​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Zhang Huiwen

      Before the new doctor arrived in the pasturelands, some residents with inquiring minds had already heard a few things about him. They knew that he’d graduated from a university medical school, that he’d worked in a hospital in the city, and that he was a young man who hadn’t yet married.... This sort of information always gets revealed through some breach of privacy, and is then exaggerated and spread around through the mouths of women.
      Despite the image formed as a collage of these bits of information, people were still rather surprised when the new doctor arrived. He was much younger than they’d expected. Given his experience, they’d guessed that he must be at least twenty-five or -six years old, but from his appearance he seemed more like a student.
      He was somewhat shorter and smaller than the young herdsmen in this area, and his complexion was paler. He didn’t sport a mustache like the other Uighur youth did. He seemed rather serious even when he was smiling. Savvy people could see that it wasn’t seriousness, though, but restraint with a gloss of carefulness. Unlike the doctors they’d had before, he never used a loud voice to ask patients about their condition, nor did he laugh out loud when they were timid about getting an injection. If he wasn’t out on making house calls, he always sat in his pharmacy wearing a white lab coat.
      The young fellow was called Ai Shan. When he came into the pasturelands clinic on the first day, he found to his surprise that the clinic shared a courtyard with a veterinary hospital. The clinic was just a one-story, two-room building with whitewashed walls. One of the rooms was a pharmacy and the other held two beds and four decrepit intravenous infusion stands that would soon need to be replaced.
      A solitary little hut in the corner of the courtyard was where he would be living. He suspected that the former doctor wasn’t all that clean a person because the walls in both the clinic and the residence were dirty and the tables and medicine rack were covered with dust. He had to do a major clean-up.
      He’d had no illusions about working in the pasturelands, but he was still disappointed by such rudimentary facilities. He felt his profession was being insulted, especially when he heard the braying of livestock that people forcibly restrained in the courtyard. He spent his first few days on the job in a lethargic and slightly irritable mood.
      But he was such a gentle and circumspect young man that even his depression was benign and muted. No one could tell that the young man had fallen into melancholy about the prospects for his future life. By the same token, no one realized it when, at some point, the melancholy no longer troubled him. He knew his own weaknesses and felt that he was never one with great prospects, anyway, so he stopped worrying about his career.
      He gradually realized that he did like some things about his life in the pasturelands. He especially enjoyed riding his gentle old brown horse out on house calls or to inspect the health of the herders. In the distance he’d see flocks of sheep moving unhurriedly across the slopes like clouds. He’d lift his face and breathe deeply of the aromas of grass, wool and cow’s milk mixed in the air, and see a sky as blue and clear as a pool of water. Many times he needed to ride for an hour or two to get to a relatively remote settlement. On the way he’d discover a creek or two flowing off to somewhere, and occasionally he’d see antelopes or deer.
      He rarely encountered other people on his way. There was just he and his horse on the vast grasslands under the enormous sky. Sometimes he’d suddenly forget that he was on a road that led somewhere, going to some place. Someone advised him to buy a motorcycle, but he preferred riding the horse because it was alive. He and it were both corporeal beings, companions on the road.
      Herdsmen aren’t delicate and don’t worry about minor illnesses, and they’ll go to the city if they get seriously ill, so there aren’t many patients in the pasturelands. Most of the time, therefore, he just sat in his modest pharmacy with its white walls and blue window curtains, reading books and waiting for patients. It was hard to keep from feeling forlorn and bored on such days, but he was able to endure the loneliness.
      Not long after the Festival of the Prophet’s Birthday, a wealthy herdsman called Elder Akemu invited everyone living nearby to a celebration he was hosting for his fourth grandson’s first birthday. Since Ai Shan hadn’t even talked to anyone since he’d first arrived there, except for medical treatments, routine business or courtesies, he was surprised that Elder Akemu had also invited him, and at first he wasn’t quite sure whether he should go.
      One of the problems on his mind was who he would talk to at a celebration where people would be bustling around, coming and going. If no one kept him company, and he just stood alone and silent in a corner, people would surely pity or laugh at him. He was also a little excited, though, because at the celebration he might have a chance to meet some of the young people in the neighborhood. These young people never had reason to come to the clinic, and he normally wouldn’t take the initiative to approach them. When all was said and done, though, his life would be easier if he made some friends.
      For two or three days before the celebration, Ai Shan thought about this matter whenever he had the time. Lonely young men always have vivid imaginations, and he envisioned the scenes that would embarrass or humiliate him the most. But he also saw warm pictures diffused in fuzzy halos, so he was sometimes hesitant and sometimes elated.
      Finally he ran to that cramped little room he lived in and after rummaging through his trunk for a while, uncovered a traditional-style robe. Its cuffs and collar were trimmed with exquisitely stitched, light green embroidery. His mother had sewn the robe for him. The soft fabric was wrinkled from being packed in the trunk for too long, so Ai Shan soaked the robe in clear water for a while, then hung it out to dry on a rope strung between two small trees in the yard.
      The birthday celebration was being held that evening. In the afternoon Ai Shan washed his hair thoroughly, shaved his chin and his cheeks clean, and then put on the robe. He looked himself over in a mirror with a broken corner above the washbasin. He felt he was dressed up neat and tidy. He especially liked the robe his mother had sewn for him. He liked that the embroidery was pale green rather than red, gold, or bright purple.
      As he looked in the mirror, though, he thought his looks were just ordinary: His nose was a bit flat, and his mouth was small and lacked character. Perhaps the only nice-looking feature on his face was his long eyelashes, and what did they count for? He wasn’t a girl and didn’t need such long eyelashes.
      Ai Shan set out for Elder Akemu’s home just after five o’clock. He didn’t ride his horse because the walk from the clinic to Elder’s yurt would only take a little over half an hour. He walked along the grassy slopes awash in the glow of the sunset, wearing his white robe.
      On the way he saw herds of cattle nearby returning from pasture with herdsmen on horseback, including one or two women wearing colorful headscarves. As they hurried along, drawing nearer, he could hear them talking among themselves, monotonous, high-pitched sounds, but he couldn’t make out the words. He was thinking his own thoughts. He wasn’t completely satisfied with himself and something he couldn’t quite put his finger on was making him uneasy. He was still upbeat and happy, though.
      It finally hit him when he saw a group of girls standing outside Akemu's yurt. He was on edge because he was afraid of them. They were giggling and talking and gesturing, and then two or three of them suddenly glanced at him with mysterious looks on their faces, as if they’d been talking about him.
      He plucked up his courage and walked past them, but their twittering still pierced his ears. Their laughter seemed to be directed at him. Even his ears were blushing.
      When he entered the yurt, he saw more young women inside, but there were many men as well. Elder Akemu’s youngest son welcomed him in a loud voice, as though it gave him face to have this bashful young outsider in attendance, and he slapped A Shan on the shoulder like they were good friends. Then some people Ai Shan knew walked up to talk to him, including several women who’d been to the clinic to see him. He began to feel more comfortable, not so flushed. His heartbeat slowly steadied and he began to quietly look over the people near him.
      Gradually a few young women he hadn’t met came over to talk to him. They asked him about unexplained small blisters on their arms, scars left after being bitten by a horse and sudden dizziness. One girl said she often heard a booming in her ears. Another said she was constantly troubled by scary dreams and asked him if there was some medicine to control them. He analyzed the problems carefully and tried to give good answers, even if he thought the questions were ridiculous, but in each case he was unsatisfied with his answer. When he thought about it later, he felt that his replies had been too hasty and vague.
      The guests milled around, but he seemed to have been standing continually at the same place he’d chosen when he arrived. It was a spot where the light was dim and he was not easily noticeable.
      When it came time to eat, Ai Shan was invited to sit at the head table. The host, The Elder Akemu, sat there with his eldest son and his second son, along with two district cadres, three or four people Ai Shan didn’t recognize and a relatively old herdsman. Ai Shan felt awkward and ill at ease, but he couldn’t find an excuse not to sit there. People started whispering about the young man sitting with his elders and betters:
      “How young he looks, and how shy!”
      “Such a cute fellow, still wet behind the ears.”
      Ai Shan listened attentively and nodded politely whenever any of the others talked to him, but most of the time he just kept his head down and stared at his cup and plate. Eventually he got a vague feeling that someone was watching him, but whenever he looked in that direction, he saw only flashes of a woman’s figure, a woman shaking with laughter. He was too embarrassed to stare in that direction looking for her, but he felt her eyes hidden among the shadows, silently fixed on him, so that his every movement and expression fell inescapably under the transparent net of her gaze. He began to feel uneasy again. He adjusted his position and leaned slightly to one side, but felt he hadn’t shaken off her gaze. It was like having a lithe, nimble insect flit around his hair, his collar and his back.
      The others at the table kept urging him to drink up. This made him drink too much, because he couldn’t refuse. Refusing would have required him to make polite, intelligent remarks, and he didn’t think he was capable of that. So his face got red and his forehead drooped into his hands.
      Suddenly he looked up and his bright eyes flew to a particular spot. Just for a moment. Then the fellow beside him started talking again, and he looked at his senior with a son's affection and deference, and an unusual twinkle in his eyes. As his neighbor saw it, the young man was already a bit tipsy.
      But Ai Shan was feeling elated by what he’d seen. He seemed to have found that pair of eyes, eyes that had dodged quickly in surprise when he caught sight of them. She was sitting with a group of female guests, petite and unobtrusive. But her eyes, and her black hair drooping down both sides of her face....
      In a flash something had welled up and filled his heart, a kind of joy and sweetness. But how could he be sure it was her eyes that had been watching him before? Perhaps those eyes had long since escaped him, and these eyes had just happened to meet his glance. He pretended to listen attentively to what the man next to him was saying, but in fact it made no impression on him. He felt hesitant and puzzled, but he also felt a kind of happiness that he couldn’t put into words.
      People began to move around again when the banquet concluded. A few went outside the yurt. Inside, some women got up from where they were sitting and surrounded the table where the birthday boy and his mother were seated. They played with the child until he burst into tears. Those who lived far away began to take their leave, and Elder Akemu stood near the door to say goodbye to them. Many people were still enjoying themselves, however. Men were still drinking, the start of a boisterous night.
      Ai Shan suddenly realized that she was gone. In a fog, he also got up and went outside. He saw a half-moon and a few scattered stars in the sky, and the shadows of people leaving on horseback. There were also people riding motorcycles, with their initial, sharp rumble gradually becoming distant and lonely. Some girls stood together not far away, talking and joking. In the shadows, he couldn’t find the one he was looking for. He walked towards a vacant area where bales of hay were stacked, not knowing quite why, except that he wanted to get further away. In his clouded eyes, the bales of hay looked like papercut silhouettes in the gathering darkness. They seemed to be in another part of the steppe.
      He was a little tired, so he sat down under a pile of bales. The cool of the night pierced his robe but the coolness was refreshing. He sniffed at the feeble aroma of the hay and for some reason recalled the smell of hot wheat cakes fresh from the oven. He seemed to see once again a pair of soft, womanly hands, and to see her hair looking jet-black and damp in the morning mist. It seemed he could hear the woman’s gentile, satiny vice.... But this last point seemed in fact not to be an illusion. He really could hear a girl's voice getting nearer and nearer. He realized that she had already come up behind the pile of bales.
      "Is that true? But ... but what all did you say to him?" A girl was speaking excitedly in a low voice.
      "Nothing. I didn’t say a thing. How could I?" Another girl’s voice quivered slightly.
      "But how did he know? Didn’t he know already?"
      "He seems to have found out. I feel like he already knows."
      Silence for a while, then one of the girls murmured, "A feeling, a really strange feeling."
      "You won’t tell anyone, right?" The girl with the quivering voice asked sheepishly.
      "Ah? What do you think? Of course I won’t!" The excited girl almost shouted.
      “OK, OK, I know you won’t. You’re the only one I've told," she said.
      Ai Shan sat there, not moving, almost afraid to breathe. Fortunately he was hidden in the dark shadow of the hay bales. Then the voices passed on by. The two girls continued to talk as they walked in the moonlight back toward the yurt. He knew she wasn’t one of them, but he still felt that their shadowy figures were both beautiful. He hadn’t intended to listen in on their conversation and their secret, but he didn’t know who they were or who they were in love with. He thought it was all quite beautiful.
      He returned to the yurt, but she wasn’t there. The women who’d been sitting at her table were all gone and the table had been cleared. He thought she might have already left, which made all the excitement and dazzling things around him seem suddenly dull. He realized that the significance of his going outside and coming back in related solely to her. But it would be rude to leave right away, even though he was anxious to go look for her.
      It seemed that an irrational, poorly formed hope was urging him on: If he left soon, he might still chance to meet her on the road. He wasted a few minutes standing there talking to Akemu’s youngest son and finally memorized his name – Parhot – then found an opportunity to say goodbye to Elder Akemu.
      He rushed out and saw someone busy with a horse cart and some others standing by the road talking. He still held on to a vague hope, but strongly tried to talk himself out of it. On the one hand, an inexplicable happiness filled his heart, but on the other he wanted to free himself from the confusing disorientation that accompanied it. He didn’t want to believe what had happened with this girl and her gaze; or at least he wanted to be indifferent to it, to treat it as a delusion, something he’d imagined.
      At that moment he heard someone call his name. He looked up and saw a tall woman standing by the side of the road. She was asking with concern whether he’d come on his horse.
      "No, I didn’t. I live nearby." He looked at her, somewhat surprised, as he spoke. Only a little moonlight illuminated her face, which was covered by a scarf as well, but he suddenly remembered that she had spoken to him in the yurt. Further, she’d been sitting at the same table as the girl.
      "On the street with the veterinary clinic? I know the place," the woman said.
      Ai Shan smiled but didn’t say anything.
      "That's still a ways," she continued. "Ride in our cart. My husband will be along in a moment."
      Ai Shan wanted to say, "That’s all right," but he abruptly changed his mind. If he rode in this woman's cart, she might say something about her....
      He thanked her and stood there by the road talking with her. Then he saw a strong, middle-aged man with his shirt unbuttoned coming toward them slowly, leading a horse pulling an uncovered cart. A girl sat sideways behind him, and she waived at them as the cart drew nearer. As if in a dream, Ai Shan saw the petite young girl from the banquet.
      "That's my daughter," the woman said.
      "Get in, young fellow!" the middle-aged man bellowed with a smile, obviously drunk. The women went around to the other side of the cart. He saw the girl move over to the middle, so he got on and sat where she had just been sitting.
      The horse started to walk slowly. There wasn’t much room in the cart, and the road was a bit bumpy, so he occasionally brushed against her even though his hands were gripping the side of the cart tightly. At first he was a little nervous because, with the three of them crowded together, he was so close to the girl's hair, arms and clothes. But he noticed she didn’t really take offence. She was so natural, sitting there happily, sometimes leaning against him and sometimes slowly leaning away. Her naturalness infected him. He stopped worrying and his hands no longer clutched the edge of the cart so tightly. He even began hoping that the road would get bumpier. With every natural, slight touch, he felt the unfamiliar, sweet warmth of being in a girl's ambience. Whenever they got past a bumpy spot, and a gap appeared between them again, he felt a sense of loss.
      No one spoke, except that from time to time the man urged the horse to get along. All of a sudden the girl nudged him with her elbow and said, "He’s talking to you."
      Ai Shan woke up from his reverie. He heard the man talking about a strange disease that had stricken his cow, but he wasn’t sure whether the man was speaking to him alone. He gave the girl a puzzled look and she looked back and smiled.
      Ai Shan told the man, "Take it to the vet for a look. Diseases of cattle need to be treated as soon as possible in case they’re contagious."
      The man said, "Yeah, that’s right, have the vet take a look. Herd animals have to get checked out when they get sick. Beasts of burden can’t talk and can’t tell you where they hurt. They’re worse off than people. Me, I’ve never been to see a doctor and never been inside a hospital in my whole life, by the grace of God. "
      The girl whispered in Ai Shan's ear. "Last year,” she said, “on Eid al-Fitr, the feast day at the end of Ramadan, he got drunk and broke his leg, and we took him to the hospital in the city." Her tone and her attitude revealed a sort of familial familiarity.
      Everyone was silent once again after that. Ai Shan watched the road in front of them. In the moonlight it looked like a silver-grey belt, and a huge shadow in the distance hid the vastness of the prairie. The horse’s well-proportioned body trotted along with short, quick steps. The vibrant colors of the daytime were all washed out and faded, but the smells of the prairie were more intense and pure at night. To Ai Shan, a little drowsy with drink, everything seemed fantastically beautiful.
      The cart slowed down and wobbled to a stop before Ai Shan realized that they had arrived at the clinic’s courtyard. He jumped down hurriedly and said goodbye to the family.
      As he walked back to his hut, he wondered about what he had experienced. He only half-believed that it had actually happened. It was like a sweet dream, that is, something he had longed for but never dared to imagine. He’d sat in the same cart with the girl he he’d been looking for, and further, she’d spoken to him, and they’d leaned on each other like unrestrained children.
      He stood blankly in front of his table for a moment, thinking back on her face in the dim evening light, the warmth of her clothing, and the road stretching out into the distance... so beautiful! But it wasn’t his imagination, it was real.
      He didn’t know how long he’d been standing in front of the table before he awoke from his reverie and went over to sit on the chair behind the door. There he again fell into a daze of endless memories and fantasies. In his mind he rode his horse to her home and she welcomed him into the yurt. They sat there alone, just the two of them. Her eyes looked even more black and the reflection of flames from the stove danced in them. She was wearing thick winter robes, and her tiny felt shoes almost touched his leather boots; it was as though they were sitting in a cart again, but it was a different cart and a different journey; and he saw her standing in a brand new, pure white yurt, warming the clothes that had been blown open by the wind, as though she’d been flying.
      He thought about loving and marrying her, and their future life. There was nothing extraordinary about these things – his parents and brothers had all experienced them – but they were also quite unique and special. All of a sudden these things seemed close to him. In the past he’d felt they were far, far away, so far he was reluctant to imagine them.
      Eventually he stood up and went outside. The hut seemed too cramped to hold his limitless fantasies and excited emotions. He went to the well and drew a pot of water to wash his face.
      When he returned to his room, he took off the white robe he’d been wearing and changed into the thick cotton robe he usually wore. He lay restlessly on the bed for a while, then found himself standing at the courtyard gate where he’d just gotten out of the cart. A white, thin path lay before him. The solitary, one-story shops that lined both sides of the path were hidden in deep shadows.
      He guessed the family had arrived home by now, and the horse was tethered in the shed, chewing grass. The lamps spread around the yurt had already been put out. The girl had gone to bed and might be sound asleep, or maybe her lovely eyes were still wide open. If he knew where she was, and if he could get there, he’d go right now, even if he had to walk through the night until tomorrow morning.
      At that moment, Ai Shan recalled that he didn’t know anything about the family. He hadn’t asked their names and didn’t know where they lived. He couldn’t help but feel annoyed, but it didn’t dampen his dizzily happy mood. He showed all the signs of a young man in love, and for such people no difficulty seems too great to ignore.
     Early next morning, when he finally lay down on his bed, he spent a long time looking for a suitable name for her: Almaty, Palady, or Gulixiaty?... She seemed more like a Bargury, so that’s what he finally decided to call her.
      He didn’t know how he passed the next two days. Whatever he did or saw seemed to drift away from his eyes and mind without a trace left behind. On the third day, after dinner, he went to see Akemu’s youngest son, Parhot. He’d found the young man enthusiastic and capable, and it seemed he was also willing to be friends.
      Parhot was happy to see him and took him to meet another young fellow. He introduced him as his best friend, Alimujiang. They sat in Alimujiang’s home for a while and drank two cups of wine. Parhot thought about taking a hike, which suited Ai Shan just fine, but they couldn’t make up their minds. Then Alimujiang said that they couldn’t get anywhere in such a big pastureland by walking, so they each selected a horse from the corral. Alimujiang brought along some wine and a
rewapu, a type of musical instrument similar to a mandolin. Parhot told Ai Shan that Alimujiang was the best singer in the area.
      They went toward the north of the pastures. Small clouds as flat as tiles were gathering in the sky, but the moon still cast clear slivers of light and strange shadows on the prairie. Everything seemed to be shrouded in a layer of mist that was too thin to be seen. They rode along, sometimes relaxed and sometimes in a rush, even though they had no clear destination. Alimujiang was full of youthful vitality liked to stop abruptly and send a shout or two out into the distance. Whenever they stopped, Parhot would tell Ai Shan, “Alimujiang is clearing his throat! He’s going to sing!” But Alimujiang didn’t sing.
      They didn’t know how long they’d been riding. They’d passed some gentle slopes and some mountains along the way, and two or three shepherds' yurts. Eventually the horses came to a shallow stream. There they dismounted to let the horses drink by themselves.
      The three of them found a place to sit by the stream and passed around the wine that Alimujiang had brought. After a while, Alimujiang finally strummed his rewapu and started to sing. Parhot casually joined in the song. Ai Shan was deeply moved by Alimujiang’s voice and by the songs. He listened raptly, without singing or speaking. In his mind, he superimposed the way he’d just come on top of the road he’d seen during the bumpy cart ride that night. He felt like he’d ridden this road again in search of her.
      He wondered, was it just for her that he’d come such a long way with the two nice young men beside him, and now was sitting here? All along the way he’d wanted to talk to them about her, to tell them what had happened that night. Hadn’t he lived these last two days in such happiness, but also in anxiety and worry? It was unbearable for one person to keep such an exciting secret to himself. The intense desire to talk about it had calmed down now, though.
      Alimujiang’s singing seemed to have carried him to a place far away from the world of language. There his fearful loneliness had dissipated and he was immersed in listening and imagining. In his imagination, the girl was hiding and he’d become a horseman in ragged clothes, riding without rest along an endless road just to find her.
      For some unknown reason he started thinking about his mother. He imagined her as she was when she was young, her experiences being loved, wooed and desired.... He associated these wonders with each person he knew, Alimujiang, who was singing, and Parhot, who was singing along and clapping lightly like a child…. He even associated them with his own past and future, with people of all ages and places, with those still living, those who had died, and those who had not yet come into the world. Whether they lived a humble life or were to the manor born, they all had that fine and detailed ability to feel love, to fantasize about love, and to experience love. These wondrous things never disappeared from the world. It was incredible!
      And then he thought about that dream-like evening: the prairie in the moonlight, the dampness of the dew, the stirring sounds of the musical instruments, the horse’s loyalty, the moonlight reflected off the stream, the expressions of happiness or grief that flashed suddenly across people’s faces, not without reason – all these things perhaps find meaning because of love, because it affects every corner of the world and occurs in everyone.
      When the young men had finished the wine, Alimujiang collected his rewapu to go home. They’d lost track of the time, but judging from the moon's position in the sky it was already past midnight. The humid night air was like cool well water flowing across the grassland. The wind was completely quiet, and even the few stars on the horizon seemed lethargic. On the road they were much quieter than they’d been when they came, each thinking his own thoughts.
      Ai Shan was thinking that he would definitely find his Bargury – the petite and dainty Bargury – despite the fact that he had no clues and didn’t even know enough to ask anyone. Her lively eyes, her soft, fluttering clothing, her shoulder that had brushed against him, and her felt boots with pointed toes upturned like crescent moons – all these things awaited him somewhere. With this slightly blind optimism, he hummed a song as he rode along.

2011 中国最佳短片小说,主编王蒙,辽宁人民出版社,第 57 页
China's Best Short Stories 2011, Wang Meng Ed., p. 57
Translated from My Life blog,

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