​​         Chinese Stories in English   

An Ear on the Street
Zhong Qiushi

      Someone said to Try-It: "You can’t hold your liquor like you used to. Even if you stand on your tiptoes, you can't hold half as much as before." Try-It grinned but didn’t say anything, quietly disagreeing with those calculations. The City of Kuncheng had grown a bit bigger over the last few years, and Try-It’s capacity for liquor had gotten a little smaller, and because of that his former self would indeed have looked down on him as he was now. Nevertheless, it wasn’t so much a decline in capacity as it was a decline in his desire to drink.
      Actually, he did still maintain an attitude of intimacy with the bottle. At least two or three times a week, he’d put in an appearance at a private banquet room in some restaurant – not business dinners but partying with friends. He wouldn't preach after he sat down, just offer toasts or respond to toasts sparingly in a mild and economical voice. But he was obviously respected, still, and people were cautious about trying to match drinks with him cup for cup.
      At gatherings like that, mouths were always kept busy, and not just with eating and drinking. They’d also gossip about the various things going on around town. When he gossiped, Try-It would also touch on other things conversationally, because it obviously requires a whole lot of effort to speak sparingly. And when things were winding down at the drinking table, Try-It would get up to go to the bathroom, and pay the bill with his bank card along the way. When someone else came out to pay the bill, the hostess would tell them softly, "The gentleman with the long hair has already taken care of it."
      Try-It was one of the few long-haired people in Kuncheng. A head of undyed black hair draped over his neck and made his face appear relatively thin. He looked a bit artsy and weird. No one knows when he started to grow his hair long. Anyway, as people remembered it, he’d been an avant-garde type during all the years since he came into town from long ago and far away. Someone heard that he’d trained as a kickboxer when he was young, and he liked his booze, so his draping hairstyle may have evolved from Jackie Chan’s look in the movie Drunken Master.
      When this kind of speculation made its way to the ears of his few close friends, they naturally laughed it off. They hadn’t forgotten that Try-It’s long hair covered a secret, a secret about his ear. In point of fact, this secret wasn’t unusual for people who, like Try-It, had a history of boxing. When you can’t avoid fighting and battling in your youth, it’s easy to collect scars from knives and fists, and if you go without a shirt during the summer, some of the scars will be displayed as badges of glory. Try-It wasn’t like that, though. He wasn’t willing to make his badges of glory public.
      That was why, for many years, almost no one in town had seen Try-It’s ears. As time went by, even his close friends lost interest in preserving the memory. A disfigured ear accompanying a man as he grows old, why keep that in mind?
      Of course, there were unexpected events during the course of Try-It’s life. About three years previously, an impetuous barber got interested in Try-It’s ear. A while after giving him a haircut, he described the ear he’d seen to people as though it were a deep, dark secret. Two days later his hair salon got trashed by a garbage can thrown into the store like a guided missile. The smell of decay lasted for a long time. Afterwards Try-It changed barbers to one who knew the meaning of a tacit understanding. It was his custom not to inquire about a woman’s age or to mention a man’s private affairs, and he expected others to abide by that.
      One evening Try-It went as usual to a restaurant to avail himself of a casual dinner party. Ten or so people were at the table. When he sat down, his eyes first swept over a circle of familiar faces, but when he looked again, he noticed two young women, one fat and one thin. This wasn’t unusual. People were always introducing new flora to these dinners to add to the atmosphere.
      The people settled down at the table and reached out with their chopsticks in orderly fashion toward the seafood and pasta that was served. After that they brought their wine cups into play, lifting them into the air and putting them down again time after time. Before long, as the wine lubricated their thoughts, the party entered the gossiping stage. One voice started out shrilly about the international trend to terrorist organizations, and how gunshots sounded out too often in various places around the world. Another put the kibosh on such concerns by pointing out that gunshots in the Middle East couldn’t reach Kuncheng no matter how many were fired.
      Thus the topic returned to the city. They talked about everything from the price property in a certain development to a robbery at a particular supermarket, and from the fishing on the river to the lousy weather. Someone said: "These last few days were clear one minute and rainy the next, like a woman’s mood when she’s having her period." Someone relayed these words to the two young women, the fat one and the thin one, and commented, “It’s not raining in our private room, so why do you two look so glum?”
      The fat woman smiled and said, "There’s food and drink here, so what’s to be unhappy about? She’s the glum one!" She gestured toward the thin woman beside her.
      The thin woman shrugged her shoulders and said, "My face is red from downing too many cups of booze. I’m not unhappy."
      Someone else said: "Whatever you’re unhappy about, tell us."
      "Then I’ll have to have another drink of beer," the skinny woman said: She took her cup and swallowed a big mouthful, then said: "This morning, a girlfriend sent me a message on WeChat. She asked, ‘Are you the one the notice on South Hill Street is talking about? I’ll shed tears if you don't answer.’ I answered with two words, “Silly B!’. Right after that someone sent a cautious text message to my husband, in effect asking him what he was restraining his grief about.”
      Someone said strangely, “Ha, somebody got killed. What happened?”
      “I asked around,” the thin woman replied, “and found out that a woman had indeed died on South Hill Street. Her name was the spitting image of mine.... What a wretched coincidence!"
      A voice asked, "How can you say a name is a spitting image?”
      "Her name’s Calm Herb Wang [王静芸] and mine’s Calm Cloud Wang [王静云]. Except for a slight difference in one character, the names could hardly be any closer, could they? In terms of age, she could almost have been my mother.”
      Still another voice asked, “How’d she die?”
      “A disease with a one-word name that I didn’t recognize,” answered the thin woman. "I heard it means the final stage of gastric cancer. From the time they discover it until you close your eyes is only one month."
      Someone gasped and said, "Now that you mention it, I know who Calm Herb Wang was. She ran a stationery store on South Hill Street. Her husband’s name is Highway Ye." Highway Ye is a rather outlandish name. Two or three people nodded their heads indicating that they’d heard of the man.
      Try-It looked at the thin woman and said slowly: "Your name, Calm Cloud Wang, is a nice name."
      She smiled "If you want to flatter me, you should say my looks are nice, not my name. We women, you know, that’s what we like to hear.”
      Try-It let the joke pass. “May I ask something? What day did Calm Herb pass?”
      “Either yesterday or early this morning, I think."
      "And this disease…. How is it that she only lived one month?"
      "Well, I’m not a member of her family so I don't know much about it. But I did hear she went to Shanghai for an operation, and when they cut her open, they took one look and sewed her right back up and she came home…. People from Kuncheng, they always want to come back here.”
      When Try-It didn’t say anything, someone next to him said, "In the final analysis, it’s the luck of the draw. Given her age, she could’ve lived for at least another twenty years."
      Someone else said: "You can pack a lot of living into twenty years. Banquets, travel, mahjong, and sex, too. Lots of good times."
      Another voice objected right away. "Twenty years when you’re already old, it’s the tail end of life. The times won’t be all that good."
      The fat girl said, "So when you’re in your prime, you’ve got to live it up while the living’s good."
      "You’re in your prime now,” someone said. “So do you go all out for banquets, travel, mahjong, and sex, too?"
      "Nonsense!” The fat girl said. “Women don't have to go all out to get a taste of that kind of life."
      “Does it have a taste?" The whole group laughed.
      Try-It got up to go the bathroom while everyone was laughing. When he came out he turned toward the counter to get the bill and swipe his bank card. After that he still stood, as if he was trying to think of something. He thought for a while and ended up deciding not to go back to the party. Yes, he felt there were a few too many people in there, and the conversation and laughter were a bit too much as well.
      He left the restaurant and strolled slowly down the street. It was the hustle-bustle time of day and the lights on both sides of the street were rather stimulating. He walked past a row of shops and turned into a side alley. After passing through the narrow alley he came to a street with a park in the center island. He found a bench there and sat down.
     This street park had been the People’s Square many years previously. There’d been a lighted basketball court in it, and the only movie theater in Kuncheng was nearby. There were always lots of people around the entrance to the theater. As he calmed down, it seemed a movie screen had been hung up in his mind. A bygone era had been caught by some hand and projected once again on the silver screen.
      Now he understood that he had come to this place to mull over an event from his past.
      The background of the event was rather far in the past. He counted on his fingers – it was thirty-two years ago, in the summer. Back then he sported a buzzcut and a set of strong muscles, and spent his days just hanging out. One sultry, vapid evening, he left home and came first to the front of the theater. When he saw there weren’t any good movies playing, he walked over to People's Square. Nothing fun was going on there, either, and he was left standing by the basketball court watching a bunch of guys running around covered in sweat. They ran listlessly with a basketball from this end of the court to that end, and back again.
      It was right then that a body brushed against him. He didn't think anything of it, but did glance at the fellow – a little guy with dark skin. The little guy’s face paled and he said, “You’re that…. Try-It, right?"
      "Who are you?” Try-It asked. “I don't know you!"
      "I’ve been looking for you for two days. Let's go over there and talk!” The little guy pointed firmly to one side.
      Try-It thought it was strange but followed the guy to a spot a few steps away where they stood in the dark. The little guy said, "I came to have a talk with.... You have to correct what you said before….”
      "What did I say? Fuck, I don't even know you!"
      “The evening before last,” the little guy responded, “you said you had a dream."
      Try-It remembered at once. There’d been a booze party that night. He’d drunk baijiu and then beer and drunk himself loopy. While he was drunk, for laughs he brought up a dream he’d had the night before. In the dream, he held a young woman in his arms and had a heart-to-heart with her. It seemed like he said some things to sweet-talk her, and then he did what he had to do.
      Someone next to him had asked, “What did you say to sweet-talk her.” He’d said, “How could I remember what I said in a dream. Whatever it was, it made the woman happy, though.”
      “What did you do to close the deal?”
      He’d said he couldn’t remember what he’d done in the dream, “But anyway, clothing came off piece by piece.”
      “I bet you remember the woman’s face. It was someone from town, wasn’t it?” He couldn't keep saying that he didn’t remember, so picked a name to answer the question as it had been asked.
      He’d only been willing to mention this dream because he’d been drunk, but now it was wafting around the streets of the town and had reached the little guy’s ears and made him angry. In the dark, it seemed like the little guy’s face got red hot while his eyes glowed with a cold light. Try-It almost laughed and asked, "What does my dream have to do with you?"
      His voice full of hatred, the little guy said: "The woman in your dream is my girlfriend."
      That stunned Try-It. He looked the man up and down before saying, "I just said a name, a name that could be anyone’s, and you insist on taking it personally."
      "You didn’t just say a name. You described her, too, and said she has a one-meter-long pigtail.... You can’t deny it now even if you want to!”
     Try-It was at a loss. He’d said a lot of crazy things while he was drunk, things he couldn’t make any sense out of. He realized right away, though, that he really had no need to back off this time. "Whatever I said was a dream. What do you care about my dreams?"
      “I have every right to care. I care about everything to do with my girlfriend!"
      "So what’re you going to do about it? Try something and see what happens!" The little man looked down and said nothing.
      "You spent two days looking for me to have a talk,” Try-It continued, “so say something!”
      The little guy still didn't say anything, and didn't move a muscle.
      Try-It said, "Or, next time you have a dream, when I’m peeling off your girlfriend's clothes in the dream, you can rush up to stop me...."
      Before the words were out of his mouth, a shadow jumped him from out of the darkness and the little guy’s body was wrapped around his. Try-It didn’t panic. He seized the chance to grasp the little guy’s wrist in one hand while the other clutched at his neck. This move is called a "windpipe seal" and can cause a frail opponent’s body to pull away and lock down. But his opponent had another hand left, and it flailed impulsively through the air. Try-It felt more pain than expected – it turned out that his opponent was holding a rock in that hand. Try-It had to let loose of the man’s neck to hack at his arm, and the rock fell to the ground in response. Try-It used his advantage to seize his opponent and lift him off the ground, jerking him up by the top of his head. This move is called "bird passes Heaven and falls", where the opponent can be spun around in the air and then thrown back down on the ground. Just as Try-It squatted in the horse-riding position to start spinning his opponent’s body in the air as part of the move, he felt another sharp pain in his ear. This pain was too intense, so acute that his ear started to go numb. He screamed and threw the little guy’s body down.
      Try-It had raised his hand to cover his ear when he saw the little guy picking himself up from the ground. He had something in his mouth. Try-It felt rather stupid and stared blankly at his opponent. The little guy seemed to laugh and spit something out on the ground. It was something wet and soft and was attention grabbing as it lay on the ground, even in the dark. The little guy took one stride forward and kicked the thing away. Try-It understood and flew flat-out at the little guy. The guy ducked and ran.
      On that summer night, two bodies sliced rapidly through the town’s streets, one in front of the other. People on the street didn’t know what had happened and stopped to watch. Before their very eyes, the two bodies sometimes drew near each other and sometimes pulled farther away, like two out-of-control wild horses that had charged onto the street. They had a hunch that if the two bodies ever came together, they’d put on a desperate show, a battle that would be fun to watch. Fights like that were seen less and less often lately.
      But the fight didn’t happen. The little guy had a temporary spurt of smarts in his running. He turned a corner and sprinted ahead again, straight into the police station at the mouth of Liberation Street. He thought that was a good way to save himself in this emergency. A minute later, Try-It stood panting in the door of the police station. Half his face was wet with blood from his ear.
      Now Try-It sat at the site of that battle thirty-two years before. He could still feel the pain in his right ear. This pain remained hidden in his memory until it met an appropriate time to slip out and prove that he'd had to wear a patch in the days of his youth.
      What also slipped out of his memory were two names. The man who’d bitten off half his ear was a small, skinny fellow, but he had the tough-guy name of Highway Ye. The young woman he’d been protecting was called Calm Herb Wang.
      He stayed at home alone the next day.
      He’d built an interior decorating company over the years, until he’d gradually gotten bored with it and turned it over to his son. His son busied himself with the company until he became a father himself and recruited his mother. Try-It had become a man on the margins.
      He spent a lot of time during the next day lying in bed, saving up his physical strength. In the afternoon, when someone called to invite him out drinking, he put them off. He said he had something to do that night.
      After dinner, and after watching TV for a while, he put on black clothing and went out. The thing he had to do was rather unique: he took himself to South Hill Street to spend the night on a vigil for the woman named Calm Herb Wang. People had created a new convention since cremation became customary in Kuncheng. When someone died, people would first cremate the body and then keep watch in the funeral home for three days. Tonight should be a relatively quiet night.
      He walked along a short street, then a long one which went up a hill and then followed the terrain down the other side. When he arrived at the old section of South Hill Street, with its traditional atmosphere, he asked directions and then turned into an alley. He saw a group of lights before him, and as he approached, he saw it was a small courtyard. Several wreaths had been placed in the courtyard and people wound through them accompanied by funeral music.
      He entered the funeral hall. The dirge was loudest there and incense was burning in a censer. A funerary urn wrapped in a red cloth lay on a square table before a portrait hung on the back wall. Try-It bowed three times, as was proper, then took a closer look at the funerary portrait on the wooden wall. The face was slightly chubby with calm, unruffled features, but a hint of hardship also showed through, not much different from the average women in the town. Try-It sighed quietly and turned his gaze. He glanced around and it seemed no one had noticed him. He took another look but didn’t see Highway Ye.
      Two temporary dining tables had been set up in an atrium in the courtyard. Several young men and women were eating and talking, apparently discussing online shopping. There were two more tables in a side veranda, one for poker and the other for mahjong. Try-It couldn't just stand there alone, so he strolled over to the mahjong table. He saw a familiar face at the table and nodded. After a moment, when the players finished a hand, one of them answered his phone and said “yeah” a few times. He said he had to leave and asked Try-It to sit in. Try-It felt almost compelled to do so to keep the game going.
      The game continued. Try-It wasn’t a master at mahjong, and was also feeling a bit unsettled, so he made some obviously impetuous plays, sometimes picking up the wrong tile and sometimes letting go of one he should’ve kept. He relaxed a bit when someone alerted him to his mistakes.
      The person who looked familiar said, "I know you’re from the west side. The head of a company."
      "Not any more,” Try-It said. “I’ve turned the company's business over to my son."
    "Are you a relative of Calm Herb’s or a friend of Highway’s? I haven’t seen you much here on South Hill Street.”
      Try-It played a tile and said, “When she passed, I had to come send her on her way…. Where’s Highway? How come I haven’t seen him?”
      "He’s here. Isn’t that him burning joss money over there." Try-It turned to look and saw someone beside the funeral hall, but the figure was so fat that it didn’t look very familiar.
      While Try-It was distracted, the man who’s place he’d taken came back. Try-It calculated his losses, fished a few bills out of his pocket and got up to leave. He walked slowly toward the chubby figure and stood beside the smoky burner. The chubby body twisted around and raised a serious, round face to look at him. He squatted down close to Round-Face. The fellow saw nothing amiss and said, "Burn a few of these, to send her off."
      Try-It picked up a wad of joss money from the floor and carefully put the bills one by one into the fire. The flames burned up and down like a mystical dance. While he was looking at the flames, he abruptly said, "My name is Try-It."
      Round-face didn't understand and didn't say anything.
      Try-It said, "I’m Try-It from the west side."
      Round-face was stunned and straightened up, giving Try-It a hard look. Slowly he turned his eyes away and said, "If I saw you walking down the street, I wouldn’t recognize you."
      "You’re squatting here in front of me,” Try-It responded, “and I can't recognize you."
      “To go from a skinny little body to a big fat one, seems like all you need is time.”
      That summer years ago, Highway escaped a beating by running away, but he didn’t escape the fate that came knocking on his door. He hadn't realized that running into the police station was both a clever and an idiotic thing to do and when the clever part was subtracted from the idiocy, what was left amounted to a jail sentence. Half an ear and a bloody face provided the police and the court with conclusive evidence of mayhem, and Highway was sentenced to two years and six months hard time.
      There’s no way to know Highway’s frame of mind during those two and a half years, or what Calm Herb was thinking, either. For his part, though, Try-It was quite despondent. A good deal of his physical strength drained away. The only thing he wanted to work hard at was to create a Beatles-style hairdo.
      After two and a half years, he heard the news that Highway had been released from jail. Some time later he learned that Highway and Calm Herb had married. Only then did he feel that the affair had come to an end. He regained some peace of mind and his days became much brighter.
      Kuncheng gradually became a more rollicking town over the following years, with all kinds of novel things happening. There was no need for him to remember the unhappiness in his past. Nevertheless, when he had occasion to pass by South Hill Street, he’d make it a point to look at the shops on both sides of the street, because he’d heard that Calm Herb had opened a small stationery store there.
      Once or twice he thought he’d seen her on the street. She was leading a boy by the hand and, judging by her attitude and actions, she’d become a skillful mother. He couldn’t say for sure that it was her, though. All in all, there were some differences between the mother he saw and the women he remembered. As for Highway, with all the people coming and going on the street, he’d never seen his small, thin figure. Now he knew why.
      It got darker as the fire in the burner gradually went down. Highway stared at the coals and said, "What are you doing here?"
      "When someone goes, one comes to wish them well on their journey.”
      "Can you wish her well?"
      "Don't talk like that. The deceased is the important one. I’m not lying about my intentions”
      Highway’s face showed nothing. After a long while he stood up and said, “Sit over there.” He walked to a side of the court yard where there were some empty chairs. It looked to be darker and more peaceful there.
      Try-It followed him over and sat in a chair at right angles to him. A square stool on which a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray had been placed was between them. Highway took a cigarette and pushed the package toward Try-It. Try-It waved his hand – he’d developed a cough and quit smoking the year before. Highway lit his own cigarette.
      They were silent for a while. Then Highway said, "Calm Herb didn’t have anything to do with you. That’s what she always told me."
      "She told you the truth."
      "She didn’t know you before, and still didn’t know you when she died.”
      “Yeah, that’s how it was,” Try-It said.
      “Someone we didn’t know, and our lives get pushed into a hole.”
      Try-It spoke more slowly. “Right now, it’s better … if we don’t speak of unhappy things.”
      Highway didn’t respond.
      When Highway didn’t say anything, Try-It continued, "I came here tonight to say some things I’ve had bottled up for many years. If you like, I’ll tell you. Otherwise I’ll say them to myself."
      Highway took a drag on his cigarette. "Go ahead.... I’ll listen, and Calm Herb will be listening, too."
      "Calm Herb said she didn't know me,” Try-It began, “but I knew her.... I remember it was an afternoon, a drizzly afternoon, and a shadowy figure appeared in the alley." As he spoke, he pictured that alleyway from thirty-two years ago in his mind. That afternoon, he and several of his buddies had gotten into an unfortunate verbal altercation with another group of young men. They’d agreed to meet the other group to settle things, and the site of the rumble was the mouth of that alley. He had an iron ruler as long as a flute hidden on his person when he and his buddies rushed to get to the site first. They hid in corners along the walls at the mouth of the alley to wait for their opponents.
      It was a spring day, but the weather wasn’t pleasant. They maintained their positions for a while, but couldn’t any longer when it started to rain. He stared hard at the mouth of the alley with the muscles of his arms twitching, impatient from the wait. That’s when the shadowy figure came strolling out slowly from back in the alley.”
      He took a breath and said, "When I’ve talked about this in the past, I definitely felt a bit unsettled. I don't think I’ll feel that way this evening."
      "What shadowy figure did you see? Tell me." Highway demanded.
      “It was a girl with a nice figure, in her early twenties, wearing a black skirt with a flowery top and carrying a yellow paper umbrella. She stepped lightly and looked very unassuming. The rain dripping from the roofs made the alley seem kind of tranquil, and it made her figure alluring. At the time, I was in a bit of a daze. I thought her figure was beautiful and couldn’t take my eyes off her. She walked close to me and right on past, so I could see her pigtail down her back. It was a meter long and swayed enticingly as she walled.”
      Try-It smiled in embarrassment. “What’s a good way to put it?” he said. “It was like a scene in a movie: A young woman carrying a paper umbrella in the drizzle, walking slowly out of an alley, step by step toward the street."
      Highway coughed lightly. "You’re talking about something in a textbook…. Was the woman Calm Herb?"
      "I didn't know who it was at first. I just felt very contented, like my heart had been rinsed clean by the rain. I had another feeling, then, too, that I didn't want to go through with the rumble, or at least that a fight wouldn’t be any fun. In fact, the rumble hadn’t happened anyway, because our opponents had either got scared or were playing some kind of game. Anyway, they never showed. After we left the alley, my buddies and I went to a small joint for drinks. We drank and drank, and I kept thinking about the paper umbrella girl walking through the alley. The next day, I went to see some guys to ask what her name was. I gave them the location of the alley and the one-meter-long pigtail, and right away I found out that her name was Calm Herb Wang.”
      Highway took another cigarette to replace the first one. “You mean...you took a liking to Calm Herb with just one glance?”
      “I was young back then and didn’t analyze my motives. I just felt that my heart had been thrown for a loop. But it doesn’t seem like what you said, that I ‘took a liking’ to her at first glance.”
      Highway coughed again and didn’t respond.
      Try-It continued, "After all these years, I’ve finally come to understand. I didn't take a liking to the woman in the alley. It was the entire scene in the alley that I liked. Calm Herb was just a character who was in the scene at the time."
      Highway forced out a puff of smoke. "I don't get you,” he said, spitting out the words, “and I can't swallow what you’re saying, but I’ve got to tell you something. Calm Herb was not an eye-catching woman. She wasn’t pretty, and she wasn’t uninhibited."
      "She... wasn't pretty? I don't know what to say…. She must’ve been a good person, though. She waited those two years for you."
      Highway nodded. "I had problem. The two of us were bound together, inseparable. But no matter how you put it, the sun didn’t shine brightly on our lives. I have a temper and we bickered a lot...."
      “Why do you say ‘the sun didn’t shine brightly’ on you?"
      "We wouldn’t have had any money if we didn’t have that store. Our child didn’t get good grades in school. If I went out to play a round or two mahjong, she’d nag me.... little things like that."
      "Who’s life isn’t like that in our town."
      Highway was quiet for a moment. Then he took another cigarette and said, "She didn’t have it as good as some people in this town, but no worse than others, either. Until she ended up with this disease. Then she suffered more than others."
      He paused for a moment, then continued, "But that’s life. You’ve got to take it as it comes."
      They both went silent. The dirge became more distinct, suffusing the atmosphere with the flavor of a requiem. After a moment, Try-It sounded out Highway: "You said she wasn’t pretty.... How about when she was young? The image I’ve had in my mind is a good-looking face. Can you... can you let me see some pictures of her when she was young?”
      Highway studied Try-It silently while he took a few drags on his cigarette. Then he put the cigarette out, got up and went to a nearby room. He came back shortly hugging photo album over his fat belly.
      He put the album on the stool and dragged the stool to a spot with more light. Try-It sat in front the stool and opened the album. It was a collection of family photos, but pictures of Calm Herb slightly outnumbered the others. His eyes fixed on her pictures as he turned the pages one by one. First were photos of her in middle age. She was already chubby and, judging from her expression, rather weary and befuddled. Then came Calm Herb as a young woman, holding a child by the hand with a wane smile on her face.
      He turned a couple more pages and saw Calm Herb as a young girl. One picture showed her standing alone at some scenic spot; in another she was sitting in a chair in a photo studio with two female companions. There was also a black and white portrait. At that time she’d been quiet and guileless, and she wore a long pigtail. In the portrait the pigtail was draped across her chest, adding to the impression of youth. What could be seen with certainty, however, was that Calm Herb had been a plain girl with a normal temperament. He could find nothing to catch the eye about her face or body.
      Highway sat quietly beside him, taking one drag after another on his cigarette. He seemed to be waiting for Try-It to say something. Try-It didn’t look away from the album, but in his mind’s eye he was seeing that alley from so many years ago, and the young woman who’d walked out of it. Yes, that fascinating, pretty girl was same person as the ordinary woman in the album, which was rather disappointing. Nevertheless, he also understood that, after all these years, the woman he remembered and the real, live Calm Herb were not the same person.
      He thought about it carefully again. Everyone’s physical appearance probably has something wonderful about it. To put it more elegantly, a person can emanate something called a distinctive style whenever and wherever you’re facing them in appropriate lighting. This is a point that Calm Herb herself likely never anticipated. She couldn't have imagined that, on an ordinary day in her life, she’d become the prettiest of all women in someone’s eyes.
      Suddenly, Try-It felt that he shouldn’t be depressed.
      He closed the album and, looking for something to say, commented, "While I was looking at the photos, I thought how quickly time slips away. We spend time as quickly as we spend money."
      "No, they’re not the same. We can earn more money, but we can’t get back the time we spend."
      "You can get children back. Your children get bigger every day, and eventually have a family and a career of their own, but they give you new children, too. Life’s like that."
      This idea made the corners of Highway’s mouth turn down. He lowered his head and was quiet for a few seconds. Suddenly he looked up and said, "Calm Herb asked me something several times. Now I’ll put the question to you."
      "Go ahead."
      "She asked me, ‘What happened to the half ear you bit off that time?"
      Try-It was at a loss for words. Highway continued, "I said to her, ‘How would I know? I really wasn’t concerned about it at the time.’"
      Try-It nodded. "We were both running away from there, where the half ear was laying on the ground."
      "You didn't go back and look for it?"
      "It was the next morning before I thought of looking for it. I didn't find it."
      "Calm Herb thought that if it’d been found, it could’ve been reattached. Things would’ve been much better then."
      Try-It got a lump in his throat and for the moment didn’t know what to say. All he could do was sigh quietly.
      Highway was quiet, too. His mouth moved but no sound came out. Try-It said, "What were you going to say?" Highway’s face grew taught and he shook his head.
      Try-It thought for a moment. It seemed he had nothing more to say, either. It had gotten dark and fewer people were in the courtyard. Highway said he was going to burn some more joss money. He stood up and left, and before long a flame flared up on the other side of the courtyard.
      Try-It was drowsy, but it wouldn’t be proper to sleep. He only allowed himself to close his eyes and rest them for a moment.
      As soon as he closed his eyes, the funeral dirge rang out again and wandered monotonously in his ear. He tuned it out after a while, and it seemed to become lighter and farther away. He seemed to see something floating in the haze. It was a black and white photo, a quite large one. The photo showed one of the streets in town, and a man appeared on the street. He had short hair which revealed half an ear on his right side. After walking through the downtown area, he turned onto a side street and waited in front of an alley. The depths of the alley were empty, and nothing happened for a while. Then the man raised his head and looked to see if a drizzle had fallen...
      At that moment something bumped into the man. The man and the alley both disappeared, like a fade-out scene at the end of a movie. Try-It flicked open his eyes and saw Highway’s round face. He shook off his drowsiness and heard Highway speaking. "I have more to say."
      Try-It nodded. "Go ahead."
      Looking serious, Highway said, "I was just thinking things over. We have to tell Calm Herb that we met here.”
      Try-It blinked and straightened up.
      "You came here like this,” Highway continued, “and I can't just not do anything."
      “What are you going to do?"
      Highway turned his head and gestured to the other side of the courtyard.
      Try-It walked with Highway along the corridor to the funeral hall. It had gotten quieter around the hall – even the dirge was at a significantly lower volume. Highway pointed to the funerary urn on the square table and said, "Calm Herb is there…. She’s certainly not resting in peace, concerned about the two of us."
      "Mm. So tell me, what are you going to?”
      “I think we have to fight.”
      Try-It’s heart sank. “Was it wrong of me to come here this evening?”
      Highway’s tone grew harsh. “We won’t talk about right or wrong this evening. Since we’ve seen each other, we just have to fight!"
      "That’s a weird idea. I don't understand."
      Ye Road said: "I can only bring this to a close if I fight you again. But this is different from last time. We’ll just fight with our mouths, like a game of blindfold chess." Then he added, “We have to let Calm Herb hear."
      Try-It remained silent. He didn’t understand.
      The two men shifted their feet and positioned their bodies so they were looking at each other. Highway said, "I’ve had two fights in my life, both for one woman."
      "I’m a lot older now,” Try-It said, “but I’m not afraid of this kind of thing. Your move first."
      "I’m short, so I attack low first. I step forward first and grab both your legs with both my hands!"
      "That’s an old move, and a crude way to fight."
      "It might be crude, but I can use my strength to tip you over."
      "All right, then,” Try-It said, “I just move my feet and grab your wrist in one hand and your neck with the other. It’s a martial arts move called ‘windpipe seal.’”
      "I have two hands – while you’re holding one hand, my other hand strikes at your abdomen!"
      "I really was careless about your other hand. I don't know what you’ve got in it.... Is it a rock this time, or a sharp knife?"
      “I didn’t need a knife back then, and I don’t need one now. A rock will do just fine!”
      “The pain makes me stronger. I pull back my hand and chop the rock out of your hand. Then I grab your body and lift it up. You’re up in the air and then you go flying. It’s the ‘bird passes Heaven and falls!’ move."
      “Wait a minute!” Highway said. “You’re going to use that trick? You’re willing to use it again?”
      “I won’t make the same stupid mistake. This time I’ll skip the whirling-around-the-head part. I won’t let your mouth get close to my ear…. I’ll throw you to the side as soon as I lift you up!"
      Highway’s face sank. "You still seem to think you can beat me so easily."
      "I’m not as strong as I was before, but you aren’t either," Try-It replied.
      "But there’s one thing you haven’t counted for!"
      "What’s that?"
      "I’m not as strong as I was, but I’ve got a lot more meat on my bones. The shape you’re in now, can you still pick me up?"
      Try-It couldn’t think of how to answer. He stared at his opponent’s body – stared for a several seconds – then started laughing. As he laughed, Highway’s face also gradually relaxed, as though he’d unloaded a layer of tiredness.
      The two men stood face to face for a long time. They seemed to have forgotten that it was the middle of the night.

2017 年中国短篇小说精选  Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017. p. 079
Translated from 旅行中拒绝旅行 at

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