits the ground a crane shoots out its arm, hooks him, and pulls him up.
The Angels of Death laugh loudly. The man is put back on to the ground, his face ashen. He's drenched with sweat. He can't stop kowtowing and saying "Yes, sir! Yes, sir!"
His behavior puzzles the Angels of Death. They look at him in wonder and ask, "Do you like playing this game, or not?"
"I like it, I like it a lot."
"OK, shall we do one more?"
This time they don't play falling off a cliff. Instead, they have him stand in the middle of the highway while two trucks rush at him at about a hundred-fifty kph from opposite directions, one from the front and one from behind. It looks like they're going to smash him into a meat patty – but just before they hit him, they slam on the brakes.
The game is to see who can stop closest to him without hurting a hair on his head. Two trucks at a time face off against each other, and they go at it like that from early morning until late at night, and then again from midnight until early the next morning. The man stands there like he's backed up to the edge of a cosmic abyss, time and again watching death come whizzing at him as fast as a meteor, and then hurtle past.
In a daze, he imagines he feels a warm, moist, naked body pressing against him. It's his woman. She puts her head on his chest and whispers, "You have to make sure to marry me." He hugs her tightly, a knife twisting in his heart.... He comes to suddenly and sees an Angel of Death coming straight at him with open arms.
This has been the man's happiest day. When the truck's bumper touches the tattered belt he wears around his waist, hot tears of what seem like ecstasy roll down his cheeks.
Since the Angels of Death have joked and played games with him, he tells them some of the tales popular in human society. They listen intently and then cry. He really hadn't expected that. He realizes that one could not truly understand the absurdity of human creation without these superficially graceless vehicles. After they'd heard only a little bit, they could discern the anguish and sorrow hidden deep inside every joke.
"We humans no longer have Angels of Death like you. We want to live but can't, and seek death to no avail. Each day we continue to exist like zombies. You've never been human and don't know how difficult it is for humans either to be alive or to die. Our own Grim Reaper doesn't want to take care of us anymore. He'll give you a way out only if you bribe him – The road to life has ended, and the road to death is the best way. I don't know how many people want to commit suicide but get rejected because they don't have sufficient connections or back-stage supporters. This Grim Reaper tries to palm off vinegar as good wine. Every day he savagely ridicules those who are so grieved by love that they want to die, and claims without rhyme or reason that they're irresponsible. Death has become the most undignified thing in human existence. Only the most vulgar and low-class of people are able to die; they put up with behind-the-scenes manipulation. Those who are eventually able to kill themselves end up being ridiculed by the living. Pictures of their naked bodies get posted on the Internet and the living review them using obscene language. We can no longer take any delight in death, and the artistry of death has been completely cast aside."
The man has said these things brokenheartedly. The vehicles all honk their horns in sympathy.
The column continues on its way across the continent from east to west, and the man feasts his eyes on the beautiful scenery along the road. He sees imposing mountains, bleak deserts, verdant oases, the majestic Great Wall, and the undulating landscape that lies amid the infinite Scarlet Cliffs. Gradually, this heals his broken heart.
He strongly suspects that these views are deceptive, though, and mild feelings of surprise and shame grow in him – he has long been caught up in his private affairs and has forgotten that his scenic homeland is still there.... Is that what it is?
Eventually the column of the Angels of Death comes to the end of the road. They rest a while and then turn south. They cross surging rivers, solitary lakes, rolling hills, secluded parklands – Naturally these too are all soaked in pools of blood and covered with the cloying smell of raw meat. Finally the column reaches the sea. It's red. They stay there a while to reorganize, and then start out again.
This time they board a ro-ro ship as a unit to go to another continent. The Lord of Supercomputers has decided to send them overseas. "Even though we're Gods, we're still part of the world economic order," an Angel of Death explains to the man."
"Are you talking about globalization?" The man suddenly feels uneasy, apparently due to his ignorance and fear of that other continent.
"You can think of it like that for now," the trucks reply in one voice.
"Well, now you have a destination at last."
"No, how do you figure that?" an Angel of Death replies. It seems indifferent but slightly doubtful. Its monstrously leonine body shakes with a gurgling 'wah-wah' sound as its motor produces a sputtering but clear-cut roar.
The man is silent. He seems to have something caught in his throat. To the Angels of Death he seems like a wax figure standing motionless and gazing darkly out toward the far ends of the ocean. It seems that something strange there has captured his attention –might he be looking at another universe through the sunlit tips of the waves? The Angels of Death turn on all their headlights to look out across the water, but they don't see anything. The ocean is so big, can anyone really see across it? And what's on the other side, anyway? The Angels of Death look at each other in dismay and shake their heads in confusion.
After a long while the man seems to wake from a dream. There are tears in his eyes as he turns his gaze away from the ocean, which makes both him and the Angels of Death feel funny. A gust of sea wind redolent of bloody meat knocks the man off his feet. He raises his head as slow as a turtle and says, "But I can't go forward anymore. I can't go with you to the world on the other side of the sea."
"Why not?" In shock, the Angels of Death hold out their snow chains to keep him from leaving.
"The experience of our time on the road has brought me to an epiphany."
"And what is that?"
"Oh, it's that, even though I was like that with her, I can't leave her as long as I'm alive." He points at his chest as he speaks, like he's making a futile effort to prove something.
This makes the Angels of Death feel both disgusted and envious. They decide that, after all is said and done, human beings are incomprehensible. If they'd known about her earlier, they'd have sought her out before anything happened and crushed her to death, and thereby saved themselves some trouble —— But what if she's already left this world?
"It would have been for nothing," the man says listlessly and apologetically. "Maybe it's just my lot in life, because I've found that there's no way for me to turn my body into steel."
The ship is about to set sail by the time the man finishes speaking. He bows deeply to express his gratitude for the care the Angels of Death have given him on the road. Then he turns abruptly to go on foot back the way he came. He looks like a rice-paddy rat running off in a panic.
He's probably trying to return at last to his memories. He already knows what death is all about – nevertheless, it's just how he feels at the moment. He takes a deep breath of bloody air and, straightening his thin hollow breastbone, thinks to himself that he'll take death for life, like the Angels of Death do, and make an attempt at a long trudge across the continent.
"Well, I don't know where I'll end up, either, but this time I'll find her even if it takes the rest of my life. And it'll be best to let the humans' Grim Reaper stand aside and wait." He says that to himself.
*[Author's Bio at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_Song_(writer)]
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 288
Translated from version at http://hansong.blog.caixin.com/archives/16895#more
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