Chinese Stories in English
Regulate Your Breathing
As soon as she arrived, she said, “I’m a kind-hearted person with good intentions.”
Her jaw jutted forward as she said it, as though she was somewhat aggrieved.
“I let her join in with us, since I’m a kindly, well-intentioned person and wanted to communicate with her kindly, and with good intentions. How could I have known that something like this would happen? Rotten luck!
“I felt like I had to communicate with her. Communication’s important – do you know that? An article devoted to communication said it quite well, so I forwarded it to my circle of friends, and between people....”
“Don't talk about that useless stuff!” the old man beside her yelled. “Tell it straight out.”
She glanced at him in dissatisfaction. “It was the police who told me to start from the beginning, and you’re not the police.... No, this won’t do. I’ve got to regulate my breathing. I’m all messed up inside, all messed up.”
She closed her eyes after saying that, as if no one else were around. She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, took another breath and exhaled again. She did that five or six times before finally opening her eyes.
“Ok, now you can ask me questions, Madam Police Lady.”
Her voice seemed to have a more confident tone all of a sudden.
“The time? It was about two in the afternoon. I’d thought an hour or two would be enough, but to my dismay, we talked half the day and still couldn’t come to an agreement. I explained what’s what to her, but it went in one ear and out the other. How could anyone be so obstinate! Our elders always told us, ‘Listen to half of what others urge on you,’ but she didn’t listen at all. It was like talking to a string bean.
“Us? There was three of us, me, Sister Sun and Pretty Li. Sister Sun’s name is Jade Fragrance Sun. She’s a year older than me. Pretty Li’s name is Resplendent Duckweed Li. She’s younger than me by a few years. I call anyone at our Bodhi Yoga Salon who’s older than me ‘sister’, and anyone younger than me ‘pretty girl’. It’s the same thing as when we used to call people ‘Young Zhang’ or ‘Young Li’ back in the old days in the unit.
“How long? Maybe two or three hours. Anyway, we talked and talked but couldn’t reach an agreement. It was really tough getting through to her. Truth is, I didn't want to argue with her. We had important things to do that night. I just wanted to convince her. How could I know she’d bounce back everything I said? She got impatient and stood up to go, so I had to hold her down.
“I admit, everyone was in kind of an edgy mood. The main thing was that she laughed at us. She said that our brains were out to sea and we had a case of hero worship. It was just too much! She was obviously in the wrong! Sister Sun and Pretty Li were very angry, and I was, too. There was one of her and she surely couldn’t out-shout the three of us. Towards the end, she got so mad she couldn’t talk. Her face turned white and she broke out in a cold sweat. She was too petty. I told her to regulate her breathing, but she ignored me and the anger got to her.”
Surprisingly, after saying all that, the woman started to laugh, as if she’d won some kind of victory. This made Officer Dawn Lily Guo, who was sitting across from her, feel incredulous. After all, something unfortunate had happened.
The woman’s name was Hibiscus Mou. She was sixty years old, but you couldn’t tell it. She kept her back straight as an arrow when she talked. Her hair was done up in a bun at the back of her head, and not a hair was out of place. Her clothes were neat and clean, of average quality but quite fashionable. The collar stood up straight and was bordered with bright piping. A pearl necklace hung under the collar, and the pearls were so large they must’ve been artificial. The only thing that showed her age was a liver spot, commonly called an age spot, on her right cheek near her ear. It was about the size of a thumb nail.
She’d applied face powder, of course. You could tell at a glance. She also had on lipstick and rouge. Her eyebrows were pitch black and dense, and didn’t look like they quite matched her eyes and nose.
She sat straight like that and looked calm all through the conversation. She kept her hands on her lap, one atop the other. Officer Guo felt throughout that she wasn’t holding that position casually, that it was a result of training. It was like she was sitting on a stage giving a performance.
In contrast, the old man beside her had a much older appearance. His back was stooped and he had a tired look on his face.
What the woman said most often, and she repeated it over and over, was, “I was perfectly kind-hearted, and had the good intention of helping her. I told her, with kindness and the best of intentions, to communicate with me. Who knew...?"
The old man barked at her once again. “What kindness and good intentions? It was all just sticking your nose in her business. You’re not her mother, so why’d you care about all that? You don’t pay that much attention to your own business!”
Officer Guo stopped the old man’s complaining so the woman could continue her story. She wanted to hear it, not only to clarify the situation, but also because she was a bit curious. This woman, or to put it more respectfully, this lady, was really a rarity, like no one she’d ever seen before. She was close to her own mother's age but seemed to be waiting in two different worlds.
Officer Guo had been a little annoyed. She got off work at eight p.m. and was always worn to a frazzle after a day spent running around. She’d left early that day, planning to soak her feet in hot water, then go to bed and relax watching a Korean drama on TV. However, just after wiping her feet dry, she got a call from the Captain saying that someone in the Good Fortune Community, which was under their jurisdiction, had filed a police report. A resident had found a dead body at home. The Captain said he’d sent Officers Eastward Jian and Wilderness Tian over and asked Officer Guo to go assist them. There was nothing for it. She had to put on her socks, wrap herself in a down jacket and get on over there.
She learned, when she arrived, that there were two oldsters in this family. The old couple hadn’t been at home in the afternoon. The man was out playing mahjong and the woman had participated in some cultural activity. The man had come home first, at nine p.m., and when he came in he saw a woman he didn’t know lying on the sofa in the living room. He shouted a couple of times, but something didn’t seem right, so he called the 120 emergency services and his wife. The call to his wife didn’t go through for a while, but the first responders came right away. They took a look and said that the woman had passed away possibly two or three hours previously. “You’ll need to contact an undertaker directly,” they’d said, and then they left. The man got nervous and called the police station.
The female resident had arrived home by the time Officer Jian and the others got there. It was this Hibiscus Mou. As soon as she got home, she’d said that the deceased was a friend of hers, and further, that she’d asked this friend to come over that afternoon.
"Rotten luck! She was just fine when I left. She was just dizzy and wanted to lie down for a while. How could she have died? I thought she’d go home after taking a nap, and I told her to shut the door when she left. How could she have died?"
“If she said she was dizzy, why didn't you stay with her or escort her home?” Officer Jian asked.
"Jeez, we had something important to do, and time was against us. Everything has its rank of importance and urgency. How was I to know she'd die? And do it in my house, to boot?"
Hibiscus had a look on her face like she blamed the deceased for her problem.
Officer Jian felt that there was something fishy about the situation. The doctor's preliminary diagnosis was death by sudden onset myocardial infarction, but this Hibiscus, how could she have gone out leaving a friend who was not feeling well lying in her home?
She had Officer Guo bring the woman back to the police station to get a better understanding of the situation and to record her statement. She and Officer Tian stayed behind to wait for evaluation by the forensic investigators, and also to contact the deceased's family.
"Ask detailed questions to see what happened," Officer Jian had ordered her,
Officer Guo nodded and felt slightly excited. She'd been assigned to the precinct two years previously and this was the first case of its sort she'd encountered.
Considering Hibiscus' age, she let the woman's husband accompany her to the station. The old man's anger showed on his face. He hated his wife and had hated her for years. You could tell at a glance that the hatred had been saved up for a long time and compounded interest for several years.
"Please continue," Officer Guo told Hibiscus. "Why did you ask her over to your home?"
"Jeez, I've told you several times. Just to communicate. Communication between people is as important as blood perpetual."
Blood perpetual? Officer Guo paused a moment to reflect on that. She'd probably said 'blood pulse'.
"To tell you the truth, I put up with her for several days, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. She‘d recently taken part in two of our activities and then started making trouble for no reason. She was gossiping about this and that. We had a lunch at noon today, me and Sister Sun and Pretty Li, and we decided we needed to communicate with her. We couldn't let her go on like that anymore.
"I knew I couldn't outtalk her on my own, she's so cultured, so I had them over so we could all talk to her.
Excellent Tang opened the door and went in the apartment. It was dark. She pulled the cord for the light in the living room and called "Ma", but no one answered. The room was too quiet, the kind of quietness that had lasted a long time, a feeling that all the dust had settled. She called "Ma" again, a bit louder this time. Still no one replied.
She went from the bedroom to the kitchen to the bathroom, looking around. There really was no one there. The bedroom was neat, with a quilt on the bed as flat as in a hotel. Pajamas had been folded and placed on the pillow, and there wasn't the slightest hint they'd been slept in. The kitchen was clean, with not one dirty dish in the sink. The chopsticks were in a holder and tilted all in one direction as usual. She had a feeling that dinner hadn't been eaten at home. The bathroom floor was spic n span, the toilet was covered and there was no bad odor.
At least, the appearance of the rooms indicated that no outsiders had broken in.
That put Excellent's mind at ease a little. Before she'd come over, she'd been worried that her mother had fallen while alone at home. A physical last year had revealed that her mother had coronary heart disease. She'd also been afraid of gas poisoning while her mother was bathing. In short, she'd thought of all the things that might happen to a senior living alone. Of course, her mother really couldn't be considered a senior citizen. She was only fifty-six and had just been retired one year.
It looked like her mother had gone out. There was no sense that anyone had been in the place. Slippers were arranged neatly by the door with their toes directed at the wall.
But where had she gone and not come back so late? Usually when she went to a friend's place as a guest, she’d still come home later. She said she couldn’t get to sleep in someone else's home. For the past few years at work, she’d had to travel on business even though she didn’t want to. She’d bring a pillow even if it took up almost half her suitcase. She said, for what it was worth, it gave her a feeling of being at home. Otherwise she couldn't go to sleep.
Her mother was an excessively organized person who loved cleanliness too much.
Excellent took out her cell phone and called her mother again. She really hoped to hear her mother’s phone ringing in another room. But no, the call went through without her hearing any sound in the apartment. She’d already dialed this number seven or eight times that day. Every call went through but no one ever answered. She got a recorded message each time, “The user you dialed is unable to answer the phone for now. Please call again later.”
Up till now, this kind of thing had never happened before. Occasionally, she might not pick up, but she always called back right away. Excellent had a bad feeling about this. She typed out a text message and sent it. “Ma, please reply ASAP. I’m worried to death.”
Most of the time, Excellent wouldn’t contact her mother during the day. They usually got in touch before going to bed at night and asked each other how things were going. But that afternoon, a work colleague invited everyone out to eat hot pot for dinner to celebrate a birthday. She and this colleague had a good relationship and she wanted to go, so she’d sent her mother a text. “Can you pick up Ding Dong for me this afternoon, Ma? Our unit’s having a dinner.” Her mother didn’t answer. She phoned her and the call went through, but no one answered.
Excellent guessed her mother was at some activity. She had a habit of putting the phone on mute whenever she was at a meeting or some other activity. She believed that a phone ringing in public was very uncultivated. Maybe her mother had some something going on that day.
She thought about it and sent another message. “Forget it. I’ll have his dad pick him up. Enjoy what you're doing and don’t worry about it.” So she changed her plan and called her husband to give the job to the unwilling fellow.
After dinner, she’d rushed home to make amends and put their son to sleep. She didn’t remember that her mother hadn’t returned her calls until she paused for a break. That wasn’t like her mother. When she saw on her phone that she’d missed a call, she’d call back no matter what. So Excellent called again, but her mother still didn't pick up. What was going on? Another activity couldn’t possibly have continued until evening. Besides, could her mother have gone for such a long time without looking at her phone?
Her mother had cancelled her landline long before, so her cell phone was the only way to get in touch with her. If Excellent couldn’t contact her on the cell, she didn't know how she could.
After nine o'clock, when she still couldn't get through, Excellent was getting a bit worried, so she grabbed a cab and rushed to her mother's apartment. She’d even thought about what she’d say when she saw her mother. “Don't keep the phone on mute. It scares me to death."
To her surprise, no one was home.
Excellent took a moment to put things together, then called her father. She hemmed and hawed for a long time before asking, “My Ma, she, has she been in touch with you?”
Disgruntled, her father answered, “You have a screw loose? Your Ma’d like to kill me. Why would she contact me?”
“I don't know where she is,” Excellent said. “I haven’t been able to get ahold of her since this afternoon.”
“Hasn’t been half a day yet, so why so uptight?”
“But it’s really strange. She’s not answering the phone, and I’ve called seven or eight times. I ran over to her place and no one’s here. It doesn't feel right.”
Her father paused a moment before saying, "Take a look, is her pillow in the cabinet?" Behind the door in the big upright cabinet. Sometimes your Ma gets flakey and takes off to stay somewhere else.”
Excellent held the phone while she opened the cabinet. She saw the small pillow at a glance, wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. “The pillow’s here,” she said.
“What about her suitcase? Is it under the bed?”
Excellent bent down and looked. “It’s here, too.”
“Then I don’t know,” her father said. “Oh, I’m sure nothing’s happened. She’s not a beautiful young girl."
“Dad!” Excellent screamed angrily.
Her father quickly said, “Anyway, she didn’t contact me. She hasn’t been in touch since she kicked me out last year. If I call she doesn't answer. I only heard she’d retired from you. Your Ma’s stubborn and wouldn’t let me explain. Wouldn’t even give me a chance to explain.”
Excellent thought bitterly, “Who made you go out and fool around, and you more than fifty years old?!”
She was displeased with her father and hung up the phone, then called her husband. His phone was busy and she had to call a second time before he answered. “What were you doing? Who were you on the phone with so long this late at night?” She wasn’t pleased.
“Something at work,” her husband answered perfunctorily. “What is it? Is your Ma at home?”
She had no time to pin him down. “No one’s here,” she said anxiously, “and she still isn’t answering the phone. Could the people from her old unit have gone to dinner? And it’s so noisy she can't hear the phone?”
Her husband analyzed that. “My mom’s retired and she doesn’t participate in any dinners with her old unit. Besides, they wouldn’t possibly have a dinner party so late, right?” He offered a different idea. “Could she have done something on the spur of the moment? Gone on some kind of group tour?” That was flat-out wrong. He and Excellent’s mother had never been on the same page.
“Not possible,” Excellent said. “Even if she’d joined in something like that, she would’ve let me know. And she’d have no reason not to answer the phone.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Oh, she must’ve lost her phone!”
“Hey, that’s a real possibility.... But it’s not right. She knows I get ahold of her every night. If she’d lost her phone, she should’ve had a friend call and tell me. My Ma isn’t that kind of irresponsible person."
“If she lost it,” her husband said, “she might not’ve noticed. Slipped by her, you know."
Excellent still felt that was impossible. She knew her mother. The woman was very organized and hadn’t been forgetful at all since she retired. The day she’d happened to discover Excelent’s father was having an affair, she’d cooked dinner as usual, eaten and washed the dishes, and wiped the table clean before sitting down to talk with him.
The inquiry had been going on for half an hour and there’d been no substantial progress.
Hibiscus was very talkative, and she’d chatter away with no need to be led. But often she’s go off topic and Officer Guo had to interrupt her again and again to keep her on track.
“Was she still OK when you said you were leaving?”
“Yes. I even poured her glass of water with honey in it. I didn't know she had a heart problem until just now, when the doctor said it was a myocardial infarction. I’ve heard of that. It kills fast.”
“The cause of death hasn’t been finalized yet. Were you quarreling aggressively?” Officer Guo asked sternly. “If it was just loud, was there….”
“You mean, did I hit her? No, I didn’t. Absolutely not. I just pushed her shoulder, and Sister Sun poked her forehead. That Pretty Li, she made to like slap her in the face, but didn’t do it. Didn’t really amount to anything at all. The Young Master often does that to us in class. A couple of pushes and a couple of pokes, happens all the time. Sometimes the Young Master kicks us, too, really kicks us. She gets fired up and lashes out with her foot.”
At this point, Hibiscus actually smiled. It was a sweet smile, as if she were talking about something pleasant that had happened. “The Young Master really will hit us, would you believe it?
“Who's the Young Master? She’s our teacher. Her formal name is Young Blue Lai. She was a performer in an acrobat troupe in her youth and won many awards. We all call her Young Master. She’s so dear.
“Hey, let me explain. This matter has nothing to do with Young Master. She doesn’t know anything about it.”
At this point, Hibiscus once again started to laugh unexpectedly. It was as if the ripples from her smile just now were too strong and, once they started, they had to keep pushing into a laugh.
“The Young Master really will hit us. I’ve got it a few times. It’s so funny. When I first started she had me to do the contracted waist position. I really couldn’t contract at all. All I knew how to do was stick my ass out. She ran over and gave me a swift kick, kicked me in the ass. Good thing I had my feet firmly planted.”
She laughed out loud.
“All of us older students there have got hit. Why does she hit us? It must be because she’s anxious when we don’t get the movements right.
“Mad? I don’t get mad. She’s good to us, sincerely good to us. No matter what you used to do before, whether you were a civil servant or a business owner, you’re a student when you’re in front of the Young Master, and you don’t get mad when you get hit. You accept it.
“She’s communicated that to us in class. She said if she wasn’t strict, it’d hurt us. We all know full well that such responsible teachers are hard to find these days. I was so moved. When I was in school, the teachers wouldn't even give me a second look….”
“So, what kind of relationship did the lady who died, Ms. Ying, have with the Young Master you’re talking about?” Officer Guo pulled her back to the subject once more.
“You mean Pretty Ying? A teacher-student relationship, certainly.”
“Pretty Ying? Wasn't her name Study Plum Ying?”
“I just told you, I call the students who're younger than me “Pretty Girl”. Study Plum Ying is a few years younger than me, so I call her “Pretty Ying”. She’s a student, too. We’re all students, and Young Master’s our teacher. We're all students at the Bodhi Salon. Only Pretty Ying just joined. I introduced her into the group.
“How did I know her? I’ve known her for a long time. We were in the same class in junior high. She came over and said hello at the student reunion on National Day, told me she was retired, too. Go figure. She’d always been too stuck-up to attend any of our class parties.
“Why was she stuck up? She got good grades, don’t you know, plus her mommy was a teacher at our school. Back then, because the Cultural Revolution had delayed our lessons, the school grouped several grades together to attend classes, so there were younger and older students in the class. She was the youngest, but she was too good a student and got great grades. Later she tested into a university and became a government cadre when she graduated. Really up there.
"Now we're retired and everyone's the same. No one necessarily has a better life than me in our later years. Really, it's like Young Master says, staying alive is a victory. As long as you keep going forward, it's possible you might surpass the ones who used to be faster than you. It's true. On that day the nerd who was so snooty in school listened humbly while I told my tale. You downright wouldn't believe it."
The old man beside her seemed to have had enough. He took out a pack of cigarettes, gestured to Officer Guo and left the room.
It had no effect on Hibiscus. She straightened back up and continued. "She told me I had a good complexion and looked young. I told her it's because I practice yoga. I used to be skinny with a sallow complexion, but that changed when I started yoga. Now my skills have reached the level of a professional. She didn't believe me at first, so I stood right up and did two poses for her."
Hibiscus stood up and seemed about to put on a performance right then and there. Officer Guo stopped her. She sat back down, took out her cell phone, and surfed through her photos to show them to the policewoman.
"That day I showed her photos of me practicing yoga. I told her I couldn’t bend over and touch the top of my foot when I started. Now I can do it no trouble at all. I can do all of the twenty basic poses of yoga, plus two high difficulty positions, the upper wheel and the lower wheel. Only five people in our Bodhi Salon can do that."
When Officer Guo saw the photos, she thought "This woman really can move her leg up against her cheek. She can bend her body backwards into a bow and interlace the fingers of both hands behind her back." Her eyes widened in surprise. The officer was in her twenties and couldn't do those things, let alone a woman in her sixties.
Hibiscus said, very proudly, "She was speechless when she saw the photos, just like you are now, with your eyes open so wide."
Officer Guo quickly took her eyes away from the pictures.
"She asked me how long I'd been practicing, and I told her nine years. She simply didn't believe it. She said, 'Nine years ago you were fifty.' I said, "Yeah, more than half the students at Bodhi Salon are more than fifty, and some are over sixty. Our Young Master says it's never too late to start. The only thing to worry about is not starting. We not only practice yoga at Bodhi Yoga Salon, we dance, too – but totally different from the middle-aged women who dance in the public squares. We're very professional, and terribly busy every day. Never a spare moment.
"While she listened to me saying all this, it wasn't run-of-the-mill adoration. I know what I saw in her eyes.
"Jeez, I just shouldn't have asked her if she wanted to join, mainly because she was too excited at the time and couldn't stop herself. Fact is, our Salon reached its limit of students a long time ago. You can't get in unless someone else quits. But when I saw her looking at me with such admiration, I popped up with, 'Come on, come and practice yoga with us.'
"She was still a bit aloft and she said she'd drop by and watch some day when she had the time."
Officer Guo almost laughed when she heard Hibiscus say "aloft" instead of "aloof", but she held it back.
"What'd she have to be aloft about? She was only a Section Chief, huh? The more aloft she got, the more I wanted to pull her in. Oh, that's where the problem started. I shouldn't've taken her to watch. Downright shouldn’t have. As soon as she saw Young Master that day, she made a big fuss about nothing.... It was too much."
Excellent Tang spent a long time going through the call record in her own cell phone but didn’t find any of her mother's friends. Her husband had just suggested contacting her mother's closest friends, but she couldn’t find any friends at all, let alone “close” ones. She knew her mother had several because she’d she met them at home twice and called them “auntie”, but she didn’t have any way to get in touch with them. Who would’ve thought of asking for contact information from a parent’s friends?
She regretted it now. Why hadn't she thought to jot down the phone numbers of a couple of those aunties back then?
Now that her husband mentioned it, she didn’t know anything about what her mother’s life was like. She talked to her on the phone every night, but only a few words. “Have you had dinner?” “Get to bed early.” Occasionally she was too lazy to call and just sent a message on WeChat. “Doing OK today,” and her Ma would answer, “OK”, or “Keep cool”, or “Don’t catch cold.” She’d reply, “I know, Ma,” or “You keep warm, too.”
Just now she’d noticed some changes in the living room while she was walking around in the apartment talking to her husband on the phone. The long dining table had been moved over by the window, and there was high quality paper and ink on it. It looked like her mother had been practicing calligraphy with a brush. Then she saw a blouse and pants with a blue flower pattern on the drying rack out on the lanai. She’d never seen her mother wear flowery clothes, but these, even the pants were all flowers. It made her quite curious. It looked like her mother had new hobbies.
She hadn’t had a good conversation with her mother since her own marriage. They were both busy doing their own things. She’d thought her mother would cry on her shoulder after her father’s affair and was prepared for it when she went to her mother’s home one evening. She hadn’t expected her mother to be as cool and collected as ever. She said that she’d felt something was going on for a while but hadn’t wanted to check it out. "Let things run their course," she’d thought.
“How could you let this kind of thing run its course?” Excellent had asked. “You should've beat him.”
“If I’d beat him, he’d only have hidden it deeper,” her mother replied.
“Well, how’d you find out about it?”
“Oh, when an old married couple talks, the least little wisp of sound can reveal a lot…. I found out he was secretly taking medicine to boost his sex drive.” Her mother’d actually started snickering when she said that.
Her mother had talked to her for some time that evening, chatting about her feelings toward marriage. She’d said that it’s important to feign ignorance between husband and wife. “I wanted to do that all along, but I wasn’t lucky. Once I bumped into it, it would’ve been humiliating to pretend anymore.”
Her mother lost her emotional support when she retired, and her spirit seemed to dissolve before Excellent’s eyes. Excellent encouraged her to participate in community activities, or attend Senior’s University or go traveling with her old girlfriends. Her mother refused for a variety of reasons. Excellent really didn’t understand. She saw other people’s mothers basking in domestic bliss with their grandchildren, and cooking, or wearing colorful clothing and taking selfies in scenic spots, but her mother didn’t get involved in such things.
“I don’t know from singing or dancing,” her mother said. “Reading and writing I can do at home by myself. As for traveling, I’d have to find an agreeable companion.”
As for being aloof from worldly pursuits, her career hadn’t gone smoothly after she graduated from college. From the time she’d started until she retired, she’d been small potatoes in a section. But disrespect her and look down on her as they might, she didn’t lose her stature even after she retired. She didn’t even join in with online friends, except for occasionally liking photos her daughter posted. She never posted any herself. The only social contact she had was having tea with two girlfriends from college every once in a while. Twice when Excellent had wanted to see her mother about something, she’d said she was out having tea with her classmates.
Nevertheless, Excellent didn’t know these two classmates’ phone numbers.
Feeling helpless, Excellent could only call a female colleague of her mother's in her old unit. She did have that number.
“I’m sorry for bothering you so late, Ms. Huang. It’s just that, my mother, did she contact you today?”
Ms. Huang was Scholar Tree Huang, who’d shared an office with Excellent’s mother. She said, “Ms. Ying? No. Last time I saw her was during the Mid-Autumn Festival. She came to pick up some moon cakes the unit was distributing and I bumped into her at the door. We had a little get together going on and I asked her join in, but she didn’t.
Ms. Huang spoke leisurely, as she always had, like Excellent’s mother in some respects.
Excellent hesitated, then asked, “Ms. Huang, do you know the phone numbers of my Ma's good friends?
“No, I don't.”
“Well, do you know if she’s joined any groups lately?” Excellent was embarrassed to ask. She didn’t know herself, so how could she expect former colleagues in her mother’s old unit to know?
As expected, Ms. Huang answered, “I haven’t heard. Maybe not? She’s not into that kind of thing. She always sneered at the mention of Senior’s University or the like.”
“Yes,” Excellent thought, “that’s my mother.”
“What’s wrong,” Ms. Huang asked, “can't you get in touch with Ms. Ying?”
Ms. Huang had always called her mother “Ms. Ying,” even when her mother was Section Chief. It gave Excellent a warm feeling that she still did so today. Ms. Huang was twelve years younger than her mother and thirteen years older than herself, so they both used respectful forms of address.
“That’s right,” Excellent said. “She didn't answer her phone all afternoon. I thought that was strange, so I went to her place and there was nobody there. It’s so late, and usually she’d already be home by now. She doesn't like going out at night.
“Oh, that is a bit strange.”
“Yeah. I’ve called many times, but it stops ringing before anyone answers. She couldn’t be mad at me, could she?”
“No, no. Ms. Ying isn’t like that. The last time I called her she didn't pick up right away, but she called back after a moment and apologized. She was brought up especially well.”
While she was speaking, Ms. Huang picked up another phone to call Excellent’s mother. It did indeed stop ringing before anyone answered.
“The user you dialed is unable to answer the phone for now. Please call again later.”
Excellent overheard the recorded message and got even more anxious. This kind of thing had never happened before. “My husband said she might’ve lost her phone, but if she did, she still should’ve gone home. Where could she have gone this late? I looked around her place and her suitcase and stuff are all there. It doesn’t seem like she’s just gone out. Something’s not quite right, I think.”
Ms. Huang was anxious, too. “Well, shouldn’t the police be called?”
All of a sudden, Excellent’s voice sounded like she was on the verge of tears. “I don't even know where to go to report this.”
“If you’re going to report this to the police, you should go to the precinct where Ms. Ying’s residency is registered. However, I heard they want at need forty-eight hours. Unless it’s a lost child, that is.”
“What should I do?” Excellent asked. “I have to wait forty-eight hours just to report it? Why do I have to wait forty-eight hours?”
“I don't know, either. There’s probably a lot of missing persons. I don’t think Ms. Ying’s in any trouble. She’s such an even-keeled sort. Let’s do this. I’ll go to your place with you and we’ll think of what to do.”
“Good,” Excellent said weakly. “Thanks, Ms. Huang.
Hibiscus had finally tired and asked to go to the rest room.
Officer Guo noticed that she was wearing long johns under her cheongsam, clothing from two completely different worlds. Or, to use Hibiscus’ words, they couldn’t communicate at all. Probably, as much as she wanted to be fashionable, she couldn’t be held back by problems with her aging joints.
She seemed to have lost some of her spirit when she came back from the rest room. She wasn’t quite so cheerful. She closed her eyes when she sat down and again began to inhale and exhale deeply. She opened her eyes after three deep breaths and said to Officer Guo, “Our Young Master says it’s very important to regulate your breathing, or else you’ll feel chaotic in your heart. And if you’re heart’s in chaos, your soul will flee. Now I always regulate my breathing when I encounter any difficulty.”
Officer Guo filled a paper cup with water for her. She took a few sips and carefully wiped the corners of her mouth. Then she pulled down the hem of her dress and sat down. As before, she placed her hands one atop the other in her lap.
She noticed how Officer Guo was looking at her. "Our Young Master says," she explained, "that at any given time, a person sitting must maintain the picture of sitting, and a person standing must maintain the picture of standing. Especially women, you must live a style for your whole life, must live an image. You want others see you at your best, because only then will you add blessings upon blessings….
"You, for example, Madam Police Lady. You don't open your shoulder blades. Such a natural beauty, but you lose points as soon as you suck in your chest. You know that?"
Officer Guo felt awkward at having the thread of the conversation turned so abruptly towards herself. She straightened up unconsciously and even thought, "Do I want to find some time to practice yoga?"
Embarrassed, she said, "You seem to idolize the Young Master."
"I certainly do. Our Young Master is the classic image of a goddess whenever she appears before us. You can't tell she's sixty. Really, she looks younger than me. From behind she looks like she's in her twenties. These clothes I'm wearing were made in her style. Too classy! When Young Master wore hers into the Bodhi Salon that day, we were astounded. Just like Brigitte Lin or Maggie Cheung. She's talented enough to make all her own clothes. She designed our yoga outfits, too. They're not like other yoga studios – the others are off-white, but ours are white with blue flowers....
"That day when Pretty Ying signed up, Young Master gave her a blue and white yoga outfit, too. But she wasn't grateful, wasn't that just like her. She even bit the hand that fed her. Our Bodhi Studio was already full, but Young Master broke precedent and accepted her anyway, and right in front of me. She was treated surprisingly well, but after going just twice, she started quarreling about what was right and wrong....
"I told her, kindly and with the best intentions, that she definitely couldn't take too big steps when she was wearing this blue and white outfit, and not to laugh out loud. Would you believe, she said, 'Isn't that just pretending to be ladylike?'
"How is that pretending? It's self-cultivation. Jeez, it was simply impossible to communicate with her."
"Communicate bullshit! You were just sticking your nose in where it didn't belong!" The old man had finished smoking and come back into the room. "And you never do any housework," he screamed. "You spend all day out playing kiddie games, stirring up trouble and making a mess of things."
"Sticking my nose where it didn't belong?" Hibiscus retorted. "I'm the one who introduced her into the Studio, after all, so when I saw she was doing wrong, it was my business." Her expression was firm.
"What she did was really bad! It was bad for Young Master and bad for our entire group. Our group is like a big family, so harmonious and friendly. How could I not cherish it? Each of us has a responsibility to love and protect it and to protect her. We're not those old ladies that dance in the public squares.
"Besides, when she did that, it ruined my reputation as well. I'd had a lot of prestige in the group. Young Master often called me to give demonstrations. Really, she just shouldn’t have. I had to tell her what she'd done wasn't right. If I hadn't said something, she would've been totally unaware. It was her good luck she was able to join us...."
The old man yelled at her again. "Even now you're still talking about those useless old women! You spend all day jumping around doing inexplicable things! I told you before that something was going to happen! And here it is, someone dead in your home! Let's see how you explain that!"
Hibiscus' look darkened abruptly. Her eyebrows had been high on her forehead but suddenly were pulled down. They'd looked like black sword tattoos, and now they were stabbing straight into her cheeks.
But she cheered up again right away. "I haven't done anything illegal. I just kindly introduced her to join us, and with good intentions. I saw she was retired and feeling bored, nesting at home every day. Her face was deathly pale. She was a few years younger than me but looked older. No one can tell I'm sixty years old when I go out. Isn't that true, Comrade Police Officer?"
Officer Guo almost nodded in agreement.
"Yesterday, I said a few tactful things to her and asked her to respect Young Master. She sassed back at me sharply and said that I was blindly worshiping her, without principles.... What principles or no principles, she just liked to be condescending. We're all retired, so why's she still got her nose in the air? One of our fellow students was a Department Head, and she doesn't have her nose in the air like that.
"There was nothing else for it. I had to get Sister Sun and Pretty Li to go with me to help her. She’s something, so small-minded, and when she couldn’t outshout the three of us, she got so mad her face turned white. Like when she was a college student, don’t you know...."
Officer Guo didn't want to listen to her blathering anymore and began to summarize to help her sort things out:
“Did it go like this? You asked her to come to your home in the afternoon. You talked to her, and in the process of talking you had a quarrel. Everyone was rather emotional. When she felt uncomfortable, you let her take a nap at your place and you left. Is that it?”
“Yeah, that's it.” Hibiscus nodded and abruptly sighed. Some of her face powder was coming off and her flaccid, yellowing skin showed through. The truth was being revealed.
“I kindly asked her over to talk, with good intentions. How could I have known that we wouldn’t have a meeting of the minds? I didn't know she had a heart problem, and if I had I wouldn't’ve told her to practice yoga. Yoga’s not suitable for people with bad hearts. Just my luck. I had the best of intentions. We were educating her through criticism, no, we were communicating, when suddenly she said she was terribly dizzy and didn't want to talk. I figured she didn't want to hear what we were saying and was pretending to be sick.
“Since we couldn’t communicate, I thought we couldn’t let her participate in the evening’s activities, to keep her from saying crazy things at the event. So I told her to rest up in our home. I really had the best of intentions.”
“You guys didn't call a doctor or anyone in her family?”
“Couldn’t deal with it. We had to be at the restaurant at 5:30 to get ready. We were in a panic.”
“You mean, you just left her alone at your place?”
She paused before saying, “How could I have known it’d be so serious? Dizzy, I get dizzy all the time, but it goes away when I drink some honey water. I thought she could rest up and then go home. I told her to close the door tight when she left….”
“And then, after you left, she died of a heart attack.” Officer Guo’s voice and expression had become stern.
Hibiscus heard her tone of voice. She’d already been sitting with her back straight, but she adjusted herself to sit up even straighter, although it made her look exhausted and elderly. But one could tell she was trying hard to maintain her composure.
“I don’t have any real regrets. If you want to blame me, blame me for being in too much of a hurry at the time. I was afraid of affecting the evening. Sister Sun and Pretty Li thought that we shouldn’t affect the evening, too, so we left for the restaurant. Traffic was jammed up, but luckily we got there in time. The evening’s event was quite successful, and we’d just finished when my old man called. Young Master praised my solo dance.”
After she said this, she subconsciously formed a stylistic gesture from Peking opera with the fingers of both hands.
The young policeman on the night beat seemed to be a recent college graduate. His face bore no traces of age. As he sat down in front of the computer, he asked, “Is the missing person elderly?”
Excellent quickly said, “No, not elderly.”
“How old is this person?”
The officer gave her a look. “Over fifty isn’t elderly? Sheesh.”
Excellent was taken aback. She’d never felt that her mother was elderly – middle-aged at most. She forced a smile and looked at Ms. Huang. “I’m over thirty,” she thought, “so I must be middle-aged in this young officer’s eyes.”
“When did this person go missing?”
“Uh, I couldn't get in touch with her this afternoon. She never answered the phone. Just now, when we were on the way here just now, she still didn’t pick up. It’s too weird.”
“It’s common to make a call and have no one answer. I often get calls I don’t answer.”
“But my mom’s not like that. She’s never done anything like that.”
The policeman's eyes showed he thought that was certainly not true. He seemed to be thinking, “What basis do you have for saying your mom always picks up?” But all he said was, “From this afternoon till now isn’t even ten hours, you know.”
Excellent replied quickly. “I know you want forty-eight hours, but I just feel this is too abnormal. I’m afraid something’s happened to her. She lives by herself.... If there’s any chance....”
The officer waved his hand. “It’s no problem, none at all. Since you came in to file a report, we’ll definitely take it up. We have to record it.”
The officer went down the line, asking for her surname, her given name, her age, address and ID number, when she’d gone missing, from where, and her mother’s phone number. He entered each answer in a form on the computer.
Excellent saw that the form was titled "Missing Person Report Form" and that it had a case number, and her mind felt a little easier.
“Is she of sound mind? What I mean is, are there any symptoms of things like Alzheimer's? Does she lose her way when she goes out? Many times when people come here to report a missing person, that’s what’s happened.”
Excellent shook her head repeatedly. “No. No, her mind is very clear. The important thing is, she’s never done anything like this before.”
Ms. Huang chimed in to confirm that. “She just retired a little over a year ago. She was our Section Chief before she retired. She was very organized and not confused at all, which is why we’re so anxious now.”
The young officer finished the report and pressed “save”. “Ok, it’s like this. If we find out anything, we’ll contact you right away.”
“You’re not going to take immediate action?”
“Take what action? Organize the force to cover all the streets looking for her?”
Excellent lost her patience. “Is that what you’d do if it was your mother who was missing?”
Her tears started to flow. Ms. Huang quickly put her arms around Excellent’s shoulders.
The officer was too stunned to say anything for a moment, but then his attitude changed for the better. “I understand how you feel, ma’am. But do you know how many people come in to report missing persons every day? Most of them are found in two or three days. Especially the elderly not being able to find their way home temporarily, that happens a lot. We couldn’t possibly set up a case for all of them. Unless you have evidence to show that the person was in danger of physical harm, that is, that the person might have been attacked.... Setting up a criminal case file is a very complicated matter. Once you set it up, you can't withdraw it, and you’ll have to use up a lot of police manpower. If you can't provide sufficient reason to suspect a crime, the public security organs lack grounds for setting up a case file and won’t do it. We can only provide the assistance required by citizens after a case is reported."
Excellent felt he was reciting a memorized speech. But it served its purpose and she calmed down.
"Okay, now we know," Ms. Huang said to Excellent.
The officer then turned to Ms. Huang. “Rest assured, I’ll distribute the information I just entered on the form on our intranet platform, to let other precincts take note of it. Once we get any news, I’ll contact you right away. I suggest that you also post the news through your online platform and get your friends and relatives to look for her. You might get better results that way. And let us know right away if you get any clues."
Hs. Huang nodded several times.
She and Excellent left the police station and said goodbye to each other. To console her, Ms. Huang said, “Maybe we’ll hear something tomorrow.” Excellent held back her tears and thanked Ms. Huang for taking the time to come with her. Then they each got in their vehicles to leave.
Excellent had just started her car when her phone rang. She took it out hastily, thinking, “I really hope it’s Mother. I really hope she’ll say, ‘Sorry, my phone was muted and I never heard it.’”
But it was her husband.
“That, uh, the police just called,” he told her. “They said they were in someone’s home and found your Mom....”
“Where? Who’s home?”
“They said, your Mom, she had a heart attack. She’s already, uh, not OK....”
Officer Guo got a call from Officer Tian. He said the doctor had determined that Study Plum Ying died of myocardial infarction with no other contributing factors.
“We’ve contacted the deceased’s family. We found her cell phone under the sofa at that woman’s home after you left. It was muted and flashing, more than a dozen missed calls. We figure she wanted to call for help and dropped it on the floor.
“Also, that Hibiscus woman did indeed give her a glass of honey water when she left. This point disproves any malicious intent at the time. She didn’t expect the unexpected. Her actions are rather incredible, though.
“When you’ve finished questioning them, let them go home.”
Officer Guo said, “OK.”
Hibiscus seemed to have guessed the gist of the conversation. She stared at Officer Guo and asked, “Got it all figured out? Can I go home now?”
Officer Guo nodded.
She stood up immediately and said to the old man, as though she’d won a victory, “I said I wasn’t to blame, didn’t I. It was her own health problem. In fact, there’s nothing to be upset about. Going quick is a good thing, no torment. When I go, I hope I’ll go like she did.”
The old man looked as angry as ever. He turned and went out the door, completely ignoring Hibiscus.
Officer Guo said, “Well, I’d like to ask you two more questions, OK?
“You’ve maintained that the deceased said something she shouldn’t have. What’d she say, anyway?”
Hibiscus’ anger flared up again. “Ha! As soon as she got there, she said she knew Young Master. So what if she did. Then she said that when Young Master was young … she did some things and was expelled from her unit.”
“Forget it. I can't say it, can't spread that drivel. I don't believe Young Master did such a thing. None of us believed it. She must just have heard a rumor. How could Young Master have done what she said?
“Besides, no matter where you hear that kind of thing, you shouldn’t be so irresponsible as to repeat it. Rumors stop with wise people. Isn’t that so, Madam Police Lady?”
“I have another question. What did you have going on this evening, that you were so anxious to get there?”
Hibiscus suddenly brightened up. She raised her two pitch-black eyebrows and said, “Jeez, today was Young Master’s birthday, her sixtieth! We’ve had it planned for a long time. It was all set half a year ago. That we’d celebrate Young Master’s birth this evening.
“We agreed that, for her sixtieth, we’d put sixteen candles on the cake and wish that she’d always be as beautiful as a young girl.
“We rehearsed several performances. I had two dances, one of them a solo with all the yoga moves in it, even the lotus handstands.
“We’d been preparing for this party for a long time. I’d even special-ordered a muslin skirt and its effectiveness was fantastic. We absolutely couldn’t be affected by her.
"The party was quite the success, thank goodness. Young Master said that she was truly happy. Today was her happiest day ever. We were happy, too. Today was a happy day.”
That sent a shiver down Officer Guo’s spine. This woman, the unsympathetic heart she was carrying with her, was just as incredible as her putting her leg up against her cheek.
She stood up and gestured that Hibiscus could go.
Hibiscus straightened up, took a deep breath and released it, and headed out the door.
She looked back as she was pushing open the door. “Remember to keep your shoulder blades open, Madam Police Lady, like I do. Don’t suck in your chest.”
2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 143
长江文艺出版社，责任编辑：刘程程，周阳; Translated from 新浪博客 at
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