Chinese Stories in English
An Enigmatic Ending in Thomas Hardy’s Poetry
Jude's face was covered with crabs. He’d been a lawyer in town during his life, but right now the bridegroom’s face was covered with crabs and the little guy's pinchers were blocking his eyes. He really looked dreadful. The police officer gestured for the coroner to remove the body.
Everyone made way. Someone said they’d seen Jude in front of a bistro on Sesame Street the previous night, drunk, leaning on a windowpane and throwing up violently. Another voice said no, the last time they’d seen him was at the wedding reception, where his face was flushed and he was drinking toasts and draining the glass with every guest while his wife played the piano.
An assistant held a bamboo basket up in front of the police officer’s face. A crab’s pincher stretched out from the basket and waived around aggressively.
At noon, tasty steamed crabs were arranged on a snow-white plate along with delicate condiment dishes full of ginger sauce and vinegar. In the dim light, a bouquet of flowers on the table obscured the face of the policeman’s wife. Her gloved hands broke open the crab shells with practiced ease. She didn’t look at her husband and wasn’t concerned about the piece of crab meat dangling from the corner of her mouth. "He could have been considered a friend of yours, Dear," she said.
It was precisely because he was a friend that the policeman had gone straight to Sesame Street that night. Usually he was more concerned with his mahjong game than with a speedy investigation of his cases, especially deaths. Speed clearly seemed useless once the person was dead, but Jude had been his friend. Cops and lawyers, such well-matched friends.
While he was off to Sesame Street, his wife had lain on the couch on the balcony, reading a collection of Thomas Hardy's poems by starlight. One of the poems was "The Newcomer's Wife". Her black tea had gotten cold. The teacup coaster was frayed at the edge and she’d casually tossed it into the trash. Instead she used volume five of a complete collection of Victor Hugo’s stories as a coaster. Volume five happened to be "Les Miserables", which has a chapter describing how Javert commits suicide by jumping into a river.
Her teacup and a carafe of milk sat on top of the novel. The evening breeze carried a chill and the pages of the book she was reading fluttered. She nodded off and felt that she was walking alone in a dream through a wood where the ground was covered with dry leaves. By chance, under a cliff, she met a paper-cut silhouette in the shape of a man. He claimed to be Victor Hugo. He’d been spread flat on the ground, but he rolled his body and stood straight up. He had the cheek to ask if he could walk along with the woman.
Javert had died by jumping into a river, and so had Jude, but there was no necessary connection between the two. Neither had acted from a passion for rivers and neither was a mainstay of literature.
The policeman darted into the bistro. First he found himself a corner and gestured for a drink with one finger. Naturally the people who hadn’t heard of Jude's death paid no attention to him; the drinkers continued to drink and the flirters continued to bat their eyes. But those who did know a little about the situation looked at him with a tacit expression in their eyes, as if they were ready to hear some further news at any moment.
The bistro was full of loose talk. You could believe any of it you wanted, or you could take it all as just so much hot air. "Last night, was it a special day?" The policeman was asking a question to which he already knew the answer.
"You have to ask?" The man grinned broadly, showing teeth so yellow they looked red. "You have to ask? It was Jude's wedding day!"
The policeman looked in disgust at Yellow Teeth’s chicken-breast pumping like a bellows. “Laugh if you want,” he thought, “but why do you have to hiss out your stinky breath and make me sick?” He held his breath and turned his face aside, asking only a few brief questions, then hastened to leave his seat.
The policeman wondered, “That lawyer was usually meticulous and straight-laced. Why didn’t he stay with his new wife? Why not just die happily in bed? Why did he have to be a jumper?”
He asked three workers, and all three just shook their heads. They’d spent the whole night playing dice and hadn’t seen a thing.
The waitress gave a good answer. She said he’d drunk quite a bit and made a mess throwing up in front of the bistro, but not a drop was from this place. The boss squinted his eyes and added, “That’s right, I’ll swear to it. He’d drunk a lot, and someone saw him throwing up in front of my window, but he really never set foot in this place or drank even half a mouthful here.”
The policeman paid his bill and left the bistro, feeling depressed. He looked around and found the window Jude had vomited in front of.
Jude's widow was looking in a mirror on her dresser, removing her makeup. Her attitude was blasé, not at all like a newly widowed woman, until she saw in the mirror that the policeman was outside her window. Then she grabbed at straws, howling at heaven and earth to mourn her loss. She glanced out the window at the police officer, who looked like a casual passer-by, then picked up her horse-bristle brush and stroked her hair again and again.
Long, dark brown hairs fell from her head and scattered by the bedside, like a dandelion sowing softness. They abruptly became tangled like an ocean of seaweed, rippling, unyielding, embracing a drowning man as he died.
When the police officer climbed into bed, his wife was sleeping soundly, hugging the volume of Hardy's poetry.
There was a poem in the collection that said, what was it? "Yes, being a stranger he sees her blent / Of all that’s fresh and innocent, / Nor dreams how many a love-campaign / She had enjoyed before his reign!”
The lawyer had just received his license to practice when he’d rushed into the town, all excited. He’d heard that there were big-leaf black beauties here. Big-leaf black beauties are a kind of spider.
The lawyer sat around in a tea shop for a while asking people for information about the big-leaf black beauties. He’d been told that there was only one bus between the provincial capital and this town each day, but he waited until the bus was leaving before he grabbed his bag and ran to catch it.
The driver wasn’t willing to do a good deed. He’d just as soon let late-comers spend a night on a hard bench in the station feeding the mosquitoes. He enjoyed seeing them the next day because they looked so thankful when they finally got on the bus.
Just as the lawyer was about to give up, one hand extended from the door of the bus. He grasped it tightly and pulled himself on board. A man about his own age was sitting in the front row and the lawyer nodded to him in thanks. As he carried his bag toward the rear of the bus, the lawyer accidentally stepped on a wrinkly- faced old lady's foot. She muttered a complaint and then went back to her nap.
Just then they came to a steep slope and the bus started to bounce violently. Chickens were clucking and ducks were quacking. Someone yelled at the lawyer for almost cutting his chicken’s head off. The lawyer apologized repeatedly, then finally found a seat in the cramped space. The man in the front row turned his head and smiled at him.
He finally met the man formally a few months later. The police officer rushed into the law firm with a file. Jude happened to be talking to a typist and looked up to see the visitor. He identified him as a police officer. A lawyer and a policeman, the two of them shook hands. The policeman smiled openly and said he needed a lawyer’s help in an important matter. If it couldn’t be resolved, he might not only lose his supposedly secure job, it might also affect the reputation of his wife’s family.
A list of names had turned up in the materials in a mob gambling case, and the policeman’s name was on it. The signature and fingerprint of the person who’d filed the complaint testified strongly to his honesty. The policeman was looking for a lawyer to handle the matter cleverly, to find a technicality to screen out the details from the list.
The morning after he visited the bistro, the police officer received an early visitor in his office. A dwarf. A female dwarf. She had bulging, apricot-yellow eyes and was wearing lake-blue eye shadow. She said she’d seen the lawyer go into the river with her own eyes, "but I couldn’t tell if he jumped in, or if he’d been drinking too much and fell in.”
"Please sign here." The policeman handed her a paper. "Tell everything you know in more detail. Don’t forget to indicate your profession."
The female dwarf’s bulging eyes stared at the policeman in surprise. "So you’ve forgotten. I sell flowers. You bought over a hundred of them from me. I said, ‘Buy some flowers for your wife, sir. If you don’t you’re done for.’ Right away you threw down the coins, and you didn’t waste any time doing it. I have to thank you for seeing me as the Plague God, just throwing me money to appease me and not taking my flowers. I didn’t have to give you even one flower in exchange. Truth is, I think the flowers I sold you all bloomed in vain. I’d say the flowers sold to you only bloom once in Your Honor’s mind." The policeman hurriedly got someone to show the blabbermouth dwarf to the door.
As the policeman was pouring sugar into his coffee, one of his men reported that a woman had come in asking to see him. It was lawyer Jude’s widow. She handed him a copy of The Daily Globe. The policeman glanced at the headline and said, “Everyone knows this paper is a muckraking rag. You needn’t take it seriously.”
The widow took off her sunglasses. The policeman picked up the newspaper and read the lead story in a low voice. "We all call her a rental wagon / But she acts cautiously without leaving a trace / She’s rather gaunt / But still quite good-looking / As for the rumors and the slander / They’ll soon be forgotten." The policeman was in a stir, not knowing what would be the best way to console this beleaguered beauty in black.
The policeman and his wife had received an early wedding invitation that the lawyer had had someone bring to them. His wife glanced at the invitation and only snorted contemptuously. The policeman didn’t dare go to the reception in any event.
He’d been next door playing mahjong at a friend’s home on the night of the wedding. The laughter and merriment from the lawyer's home, the melodious music, played at the policeman’s heart. Unlike his cold wife, who preferred to curl up at home doing nothing, he would have liked to join in the fun.
His friends gossiped while they played mahjong. “An item published in The Daily Globe quoted a worker saying, ‘The union has agreed to allow tea to be served during the noon breaks,’ but limiting it to one cup per person is really a bit stingy.”
One of the players glanced at the radio and said, “All the sugarcane fields in the south are being used as battlegrounds, and the price of sugar’s gone up to its highest point in nearly two decades.” He was interrupted by someone saying, “It’ll be great if women's hemlines go up to the top of the thigh.” The bored men’s laughter was drowned out by the woman’s decadent voice on the radio.
No artillery shells had as yet landed in the town, although fighter planes occasionally passed overhead. The pilots looked down from the sky on this centuries-old city wall and moat, its pagoda-shaped stone houses looking like fossils speckled with inlayed emeralds. The gun smoke from the war was far away from that place.
The stone-slab pavement steamed in the noonday sun. Livestock strolled around aimlessly with their heads down, eating grass and weeds. Lush leaves fluttered in the gentle breeze, flashing like strips of gold hanging from the trees. From a distance they glittered, but when one approached to take a look, they turned out to be fresh green leaves.
People were tucked away in their rooms, sleeping, drinking tea, wiling away their siestas. The trade at the bistro on Sesame Street spent their time discussing the affairs of the world while the boss napped with his head on the elm bar. If he dimly heard noises from the battlefield, he paid them no mind.
Before long his sensitive nose detected the odor of alcohol. He immediately ran out into the backyard. Holes had been punched all over the wine barrel and the contents were dripping out on the ground. An ox and a horse stepped cautiously around the dripping liquid but couldn’t resist putting their heads down into it and licking at it with their rough tongues. The ox mooed, the horse neighed, and the boss moaned. His staff ran outside to look.
Soon a number of people were milling around. The odor of alcohol circulated through the whole town, permeating every corner. A crowd surrounded the tavern as the policeman hurried over. People with nothing better to do followed hard on his heels, pestering him beyond endurance. If it weren’t for appearances’ sake, he’d sooner resign and let his wife support him. He listened with one ear to the boss and his staff gripe about their bad luck, and with the other attempted to catch as much as possible of what the crowd was saying.
Yellow Teeth complained that he’d have no place to get a drink today.
The female dwarf stood on the cover of a well and shouted, "Jude did it!"
"Did you see it happen?"
"Of course! I saw a shadow jump over the bistro's wall." She spoke mystically, like a witch.
"You got it wrong. It was a dark cloud." A primary school teacher laughed at her.
"Maybe it was a thief."
The policeman took a look around in the bistro. He suggested that the boss get rid of the onlookers and check if he was short any money, then sat down in the empty bistro and thought things over.
He glanced at the window where Jude had stood and his thoughts were drawn to the unknown cause of Jude's death. He put himself in Jude’s shoes. What could he see, standing there? He walked slowly to the window, his hands crossed over his abdomen. He coughed twice, then straightened his back. He almost covered his mouth in surprise that he’d found a secret.
He rushed out of the bistro, not even taking the time to say goodbye to the boss. He’d stood by that window the night he was investigating Jude’s death.He'd stood in front of the window for a moment, but it was late at night then. There’d been a lot of people in the bistro and he hadn’t been able to hear himself think through their buzzing voices. He’d learned nothing that dark night. But just now, the bistro was deserted and he’d found the secret. A picture began to emerge in his mind:
Rainwater had collapsed the stone bridge. He rolled up his trousers, tied his shoelaces together and hung the shoes around his neck, getting ready to wade across the river. The previous evening his mahjong buddy had urged him to stay overnight so they could keep on playing the game. He’d made up his mind to tell his wife that a public servant often has to work long hours, like it or not.
After crossing the river, he noticed that his pants legs were wet and he bent down to wring them out. Just before he straightened back up, he saw a dead baby girl lying in the water plants. He turned to get away and staggered hurriedly up to the road. He looked back from time to time, as if someone were chasing after him.
He was upset for several days, unable to decide the right thing to do. He wondered if it could have been a toy doll that someone’s child had thrown there. He grabbed a fishing pole and a bucket and made a show of going to the riverside to get to the bottom of things.
The bend in the river seemed to be playing games with him. The water was clear and clean, and the water plants grew regularly near the shore. It reminded him of a scenic point where a beautiful woman could brush her hair while looking at her reflection on the water’s surface.
The policeman went back to his house empty-handed. He’d had no interest in fishing at that place. His wife noticed that the empty bucket was dry and eyed him suspiciously. "Is it worth eating your heart out over such a trivial matter?”
The police officer pulled his wife into the bedroom and told her what had happened on that rainy day. Then he added, "I’ve never seen mahjong as a respectable pastime. It’s just a way to toady up to the senior officers."
His wife gave him a scornful glance. Then she picked a rose out of its vase and went out the door, coolly and unhurriedly, humming a song.
The policeman was perplexed. He’d thought that his wife, who wiled all her days away in boredom, would nag him to make a thorough investigation, but as it turned out she wasn’t interested in the least. He knew his wife’s family joked behind his back that he was cowardly and incompetent. His wife had stuck by this fellow with broad shoulders when he was a young man, but now that he was middle aged and well to do, she was increasingly indifferent to him.
There was one detail he hadn’t told his wife. When he was carrying his fishing pole and had seen the river bend in the distance, he’d noticed the lawyer’s woman hurrying away. She was dressed in riding clothes but there was no horse nearby. Nor did she have a crop in her hands. He had the impression she’d been standing by the shore for a long while. She’d been standing at the spot where he’d seen the dead baby that rainy day. He remembered it clearly – there was a wooden stake there that fishermen used to moor their boats. The lawyer's wedding day was approaching and the policeman thought it best to keep his peace about what he’d seen.
The image of the lawyer's woman standing on the bank appeared to his eyes like a stern mother rabbit that had been pacing back and forth for a long time. Even though he’d only seen her back as she was walking away, he was convinced that she’d been standing there alone for a long time before he arrived. It wasn’t possible that a woman would come to the riverbank alone just to contemplate the eddies in the water. If things were as he suspected, he’d be happy to play dumb for her sake, and he didn’t tell his wife the whole truth about what he’d seen.
Another reason he didn’t want to tell the whole truth was that his wife was disgusted by the lawyer's woman. If it was because of jealousy between the two women, so be it, but the problem, he vaguely felt, was that his wife secretly adored the lawyer. Specifically, when she heard the news of the lawyer’s death, she’d immediately buried her face in her hands, like a servant pretending she hadn’t seen something she wasn’t supposed to, then she suddenly seemed to become completely aloof.
The policeman strolled with his hands behind his back on pavement which had been heated to scalding by the sun. Unpleasant images sprouted in his mind. His taste for food had been suppressed by his annoyingly gloomy mood. He had no desire whatsoever to check out the sausages, plum soup, pickled cucumbers and other things in the shop windows…. He wasn’t willing to go home early, so he took a turn around the hills in the town.
One Sunday in May last year, the lawyer's woman had passed through this town with an arts troupe travelling in a truck. She was severely depressed and constantly had a cigarette in her hand. When not performing, she walked around alone in a crocheted cotton coat. The truck eventually took the troupe back to the provincial capital, but she stayed behind. Before long people were saying that she and lawyer were about to get engaged.
The policeman escorted his wife to the engagement party. An ample amount of drinks and candies had been purchased for the occasion. The hostess was the center of attention, arousing the competitive spirit of the policeman’s wife. She'd special-ordered some gourmet snacks from the provincial capital to pass out to her relatives and the policeman’s colleagues. No matter how she tried, the policeman's wife was a long-time resident of the countryside and obviously couldn’t outclass the lawyer’s woman.
In the past, the policeman’s wife had set the standard for the other women in the town, but gradually they became enamored with the newcomer’s style. The tailor shop made a pair of riding breeches for the lawyer’s woman based on a catalogue of female stars she provided. She took the catalogue back immediately, but the tailor had a good memory, and when the policeman’s wife also ordered a pair of breeches, he sewed them in the same style.
Men don’t care about such trivial matters, but every woman is sensitive to them. The policeman didn’t even notice that his wife and the lawyer's woman had the same style riding apparel, but both women were well aware of it. They each felt that the other was copying her. Later, they each refused to appear in the same place as the other. The policeman’s wife was the more concerned of the two, and through various means she kept tabs on what activities the lawyer's woman would be attending.
She often went for walks in the garden in her spare time. She asked her maid, “That new gardener, the well-built one, who recommended him?” The maid said he’d just come to the door looking for work. She noticed that the young man wore a long-sleeved shirt to work even on hot days and thought that was funny, so she called him inside to ask about it. The young fellow could tell how extraordinarily interested she was in him, and the two of them fell into bed together. She said “Oh” once he’d taken his clothes off: The part-time workman’s upper body was covered with coiled dragon tattoos.
They chatted afterwards about nothing more than their personal experiences. From their conversation, the policeman’s wife learned that even this boy, who was just passing through, had been deeply impressed by the lawyer's woman. A rash idea welled up in her.
Late one night a few months later, the maid heard the sound of vicious cursing coming from upstairs. A glass container came rolling down the stairs. After the loud bang of a door being slammed, the entire house and courtyard returned its customary tranquility. Immediately thereafter a long, drawn out melody being played on the phonograph began to echo through the house, a variation on the theme of the previous interlude. The curious maid pressed her ear close to the master bedroom door. The policeman’s wife was crying and cursing, “Bastard! This is blackmail!” Her tongue hanging out in fright, the maid slipped back to her room in the basement.
The next day, after the policeman had come home, he didn’t seem to know what had happened the previous night. He and his wife were eating and he asked the maid why the carpet on the stairway smelled of alcohol. She glanced at his wife but then blamed herself, saying she’d dropped a bottle of wine accidentally. The policeman laid a napkin flat on his knees and began to cut a piece of goose. While he was cutting it, he commented, "Seems to have been an awful lot of wine. Did my wife throw a party while I was away from home these last few days?"
He turned his face his wife. "Have a good time?" The lady’s face showed no emotion, but she didn’t answer his question. The policeman thought she was angry because he’d spent the night playing mahjong and hadn’t come home. He smiled at her, trying to get on her good side, and sprinkled some lemon juice on her plate. "Men have to spend time away from home on business,” he said, “often when they don’t want to."
The policeman had taken several turns around the town's slopes and thought nothing of it. His memories of those things had awakened another memory. This one had to do with the smell. His wife usually drank grape wine, and the alcohol in the bistro’s vat was brewed from locally produced red hawthorns. It was spicy with a slightly acidic taste. The odor he’d smelled in the bistro was the same as what he’d smelled on the carpet in his home. He was unable to calm down after this amazing realization.
He couldn’t say for sure that his wife had been involved in the incident at the bistro. He couldn’t give a reasonable explanation for why an upper-class wife would have anything to do with ruining a wine vat in a bistro. One thing was certain, though. The maid had taken an extra-long look at his wife when she answered his question, and this was a detail that deserved attention.
He remembered something and rushed back to his office. Once there he pulled open a folder and selected a few pages from the minutiae inside: the statements of the three workers who had given evidence the night Jude died. They’d been playing mahjong [sic] in the bistro and the loser had to stick a note on his face to acknowledge his debt. The paper they used wasn’t calligrapher’s paper or ordinary report paper. Checking the interrogation records confirmed that they’d used slips of paper that they’d casually torn from the pillars in the bistro.
The pillars in the bistro always had some papers stuck to them: Maybe they were messages people had left there, or invitations from drinking buddies to get together, or coded notes from people to meet in secret. They were stuck to the pillars with saliva or sometimes with grains of cooked rice.
The policeman glanced at the slips scattered on his desk. Together they would barely make up half a page of ambiguous poems. Unfortunately he didn’t understand poetry. Maybe he could ask his wife. It was like the separate verses had been left by members of a disbanded gang.
After some thought, he decided not to ask his wife just yet. The clues accumulating in his mind would naturally come together to hint at a solution. It might not necessarily be accurate, but many times this process could serve a miraculous function in detective work.
The policeman knitted his brow and pondered the matter for a long time. Eventually he wrote a lengthy report.
After a thunderstorm, a rainbow appeared above the floating bridge. Many villagers were fishing in the river. In the early evening, every household put an iron grill out on the side of the road to barbeque trout, and children jumped joyously and played around like it was a holiday. A paddy wagon passed by the small town square and two law enforcement officers escorted young men from other provinces aboard to take them to prison.
The rumors and theories we hear on the street about incidents in this country town bear little resemblance to the descriptions in the police files. They’re as far apart as poetry and reality. Word spread around that the lawyer’s death had nothing to do with any other person, that he had simply been drunk and fallen into the river by accident. The most important evidence, other than the certification by the forensic doctor, was the testimony of the female dwarf. No trace can now be found of the reports in the police files – they were lost to fire in the war a few years ago.
This hoary matter is being revisited now because of a woman's hate. She’s an angry woman who paces around in her spacious courtyard home, breathlessly, enumerating her family’s affairs in a loud voice; who curses her deceased husband nonstop and slings vile slander at some woman over and over; who chatters on and on, bewailing again and again the fate that has left her childless and with no one to accompany her into old age. The surprising thing is that whenever this indignant woman does quiet down, she can recite numerous poems.
People far and wide know that this village is home to an old woman poet. When she calls out through the rusty fence to young men passing by, she frightens the more timid among them. Seeing her ancient body wrapped in riding gear, but without a crop in her hand, people can catch a glimpse of how awesome she was in the old days. She explains that this style of clothing was very popular for a number of years, but people stopped wearing it after the war ended. When she says that, the neurotic look in her eyes starts to seem rather amiable.
An eerie energy drives her to call the young men over to her. "You're stupid! That day chosen for the wedding, you couldn’t tell people that the child was yours and his wife’s." When this ghost from the past says things like that, things that make people scratch their heads, all they can do is let her have her say.
Her husband concealed the truth about the incident because of weakness, but after a lifetime he smartened up. He realized that his wife had turned her back on a child he’d had and vowed to let the little bastard bite the bullet. And that’s what he’d accomplished. Perhaps he believed that, in a disorderly world, not rocking the boat might be more important than anything else. That seems to have become an article of faith for foolish people.
2011 中国最佳短片小说，主编王蒙，辽宁人民出版社，第 154 页
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 154
Translated from 今天 https://www.jintian.net/today/?action-viewnews-itemid-29420
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