​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Stories from Can Xue's Collected Works #1 《Old Floating Clouds》
残雪文集1・苍老的浮云 (选自免费小说在线阅读)
Translated from the webpages noted after each story.

                                                    1. The Bull                                 3. Fog                  4. The Moment the Cuckoo Calls
                                                    2. The Hut on the Hill                                           5. Soap Bubbles on Dirty Water

1. The Bull (公牛)
Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua) 残雪 (邓小华)

      It drizzled that day. The wind was blowing and the fruit on the old mulberry tree fell swoosh-swoosh into the joints between the tiles. A purple light flashed in the window, which I saw reflected in the large mirror on the wall. It was the back of a bull moving slowly past. I ran to the window and stuck my head out.
      "We’re really a match made in Heaven." Behind me Old Guan was gargling dryly. It sounded like he had a handful of hemp stuck in there.
      "The roots of those rose bushes have all rotted from the rain." I told him as I drew my head back inside, not really paying attention. "The petals have really faded. Did you notice the water rising in the house last night? My head must’ve soaked in it all night. Look, water is still oozing out from the roots of my hair."
      "I'm going to brush my teeth. I can’t stand the cookie crumbs stuck between my teeth from last night. I swear...." Old Guan tippy-toed around me and went into the kitchen. I heard him spraying the tap water like [nonstandard character]….
      It came again in the afternoon. I was sitting in front of the window eating when that familiar purple light abruptly flashed through a crack in the wall and a bovine horn poked in. Turns out it’d punched a hole in the wallboard. I stuck my head out again and saw its perfectly round butt moving off slowly. The coal slag being trampled under its feet groaned in pain. A swarm of long-legged mosquitoes attacked my bare legs under the table, having a rowdy banquet.
      "I made a promise just now." Old Guan slipped out of the inner room like a cat, that tattered ginger-colored sweater draped over his shoulders. "I’ll never eat cookies in the middle of the night again. I’ve got four small cavities on my incisors, and two of them have already reached the roots. You’re always so afraid of mosquitoes that you stomp your feet loud enough to scare people, making it seem like the house is going to collapse. It's because you’re too restless...."
      "I saw something," I told him. My voice sounded uncertain. "It was a strange purple color. It happened many years ago. Do you remember that incident? The glass door was crawling with flies. When I stuck my head out of the doorway, leaves were rustling sh-sh-sh overhead, and the stench of ammonia made me dizzy."
      "Look here," he said in my direction, revealing his black teeth. "This place is like a field mouse’s hole."
      Our bed sat tight up against the wallboard. When I went to bed, the horn poked through the hole. I stretched out a bare arm to stroke it, but instead touched the cold, hard backside of Old Guan's head, which shrank away.
      "You sleep so restlessly," he said. "Field mice scurry around between my teeth all night long. It’s downright crazy. Do you hear them? I ate two more cookies --couldn't help it. It's all over now. Why can't I restrain myself...?"
      "That thing saunters around our house all day and all night. You haven't seen it even once?"
      "Someone told me I should pull my teeth out, then everything would be wonderful. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I couldn't be sure it’d work. My heart started to go thump-thump as soon as I thought about what it’d be like after my teeth were pulled. But nothing would ever scurry around in my mouth again. Thinking about it that way, it seemed like it’d be better to put up with it.”
      At dusk, the sorrowful screeches of an erhu came down from the hills. Orange spots of light swayed around on the windowpane, stinging my eyes. Someone knocked on the door three times, tat-tap-tap, three very light and hesitant pats. Maybe it was just my imagination. When I pushed the door open, I saw its smooth, round butt already passing by. A wide, purple-black border was embedded on its backside.
      "A big Chinaberry tree grew outside the hut where we used to live. When the wind blew, its dead, dried out seeds would fall to the ground, plop-plop." Old Guan clenched his decayed teeth uncomfortably as he spoke in his sleep. He’d talk in his sleep when he didn’t eat some cookies before bed, and he hadn’t eaten any for two nights. "A white sheet hung under the tree for many years. It was used to wrap my mother's body. It was used again later, as you’d expect."
      “One day," I also began speaking, without realizing it. "I looked in the mirror and found that I had white hair and green mucus in the corner of my eye. I went out to buy a bottle of ink to write a letter to an old friend. A south wind was blowing outside, and many shadowy children were running around in the wind. I moved forward, feeling my way along a brick wall beside the road. The road was slippery and dust made my eyes blurry. I couldn't see the house numbers clearly....
      "A meager layer of thin-backed Chinese cress grew under the tree. Its small flowers were blooming miserably. Someone had dug up the cress and combed through the dirt looking for something.
      "My legs had been maimed by the mosquitoes. They were particularly fierce that autumn. A big one had chomped on the back of my knee, and I’ll never be able to straighten my leg again. I’d been planning to buy some organophosphate pesticide before that."
      We talked all night. By morning a blood blister the size of a soybean had started growing on the tip of my tongue. The blazing sun shone on our butts.
      It came again and kept "boom-booming" on the wallboard. When I opened the door, a blinding ray of purple light forced me to close my eyes.
      "It's over." I let my hands hang in despair. "It's going to circle us forever. Cold sweat is flowing from my armpits."
      "Whenever the wind blows, I come up with all kinds of mawkish thoughts. Yesterday, for example, thoughts of soaking my extracted teeth in a glass jar to preserve them popped into my head. I examined the cavities on them thoroughly while thinking about some past events. You keep looking in the mirror all the time. It astounds people how concerned you are about your appearance."
      It hasn’t come by since yesterday. I stood at the window all day yesterday, looking at the glass and combing my short dry hair with a wooden comb that’s missing some teeth. In the glass, I saw my hair falling out in large clumps between the teeth of the comb.
      The wind blew off several tiles from the roof, and the rain was dripping di-di-di everywhere in our house. Old Guan and I hid in the bed with a large piece of oilcloth covering the top and lots of rainwater puddling on top of that. Old Guan huddled in one corner of the bed, picking his nose with a heavy heart and making strange sounds with his teeth.
      "It hasn't come since yesterday," I told him. "It was something from long ago and far away, something about fruit from a mulberry tree falling into the cracks between tiles. And a rattlesnake hanging from the ‘Y’ of a tree branch.... My blood starts to boil whenever I see purple. I bit a blood blister on the tip of my tongue just now and my mouth is full of a fishy taste."
      "It’ll be one awful mess if the water really does rise in this room. I wonder if the glass jar under the bed could get washed away. There’re six teeth soaking in it."
      "The rain knocked the roses flat on the ground. You must’ve heard it. And a man walking through the rose garden left deep footprints with his riding boots. The first day it came here, I saw in the mirror that you were about to put arsenic between your teeth. Why?"
      "I wanted to poison those field mice. They’re running rampant. So, is that why you look in the mirror? I’ve been fighting them for many years. The doctor says I have superhuman perseverance."
      His lips turned black as a crow and his eyelids drooped heavily. He swayed twice, and his skin immediately shriveled up like an eighty-year-old man’s. I reached out and touched his forehead, and the hard stubble growing there pricked my fingers. It hurt. He
stuck his decayed teeth out at me again, making a comically threatening gesture.
      I walked to the window and suddenly saw that day in May. He walked in with my mother on his arm, smelling of sweat. A tiger dragonfly perched on one of his shoulders. "I bring the breath of the fields," he told me blankly, exposing his snow-white front teeth. "The dentist said I have symptoms of tooth decay. That’s really absurd." He’s been taking sleeping pills. Once, he put a bottle of them on the table, and my mother ate them and fell asleep forever. "The old woman was abnormally fond of Western medicine pills," he told the medical examiner.
      You can see very far in the mirror. The bulky body of a giant animal fell into the water in there and “splish-splashed” in its death struggle. Thick black smoke spewed from its nose, and bright red plasma gushed out of its throat.
      I turned around in a panic and saw him holding a sledgehammer up high and smashing the mirror with it.

2. The Hut on the Hill (山上的小屋)

Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua) 残雪 (邓小华)

      A small wooden cabin sits on the barren hill behind my house.
      I clean out the drawers at home every day. When I'm not cleaning out the drawers, I sit in my armchair with my hands flat on my knees. I hear a whistling sound. It's the north wind whipping fiercely at the cabin’s Chinese fir roof, along with the howling of wolves echoing in the valley.
      "You'll never, ever be able to clean the drawers. Hunh." Mom smiled at me as she said that, a duplicitous look on her face.
      "Something’s gone wrong with everyone’s ears." I held my breath and kept talking. "So many thieves are wandering back and forth in the moonlight around our house. I turned on the light and saw that someone had poked a bunch of holes in the window with their fingers. You and father were snoring so extremely loud in the next room that bottles and jars jumped in the cupboard. I gave the bed a kick and turned my swollen head to the side. I heard the guy double-locked in the cabin bang angrily on the wooden door. The sound kept going until dawn."
      "You make me tremble with fear every time you come into my room to look for something." Mom stared at me intently as she backed up against the side of the door. I saw the flesh on one side of her face twitch. It looked laughable.
      One day I decided to climb the hill to get to the bottom of things. I went as soon as the wind stopped. I climbed for a long time with the sun piercing my head, making me see stars. Small white flames flashed from every stone. I was coughing as I tossed and turned on the hilltop. I couldn't see anything because of the salty sweat dripping from my eyebrows into my eyes, and I couldn’t hear anything, either. When I got home, I stood outside the door for a while. I saw a man in the mirror who had wet mud all over his shoes and two big purple circles around his eyes.
      "It’s a kind of disease." I heard my family members snickering in the pitch-black darkness.
      By the time my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, they were hiding — and laughing as they did so. I noticed that they’d messed up the things in my drawers while I was gone. Several dead moths and dragonflies had been strewn around on the floor. They knew very well that these were my treasured possessions.
      "They helped you get a fresh start cleaning out the drawers while you were away," my little sister told me. Her eyes were looking straight ahead and the left one had turned green.
      "I heard wolves howling," I said to deliberately frighten her. "A wolfpack was running around outside the house and squeezing their noses through the crack between the door and the jamb. It was right after it got dark. You were dreaming and were so scared the soles of your feet were covered with cold sweat. Everyone in this place sweats cold sweat on the soles of their feet when they sleep. You can tell by how damp the blankets get."
      My head was reeling because some things were missing from the drawers. Mother pretended she didn’t know anything and kept looking down, but I could feel her vicious stare at the back of my head. Whenever she stared at the back of my head, the part of my scalp she was staring at would get numb and would swell up, too. I knew they’d buried my boxed set of Go pieces by the well out back. They’d done it countless times, and every time I dug it up in the middle of the night. While I was digging, they’d turn on the lights and stick their heads out of the window. They didn’t make a sound or show any emotion in the face of my resistance.
      While we were eating, I told them, "There’s a small cabin on the hill." They had their heads buried in their soup bowls, slurping away, and probably didn’t hear what I said.
      "Lots of big rats were running like crazy in the wind." I raised my voice and put down my chopsticks. "Gravel came rumbling down the hill toward the rear wall of our house. You were all so scared that cold sweat broke out on the soles of your feet. Do you remember? Just take a look at the blankets and you’ll know. You dry the quilts in the sun as soon as the weather clears up. The clothesline outside is always filled with blankets you hang there."
      My father abruptly fixed one eye on me. It felt like the familiar wolf's eye to me. All of a sudden I realized that my father turned into a wolf every night and ran around the house howling forlornly.
      "Whiteness was swaying everywhere." I snagged my mother's shoulder with one hand and shook her. "Everything was so dazzling it made my eyes water. You couldn't get any kind of impression. But as soon as I got back to the house and sat in the armchair with my hands flat on my knees, I could see the fir-bark roof as clear as day. The image was very close. You must have seen it. In fact, our whole family saw it. Someone was indeed squatting there, and he had two large purple circles under his eye sockets, which he got from staying up late."
      "Your mother and I would hang in the air every time we heard you dig up that piece of granite at the edge of the well. We’d get the shivers and kick back and forth with our bare feet, unable to touch the ground." Father turned his face towards the window, avoiding my gaze. The windowpanes were covered with fly shit. "There was a pair of scissors at the bottom of the well. I’d dropped them there and, in my dream, I secretly made up my mind to fish them out. But when I woke up, I always realized that I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t dropped any scissors after all. Your mother asserted that I was wrong, but I didn't give in and I remembered them the next time. When I laid down I suddenly felt sorry because the scissors had sunk to the bottom of the well and got rusty. Why didn’t I fish them out? I worried about that for decades and the wrinkles on my face were like they’d been carved by knives. Finally, one time when I went to the edge of the well, I tried to lower a bucket to the bottom. The rope was heavy and slippery and when my hand got tired, the bucket fell with a loud bang and its pieces scattered on the bottom. I ran back into the house and when I glanced at the mirror, the hair on my left temple was completely white."
      "The north wind was really fierce. I recoiled in fear. My face was black and blue in patches and little ice cubes formed in my stomach. I heard them tinkling incessantly while I sat in the armchair."
      I’ve always wanted to keep the drawers neat, but my mother is constantly against me behind my back. She walked around in the next room, making a "tapping" sound. Her footsteps irritated me and I wanted to get them out of my head, so I opened a deck of cards and chanted, "One, two, three, four, five…. " But her steps stopped all of a sudden and her slate-gray face poked out around the door. "I had a very obscene dream,” she droned, “and the cold sweat is still dripping down my back.”
      "And the soles of your feet, too," I added. "Everyone sweats on the soles of their feet. You put the blankets out to dry again yesterday. This kind of thing happens all the time."
      My little sister ran over on the q.t. and told me that mother has been planning to break my arm because the sound of me opening and closing the drawers drove her crazy. Whenever she hears that sound, she dunks her head in cold water. It’s quite painful. She soaks her head until she catches a severe cold.
      "That kind of thing is definitely not accidental." My little sister always looks right through me. Makes a bit of a red rash break out on my neck. "Take father, for example. I’ve heard him talking about those scissors for, what, twenty years? Doesn’t matter, it’s been ages."
      I put some oil on the sides of the drawers and opened and closed them softly, so there was no sound at all. I experimented with this for many days and never heard footsteps from the next room. I’d silenced her. You can bluff your way through many things, you see, as long as you’re a little careful. I was very excited and worked energetically all night. The drawers were about to be straightened up a little, but a light bulb suddenly went out and my mother sneered in the next room.
      "My blood vessels were stimulated by the light in your room and throbbed peng-peng, like a drumbeat. Look here." She pointed to her temple, where a chubby earthworm was crawling. "I’d rather have scurvy. You’ve never experienced the feeling of having something moving back and forth inside your body all day long, making noise here and making noise there. Your father’s had thoughts of suicide because of this problem." She stretched out her fat hand and put it on my shoulder. Her hand was as cold as if it had been kept on ice, and water constantly dripped from it.
      A man was up to something by the well. He was constantly lowering the bucket, and I could hear it thumping whenever it hit the well’s wall. He dropped the bucket with a thud at dawn and ran away. I opened the door of the next room and saw my father in a deep sleep. One blue-veined hand gripped the edge of the bed painfully, and he groaned in misery in a dream. Mother was fluttering around the floor with a broom in her hand. Her hair drooped over her shoulders – it was a mess. She told me a large swarm of longhorn beetles had flown in through the window at the break of dawn. They crashed into the wall and landed all over the floor. She got out of bed to clean them up and, when she put her feet into her slippers, a longhorn beetle hiding in there bit her toe. Her whole leg was swollen like a column of lead.
      "He," mother pointed at father who was in a deep sleep, "he dreamed that he was the one who’d been bitten."
      "The guy in the hut on the hill was also moaning. Some wild grape leaves were being carried along in the black wind."
      "Did you hear that?" In the semi-darkness, Mother was absorbed in pressing her ear to the floor. "These things fell on the floor and fainted from the pain. They broke in at the first light of day."
      I went up the hill again that day. I remember it very clearly. At first I sat in a rattan chair with my hands flat on my knees. Then I opened the door and walked into the white light. I climbed up the hill and all I could see was the flames from the white stones, no wild grapes, and no hut.

3. Fog (雾)

Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua) 残雪 (邓小华)

      Everything around me grew a long fluffy down and kept hopping around once the fog fell. I kept my eyes wide open all day, trying to see things a little more clearly. It hurt like hell. The damn fog was everywhere; even the bedroom was full of it. Morning to night, they billowed in like thick smoke, occupying the empty spaces and leaving the walls soaking wet. It was barely tolerable during the day and particularly unbearable at night. The blankets sucked up moisture and got heavy as turf and hard as boards, as well as making an “eek-eek” sound. My hands shivered with cold when I put them under the covers. Everyone in the family rushed to the storeroom, which was filled with sopping wet sacks but had a steaming hot electric stove in the corner. Mom locked the door as soon as she came in, and everyone huddled together to sweat it out until morning.
      "I adore yellow colors like crazy. They make me eat a lot." Father's neck spoke while floating in mid-air, the tuft of black hair on his huge Adam's apple moving up and down. I heard his hip joints "click-clicking". His thin buttocks twisted and disappeared in the fog.
      There are five people in our family. We eat together and watch TV together every day, a harmonious family. When I opened the door that morning, I saw that the sun had turned light blue and was wrapped in long fluffy down. It turned out that an unprecedented heavy fog had fallen that night. The family suddenly lost their original shapes and turned into elusive shadows, and they all became irritable, weird, and even skittish. Mom, for example, announced that she was walking out on the second day after the fog fell. She said it was because of unbearable physiological pain. After she left, Father's legs turned into two wooden clubs. He pounded them “whump-whump…” on the cement floor all day long. He also whistled songs, the popular kind. My two brothers went crazy. They rummaged through boxes and cabinets, got under the bed, and started to raise rats openly. They pretended it was a mystery and were sore afraid that others would know their business, so they saw me as a thorn in their side and both of them yelled at me. I was so scared that I had to hide in the closet. It was very stuffy in there and the smell of mothballs was really unpleasant. I heard them screaming and breaking a lot of glass outside. I pity those two brothers. They suffer from severe rickets and cannot walk even though they’re only in their twenties. Father always tied them together with a rope to keep them from getting into trouble. He’d tie the other end of the rope around his waist and drag them around on the ground. Now they’re becoming uncharacteristically aggressive, but secretly they’re still extremely frightened. They break glass to make themselves feel at ease.
      I’ve been looking for Mother. I know she hasn’t really run away and must be hiding somewhere nearby. Because every night when we’re sweating in the storage room, we always hear someone rushing into the room and sweeping away the leftover food. One time I rubbed my over-full belly and dragged my sopping wet feet to the door of the house, where I saw a faded butterfly knot hanging on the grape vine. It was like a gray mouse. "Oof, that’s a sad memory of her tying up your hair for you when you were a little girl." Dad blinked one eye and “thump-thumped” the wall with a wooden foot as he said that. The sun was being dissolved by the water vapor in the air until it became like a crescent moon. Someone scurried under the grape vine and traipsed down the earthen steps.
      "Mom?" I grabbed a sleeve. It was soaking wet.
      "I was looking for an egg. I raised two white hens, and they laid eggs everywhere. All of a sudden I realized that I’d lost my way in the woods. There’s a cliff there and a flash flood was on the way." She shook my hand off and paddled aimlessly with her arms. I could hear the sound of hurried footsteps from the road.
      The limbs inside Mother's clothes were soft as silk floss, almost like they weren’t there. Who knows, maybe there was nothing at all inside her clothes? Maybe what I grabbed wasn’t her clothes at all? What she spoke of were things that I’d forgotten. She hadn’t raised chickens for twenty years, so why should she still be dwelling on it?
      It definitely wasn’t Mom in the clothes. I remembered that she’d been a blubbery woman who always sweat at night. If she hadn't lost all that lard, I really don't know how she would’ve ended up.
      "Your mother," my father said through his whistles, "is digging for earthworms on the other side of the hill! This was brought on by her paranoia. She’s suffered from that disease for more than twenty years. She was
meticulous about concealing it from me when we got married. I plan to go on a trip and do something big when the fog clears. I’ve got a ton of ideas in mind about making some big money. They’re chirping like baby chicks. Who knows, if they go on for a long time, maybe they’ll actually grow into chickens in there."
      He was bent over, squatting down behind the door and standing up again. I couldn’t see his head clearly.
      "I’m engaged in the business of collecting copperware. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years. I can’t say whether this is the beginning of a new starting point. You guys? Huh. How many times have you laughed at me to the point where I was too ashamed to show my face? I’d hide in the toilet and cry to myself. That kind of thing’s been going on for decades. All I had to do was hint at my capabilities and plans, and you'd burst into hysterics. You hypocrites."
      My mother fell down under an old locust tree, her eyes rolling around like china dishes. I ran over to pick up her light and thin body and saw her face gradually turn blue.
      "I found an egg by the cave in the cliff. Look." I looked at her in surprise as she stretched out her empty claws towards me, my throat tightening. "I chased those flashing white shadows until my chest was smashed from exhaustion."
      "This fog has completely ruined my eyes. I can't see you."
      "There are shadowy figures in the woods over there. Can't you sense that?"
      "How can I sense it? That's impossible. My eyes are all destroyed." I pulled my arm back from under her armpit in anger. That place was as warm as underneath a chicken’s wing. One of her ribs snapped with a "crack".
      "It's only a rib." Her blue face got wrinkled and she disappeared behind the tree.
      Father finally left. He’d spent the whole night nailing in the room, and by the morning he’d nailed together a huge wooden box. He tried to tie the box up with brown ropes, but he couldn't tie it up horizontally or vertically. He got so angry that he smashed the box with a hammer and shouted, "Where’s my travel bag? Ah, thief! Prodigal son! I've put up with it for forty-five years... Give me back my travel bag!" He rushed outside, chasing after my brothers, and never came back. Later, my brothers told me that he didn't go traveling after all. He lived in a dilapidated shrine not far from home and made a living by picking up wastepaper. He was full of himself and blew a harsh whistle through a copper pipe all day long. He also boasted to some women that he was a bachelor. Too flighty. My brother hid a watch in his breast pocket when he ended his tirade. The watch belonged to my mother, and he planned to sell it to a second-hand store to get money for booze to drink in the shrine. He spread it around that he planned to accompany dear father for life.
      In the morning, I was awakened by the cawing of crows and saw my mother following along the foot of the wall, looking for something. She was lying on the ground, her sallow face almost touching the soil. She was struggling to identify something and her two rigid eyeballs gently rubbed against her eye sockets.
      "What's up with the white hen?"
      "I smell something here. They’re happening in the soil. I’ve been doing this all morning. If it weren't for the fog... every petal of the magnolia flower... and those fat cutworms. When I woke up in the morning, I found that the egg was gone, the one I showed you. That's real, isn't it? I picked it up in the bushes next to the old locust tree. I remember there were three white hens in total, one with pockmarks on its neck, a very thin ring, almost invisible; the other two were pure white."
      "Your father," she continued, "was a coat. He came to our house that time wearing a coat and never took it off, even when he went to bed. One night, I plucked up the courage to reach out and touch the coat, but found nothing inside. It was not until many years later that I found out the truth of the matter."
      I decided to tell her about the watch. I struggled to tell her, but my mind was blank. I couldn't make out what I wanted to say, even a little bit. My words jelled into some thin mush as soon as they came out and stuck to my clothes. I kept using question marks and exclamation points, trying to exaggerate. But everything was over. My mother had fallen asleep. When I thumped her shoulders and asked her menacingly, "Do you understand?" black bugs were crawling all over her blue face.
      A grayish-white semicircle floated by the door. I peeked out, and it was an even thicker fog.

Translated from nunu123 at https://www.nunubook.com/zuopinji/16679/584606.html
4. The Moment the Cuckoo Calls (布谷鸟叫的那一瞬间)

Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua) 残雪 (邓小华)

      I was lying on an old chair at the train station. The paint on the chair had peeled off and some small insects were bumping into each other underneath. The sound of someone’s loud fart resonated through the smoke-filled air. I saw a lot of ink-black necks through the gaps in the chair backs.
      "The wooden bridge is going to break. It swayed back and forth when I walked on it. I was in a daze the whole time…. " The person sitting next to me was complaining to someone, and once he started he wouldn’t stop. A mouthful of pink teeth appeared in the greenish smoke. The brown lips smacked loudly as they moved, opening and closing. Two of the teeth were broken and the lips curled outward. The guy was in the process of using saliva to swallow.
      I closed my eyes and tried with all my might to go back to that place, the playground where water drip-dripped from the eaves day and night. The child's pure-white face always had an irresistible charm for me. He was a real person many years ago. When the sun shone into the classroom through the cracks in the tiles, he’d be sitting next to me in a student’s blue shirt, a specimen butterfly with big gold dots floating on its wings pinned on his chest. His preteen eyes were gentle and shy. For decades, whenever I was exposed to that gaze, the blood scorched my veins.
      I stood up and groped my way outside along the wall. I was determined to walk through every alley to find him. The wind screeched through the tiles on the roof. I knocked on a tightly closed door in the middle of the night and was horrified to see the reflection of a big green caterpillar crawling in the center of a mirror inside. I moved my sweaty toes and the floor started shaking violently. But I knew that if only the cuckoo called softly three times, I’d soon meet him. He always had that golden butterfly pinned to his chest, and his teeth sparkled.
      I bumped into him once and decided to meet him at the same place the next night. I ran myself out of breath getting there the next night but his image had faded. His blue student’s shirt was gray and white, and his hair had turned the color of a mouse. A doctor came over and hinted in a roundabout way, with a treacherous smile continuously on his face, that I might have cancer. That was an unfortunate night, because someone attempted to dig out the building’s foundation, rip through the screen door and stick a cobra in. My ears were swollen and hard as rocks when I woke up in the morning.
      I did see him once during the day. It was noon and the sun was lethal. I felt ashamed when I saw him. He was a full-fledged dwarf, with not even a hair on his pale calves, and, like me, he was getting along in years. He didn't recognize me and slipped past with his head lowered like a thief. I stood there for a long time until the asphalt road under my feet melted into two potholes.
      Often, to my surprise, we met again at night. It was among many mirrors in an inky-black house. His whole body was unusually warm, and I heard the blood rushing thump-thump through his veins. I suggested playing a game with him, where the two of us would hold hands and walk into the mirrors. We’d knock the caterpillars to the ground and spit outside the mirrors. That child's smile will always have an irresistible charm for me.
      "The train arrives at half past four." An old man in the corner is speaking and continuously coughing up phlegm. My lungs swell up in my chest at the sound, to the point where I want to vomit it out. Lots of black shadows twist around against the wall and a baby falls on the concrete floor with a muffled sound. The old man tells me, "The cuckoo will call soon." He has two dim oil lamps in his eyes. " I smell matsutake mushrooms whenever the cuckoo calls. It’s been like that for seventy-three years now. I’ve been in this corner watching you for a long time. Have you always been waiting for that screech? I know a man who died of cancer. He kept struggling and didn’t sleep. Used up all his energy waiting and waiting. Was it a tree you experienced? Did I guess right? Everyone experiences it differently. Some people smell water chestnuts, some people see red phlox flowers. I smell matsutake mushrooms. It’s been seventy-three years and I’m used to that smell."
      Someone keeps digging the mouth of a spring behind the building. "Clang, clang, clang...," the sound continues all year round. I’ve never seen who it is; he’s gone without a trace every time I run out of the building, leaving just a hoe thrown down beside the pit and a rusty kettle. The terrain he chose is very problematic, as there’d never be a spring there. I think the man is a beggar who looks very much like me. I went to ask my mom and she said there’s no spring there, that I must’ve been seeing things. She also said I complain all day about not having enough to eat and search the house like a hungry dog. Really unreasonable.
      One day I was knocking on those closed doors and, in a flash, I realized that what I was knocking on was a damp brick wall. When I felt my knuckles they were mushy from the knocking. I turned sideways to leave the alley but I couldn't tell where I’d come in. I turned around and around before realizing that I’d fallen to the bottom of a well. The cuckoo didn't call that night. In the morning, I had cataracts growing in my eyes, and they were about to reach my pupils. Mom said it was because of my weak constitution and suggested that I keep taking a brain tonic. I took it for two days straight until I couldn't even open my eyelids. He came on the third day. My whole body felt like it was on fire, and my eyes were bloodshot. We sat side by side on classroom seats. When I accidentally knocked over an ink bottle, He shyly smiled and cleaned up the ink stains for me. The child's lips were bright red, and a lock of black hair hung between his eyebrows. He was staring at the corners of my tender mouth and the red hairband on my braids. I held my breath and listened. I knew he’d fade away as soon as the outside bell rang, and crow's feet would appear at the corners of my eyes. I touched the desk – it was scorching hot – and twisted uncomfortably in the seat. I said to him, "We’ll meet here again tomorrow. Wait for me. As long as we agree, we can see each other the next day, too. That’ll be twice. We often forget to set a date for our next meeting when we part ways. That’s not good. It means that I sometimes don't get to see you for a long time. Once I saw you on the street and said to myself, ‘That's him, I knew it was him right away.’ Later a dwarf came, but I thought to myself it was you. I’ve never figured that out." Then the bell rang, his lips turned gray-green, and I rushed out of the classroom in anger. The old man was right on my heels and said, "This kind of thing really isn’t strange. Happens to everyone. All kinds of images, sounds, and smells occur the moment the cuckoo calls. For example, I just smell matsutake mushrooms. I can prove it...."
      I was determined to stay in that warm and radiant moment. I sat under a mimosa tree, feeling empty as a robe. "Da-da-da, da-da-da.... " Bright reddish-green scarab beetles fell like rain. The clothes on my back almost blew away in the wind as soon as I stretched my neck. I scratched the word "he" on the bark with my dry, cracked fingernails. All I could see were bean-sized propellers when I looked up. Cats ran by my groin, howling. It was that cat with the thief's eyes every time. I had a wonderous feeling that the blue shirt was sitting next to me when I scratched the word "he". I’d also get that feeling at dusk sometimes, when I heard the man digging a spring behind the building and saw purple-blue morning glories waving in the gloom. That time my neck gradually turned red and my eyebrows bent like two bows. In the end, I always saw the black cat with green eyes.
      I asked mom, “Why do all those tightly closed doors open as soon as I knock on them late at night, and then I see the same kind of scary mirror? She said it’s because I have emphysema. All people with emphysema like to knock on other people's doors at night. Their inner world is unbalanced, and they’re inclined towards adventure their whole lives. The tip of her middle finger swayed like a snake’s head while she talked. Then she continued very clearly:
      "I’ve seen that man of yours."
      I cried out in surprise and dug at the lime on the wall with all ten fingers. I continued scratching until my fingers began to bleed.
      A lot of things "chirp-chirp-chirp.” as they bump into the window screens just before daybreak. They chirp-chirp-chirp until they die. I walked outside the house and heard footsteps tailing me. "The morning star keeps swimming around up there. Could it be a moth?" The old man's voice squeaked through his teeth. I turned around and actually saw him, and he turned out to be a mouse. I remember he didn’t use to be a mouse, but the mouse on the wall was indeed him. He was staring at me, his beard twitching and his eyes like two oil lamps.
      "An example of a butterfly...." I murmured.
      It was obviously a mouse’s squeaks, but my ears heard the old man ranting:
      "Please look at that piece of red glass on the horizon! Many, many years ago, at a time before dinosaurs or whales existed, there were cuckoos. When the birds called, matsutake mushrooms, butterflies and red phlox flowers also came to be!"
      There was a hole next to a water pipe. He jumped into the hole, stuck out his little thief’s head and continued ranting.
      The cataracts in my eyes started getting worse once the sun came out. As though in a mist, I saw the man digging the spring -- it was the wind blowing a broken dead branch against the tree trunk. It really was that man, the guy who dug at dawn with sweat pouring from his back, and whose thundering noises made two boils grow in my ears.
      I understand. I’ve lost that poignant moment once again. I hug the stove, my whole body shrunken into a bag of skin. Someone gets out of bed, and the sound of a toothbrush hitting a mouthwash cup chimes in my ears. For the last time, a breeze carrying the scent of chrysanthemums whisks by.
      I know that tomorrow, or at some appropriate time, I’ll hear the cuckoo's call again.

5. Soap Bubbles on Dirty Water (污水上的肥皂泡)

Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua) 残雪 (邓小华)

      My mother turned into a tub of soapy water.
      No one knows about it. If anyone knew the details, I’m sure they’d call me a beast and a vicious, despicable murderer.
      She kept calling me from the kitchen early this morning. Made my temples throb in pain.
      She’s been sleeping in the kitchen since last year. Truth is, it’s not like we don’t have rooms in our house, but she never forgets to complain to me that the house is cold as an ice cave. Her nose runs when she complains, and she drools, and calls me a "prodigal son". She goes so far as to abuse my mother-in-law in the same way, and always ends up crying uncontrollably. One day, she somehow found an old army cot in the attic, where she hadn’t been in ages. She beamed like it was some kind of treasure and set it up right away across from the gas stove in the kitchen.
      "Don’t, Mom, the fumes are poisonous."
      "Well bless your heart,” she said, patting me on the shoulder. "Good! Isn't that exactly what you were hoping for? I know for a fact you dream about it every night. Just be patient and maybe you’ll get what you wish for!"
      My face turned red and I mumbled some nice sounding words.
      To show me what it’d be like, she slammed the kitchen window shut before going to bed, and blocked off the door with wooden sticks, too. The strange thing is, she never gets poisoned. Once I got up at night with a headache and wondered if she’d been poisoned. I put on a shirt and left my room, but as soon as I walked up to the kitchen door, I heard a snore erupt inside, like a sow was lying down in there. She was sound asleep. And she’d always say that a scorpion stung her on the head when she slept in the bedroom, and half of her head would go numb. Then she’d get up and rummage through the cabinets, and I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Every time I discreetly hinted to her that I was distressed, she’d fly into another rage. "What's going on now? You want to deprive your biological mother of even this little indulgence! My God!" Then she’d burst into tears again, and bump against me, wiping her spit on me.
      I walked into the kitchen and saw her little face with sleep in her eyes sticking out from the inky black blanket. She spit out some gunk between her teeth and said, "Take the gift to Excellence Wang's home today. I bought it yesterday and put it on top of the big cabinet." She smiled treacherously, as if she’d planned some conspiracy and was just waiting for me to take the bait.
      Excellence is the chief of a low-level section where mom works. He has an extremely nasty and despicable face, and his thirty-three-year-old spinster daughter looks exactly like him, including a small growth on one cheek. Mom admires him very much and bends over backwards to kiss his butt. The guy’s stuck up and ignores her, though, probably because he thinks she’s old and ugly. After trying unsuccessfully to socialize with him on several occasions, mom decided in a flash of inspiration to send me to live with his family as his son-in-law. Mom and I went to his house this time and, of course, everyone in his family knew what I was doing there. They sneered and buzz-buzzed among themselves. The section chief was using a specially made spoon to dig out earwax, which he then put in a matchbox that was already almost full. The thirty-three-year-old spinster was sitting behind a large, free-standing fireplace, a continuous stream of strange noises spewing from her nose. It sounded like a herd of wild beasts roaring in a cave. I broke out in a cold sweat as soon as she opened her mouth to say, "What in hell are you doing here? Huh? Get out! My hemorrhoids are flaring up!" Mom really has a stiff upper lip -- she didn't panic, just talked and laughed and sat there for about a quarter of an hour as if nothing had happened. Then she took out a packet of dried bamboo shoots and said, "This is for the section chief from my son." Then, with everyone looking, she sashayed out the door pulling me behind her. For several days afterwards, she was itching to brag to people about her "special relationship" with the section chief in an imagine-that tone of voice.
      " My feet hurt, Mom."
      " What?" She jerked up from the bed, breaking a spider web that had been made during the night. The spider scurried off somewhere on the bed.
      "My feet started to hurt like crazy as soon as you called me, like a saw’s cutting on my bones. And my stomach’s churning so much I might throw up in their house."
      "Don't give me that crap!" She shouted, waving her arms. Two things on her thin neck flopped around like fish. "I knew it. You've always been against me! You put the spittoon on my doorstep, hoping that I’d step on it and fall down.... God, what's going on!" After a pause, she ordered me to come closer. She took my head and turned it left and right, poking fingernails that were covered with black goo into the back. Then she spat in my face and threatened: "Your plot will never prevail!" She began to knead her chest and slap herself in the face. She kept at it until she couldn't breathe anymore, but right then something happened.
      Just as she raised her hand to hit herself again, her arm knocked over a cup of tea that she’d left on the windowsill overnight. The tea spilled out and splashed on her face. She wiped it with her sleeve and, with every stroke, heaps of white foam appeared on her face. Heaven as my witness, a definite rut appeared wherever she wiped.
      "Please wash it off, Mom. I'll go get the water ready." I said that like I’d been deputized by a ghost.
      I poured boiling water into a tub and left the room but hid outside the door. I heard Mother mixing in some cold water, cursing as she did so. She said I was trying to scald her to death. Then she fell silent, probably taking off her blouse. I was so nervous my face paled and I shook all over. I heard a weak, strangled cry from inside, like a drowning person calling for help, and then silence. I jumped up onto the steps. My shirt was soaked with sweat, my fingernails were blue and my eyes were bulging out. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I used a rusty hammer to smash open the kitchen door and rushed in.
      No one was there. The underwear my mother had taken off lay beside the bed, as well as a pair of slippers. I stared at the water in the wooden tub, blackish, dirty, soapy water. A string of shiny bubbles floated on top and it smelled of rotten wood.
      I sat my butt down on a small bench and started to cry. I cried because of my mother's dirty, skinny neck. And I cried because of the watery sores that festered between her toes year-round.
      I waited until noon before calling someone. When they came, they swarmed in like bees to the hive and their "plop-plopping" footsteps caused part of the floor to collapse. They looked around, checking out my swollen eyes suspiciously, and eventually turned their attention to the kitchen. One man bent down to look at the water in the tub and popped a bubble with his finger. He was a little guy who looked like a thief with long hair.
      "She disappeared right after washing up," I managed to say aloud. Something rose up from the pit of my stomach and the spider spun a new web on my head. The group of people looked at each other and smiled.
      "This water smells," the short guy with long hair pronounced. "Maybe something’s dissolved in it, but probably not. When I poked it just now, it felt like I was poking a woman's spine."
      "Maybe you poked her thigh?" Everyone was responsive to his lead, their mouths wide open in laughter. The tiles on the roof jumped, and the walls made pitiful cracking sounds.
      They rushed out like bees leaving the hive, kicking up their heels over the little guy's unexpected discovery. Some of them couldn't keep from piddling under the eaves.
      I sat there for a long time with my head bowed down after they left. I took a couple of bites of cold rice left in the pot from morning. It tasted like soap.
      "Number Three, Number Three, did you deliver the gift?" Mother's hoarse voice came from the bottom of the tub. The string of soap bubbles stared at me coldly under the light.
      I stumbled outside. Everywhere was pitch black. Only a few street lights flickered like furtive eyes.
      "Number Three, Number Three!” The voice in the kitchen grew louder each time, as if in anger.
      All of a sudden I felt a frog in my throat, but when I coughed hard, a dog’s bark came from my mouth. I couldn't stop it. I kept yelling angrily while people gathered around me. I jumped up and down. Before long I noticed a particularly disgusting old guy with an idiotic smile on his face. He squeezed around through the crowd and, to my surprise, squeezed out some urine. His crotch was completely wet. I went for him headfirst, sunk my teeth into his arm and, biting hard, tore off a piece of flesh. He fell like a pile of firewood, “whoosh-whoosh” into a pool of blood….