​​         Chinese Stories in English   

The Sound on the Water
Ai Wei

      He was sitting in front of his grass hut by the lake. The early summer sun was already rather hot, but he still enjoyed basking in it like this. He could see a halo under the sun, a round circle drifting before his eyes.
      Sometimes these circles of light would turn into tadpoles or some other little critter. They came in various colors and were quite cute. He’d show a mysterious smile at such times and say to himself, "Be careful flying around in front of me like this, or I’ll catch you." After he said that, his smile would become a childish smirk.
      Except for the slight perception of light he got when facing the sun, the world was dark to him. His ears had become sensitive, though. He could hear far away things, and he felt that any place his ears could reach was no longer dark.
      At the moment he could hear little fishes swimming back and forth in the pond. If he wanted, whenever his ears caught the sound of a tiny fish, he could follow it and swim all around the lake. There were water plants in the lake, wafting in the water, free and easy, and the little fish played joyously among them. "You little guys be careful you don’t get eaten by a big fish." He was happy talking to himself.
      A breeze flickered like the sparkling little fishes, brushing across his face and through his hair. He could feel his hair swaying like the water grasses in the lake, and imagined a tiny fish swimming on the top of his head. He pretended to grab it and came up with a handful of hair. That pained him. “I made you run away again,” he said sorrowfully.
      The breeze carried the stench of sweat and a taste of the blistering heat of broadcast sowing in a rice paddy. But it was very quiet just then, and no one was working in the paddies. He didn't understand why he smelled the scorching aroma of broadcast sowing.
      Sounds were coming from across the lake, but that shore was a little too far away for him to hear clearly. Then he heard something splash in the water. It might have been a fish jumping, but if it was, it must have been a big one, at least several dozen pounds. A fish that big hadn’t been seen in this lake for a long time, though. He wondered if he was getting old and his ears weren’t working right.
      That thought disturbed him. If his ears went bad, too, the world wouldn’t exist anymore and he’d be in complete darkness. But then a clear, crisp sound came through the air. It made him happy, just like the sounds of the tiny fishes had. It was the cheerful voices of children. In his mind’s eye he could see the voices flying to him like birds, and the chirping filled his ears. He thought, “My ears must not have a problem.”
      Some splotches of mud flew past his ear. Flying splotches of mud make different sounds depending on their shape. He liked the sound of round ones. He could see them squeezing out a seam in the air, and then the seam would close with a sound like a whistle. If some splotches fell on his hand, he’d hear a “boom, boom” like a drumbeat.
      He knew where these splotches of mud were coming from. They always came along with the children's voices. Just like the sound of leaves falling all around him carried bits of mud, it seemed as though these bits of mud and the voices were symbionts. He covered his head with both hands to keep more mud from hitting his face.
      "What are you giggling about, Blind Guy?"
      "I heard something jumping around in the lake. Tell me, guys, what the heck was it?"
      The kids had just come from the other shore. They knew what had been jumping around in the lake. They laughed out loud. They thought, “This time Blind Guy won’t be able to guess what it was, no matter how good his ears are.” They told him:
      "It was a fish, a big fish. What you heard was a big fish jumping."
      They spoke in exaggerated voices. He heard them and started giggling again. Their laughter was like coiled springs. He couldn't see it, but he knew they were bouncing up and down.
      "I haven't seen one that big in years. There used to be some in the lake, but they’re rare now."
      "You’re bs-ing again, Blind Guy. You can't see anything."
      The kids were still laughing, but there was something evil in their laughter. He knew they were going to mess with him and got nervous. “What’re you up to?” he asked.
      “You’re the big fish,” they shouted. Then they picked him up and threw him into the lake. He couldn't swim and choked on a mouthful of water as he struggled. He grabbed at the slippery watergrasses on the shore to pull himself out, but every time he got hold, the kids poked him with a stick. He choked on some more water. The kids didn’t let him go until he was exhausted. As he climbed from the lake to the shore, their voices faded away like the chirping of frightened birds flying off into the woods.
      A month before, one of the kids had racked his brain over the word “syphilis”. Some adults had spit the word out while they were talking about why the old man had gone blind. They’d said it could only be syphilis. The kid didn’t know what kind of disease syphilis was. He’d never heard of it before, but he could sense the dubious meaning of the word. Suspicion was express in the term. When the adults said it, a furtive longing showed on their faces and beams of light radiated from their eyes, as if the word were charged and had activated their bodies.
      What kind of disease was it? The kid felt duty-bound to clarify that matter. He was recognized as a knowledgeable fellow in his group and he shouldn’t let the guys down on this issue. Not long ago, someone had asked him what “see blood” means. This was something else the kids had heard the adults say. When he told his buddies it was “a physiological phenomenon of women”, their jaws dropped and their eyes grew wide, which made him extremely proud.
      These days the kid's senses had been getting more acute. His ears were always perked to receive any information in the air that might be of interest to him. Now the word “syphilis” had made the airways exceptional in a dark sort of way. He guessed the virus that could result in blindness had seemingly existed momentarily in the air and felt comfortably warm at the thought. He hoped to hear the truth about this word from the mouths of the grown-ups.
      One day the kid couldn’t help himself and asked his grandpa about syphilis. Grandpa gave him a weird look but kept his face wooden. “Why are you asking about that?”
      The kid said, “They say that’s what made Blind Guy blind.”
      Grandpa cursed happily. “That Blind Guy, he sure as shit liked his women.” He wouldn’t say any more than that, though. The kid had more questions, but his grandpa shooed him away like he was a fly.
      Now he knew that the word “syphilis” was associated with women. The association made him even more curious than ever. He also knew that you can't look to adults to tell you anything related to women, so he’d have to pin his hopes on books. That’s the way it always was. Adults wouldn’t tell you the secrets of the world, but books would. As long as you’re patient, you can always find whatever you want to know from books.
      He started by leafing through the few books his family had at home. In addition to two sets of the "Selected Works of Mao Zedong", they also had a copy of the novel "
Red Crag" and several propaganda leaflets. He’d won one set of the Selected Works as a prize for an artistic performance. He found this note in it: “After liberation, under the guidance of Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line, China has eliminated prostitution and drug abuse, ugly phenomena of the bourgeois class, and has also essentially eliminated diseases caused by blood-sucking insects, syphilis, smallpox and other ailments.”
      The word “syphilis” flashed from the pile of black text and caught his eye. It seemed like he had to open his eyes wide to see it distinctly. No further explanation of the term appeared in this pile of text, though, and after leafing through the Selected Works from beginning to end, he still hadn’t figured out exactly what syphilis was. He thought, “It must be a very common disease, one that everybody knows about. Otherwise, good old Chairman Mao would definitely have explained it clearly.”
      He ended up looking in a dictionary to learn about syphilis. The dictionary belonged to their language teacher, who was right beside him while he turned the pages, so he acted furtively as if he were doing something reprehensible. He felt he’d be ashamed if the teacher found out he was interested in “syphilis”. He didn't yet understand what syphilis was, but he knew that the word might be one that people shouldn’t say openly.
      He finally found the word on page 578 of the dictionary. “Syphilis: Formerly called ‘bayberry sores’. One of the sexually transmitted diseases. A person who suffers from the disease will get hard chancres in the external genital area, and later a skin rash. Serious cases may lead to hair loss on the head and in the pubic area, and even blindness. This disease was a product of the ultimately disgusting old society and was often seen in prostitutes and their customers during that period. The virus has been eradicated in New China.”
      His hand trembled as he read the definition. He could feel the blood boiling up in him like steam.
      When he told his buddies about syphilis, they were all lying on a sunny hillside. Shadowy images of prostitutes and whoremongers floated before their eyes.
      One of them asked, “What’s a prostitute?”
      The kid answered with lazy pride. "Before liberation, there were women on city streets for men to play with. They were called ‘prostitutes.’” This was something he’d found in the dictionary.
      His buddy asked, "How do you play with women?"
      The kid's face turned red. He felt this question couldn’t be answered clearly. He also felt that his asshole buddy was stupid. He said coldly, "You’ll know in a few years."
      One of his other buddies, an experienced fellow, said, “I know about that. Blind Guy used to play with prostitutes a lot."
      "I really can't see it” someone added, sticking out his tongue. “That straight arrow Blind Guy wouldn’t do that kind of thing."
      "I heard he’s stupid,” the guy continued, “and not only because he lives in a grass hut. He used to be a landlord, but he was always giving things away to people begging for food. He ended up raising a whole family of beggars, and by Liberation he was almost a pauper. They said he’d gone crazy.”
      Acting like he was sophisticated, the kid who’d looked in the dictionary nodded and said, "I’ve heard that."
      Someone else raised a question. "Didn't you say that people with syphilis lose their hair? Blind Guy has a full head of black hair. He’s gone blind, but his hair isn’t falling out. Isn’t that kind of strange?"
      The kid who’d looked in the dictionary said, "Maybe he wears a wig. But even if he can fake the hair on his head, he can never fake the hair on his cock."
      The kids decided to go check that out. It wasn’t far from the hill they were on to the lake, and before long they’d come to the old man's hut. He was sitting as always in front of the hut, basking in the sun. He seemed to have fallen asleep. His head drooped down on his chest and he had a big smile on his face. Maybe he was seeing women in his dreams.
      The kids had decided to tiptoe up beside Blind Guy and pull his pants off without rousing him. When they got close, they were still a little worried. They were afraid Blind Guy would wake up suddenly and scare the heck out of them. Blind Guy’s ears were quite sensitive.
      This time, however, Blind Guy was really sound asleep and the kids striped his pants off without him even knowing it. Once they were off, the old man jumped up out of his chair like a fish out of water. One would think he’d gotten an electric shock. The revolutionary masses sometimes poked the
Four Bad Elements with electric prods, and the bad elements acted just like that when they got shocked.
      The kids found that Blind Guy’s pubic hair hadn’t fallen off at all. It was very dark and grew all around his thing. The thing was waiving back and forth and looked potent. The kids were a little bit envious of his pubic hair. After a moment, the old man realized that he didn’t have any pants on and covered himself with his hands.
      By this time the kids were standing two hundred meters away from Blind Guy. They didn't want to give the old man’s pants back to him. They watched while he spun around trying to cover his nakedness.
      After a while, the old man sniffed the air like a dog and identified the direction to where the kids were standing. “I’m not a big girl,” he said. “What’s so interesting about my ass. Give me my pants back right now.”
      The kids had to laugh when they heard that. They didn't intend to give the pants back. They took them and ran off. They started laughing once it seemed they were far enough away, and they laughed all the way back to the hillside. Then it suddenly occurred to them that the pants might be contaminated with syphilis. They threw them down right away and set them on fire.
      That night, the kid who’d looked in the dictionary never stopped dreaming. He dreamed that several enchantresses were spinning naked around Blind Guy, whose vacant eyes carried an air of decay. That evening, he was the first of his group to have a wet dream.
      The booming sound of jumping from across the lake had continued all along. Although he suspected it really was a big fish, the sound stirred up an itch his heart. It became clearer at night and kept him awake. It seemed to always come from the same location in the water and didn’t swim around. If it was a big fish, it was a lazy big fish.
      The sound also became more frequent and seemed to be having endless fun. "Whatever that thing is doing, it’s irritating, isn’t it? And it keeps me awake." He knew that the sound really wasn’t the only reason for his insomnia. The fundamental reason was that his curiosity had been aroused.
      He was surprised because he’d never before encountered anything in the world that he could hear but couldn’t identify. But now this sound had appeared. "I’ve been trying to differentiate this sound for a long time, but I still don't know what it is." Once again he doubted his ears. He felt the problem might be caused by a steady decline in his hearing.
      Going without sleep for such a long time made him feel both stimulated and fatigued. He knew he’d go sleepless another night if he didn't figure out what the thing was tonight, so he decided to get up and go to the opposite side of the lake to have a look. He couldn't tell what it was by listening, but he could always smell it out. He draped a shirt over his shoulders and set off into the deep dark night.
      For him, the night was no different than the day. He never needed a light when he walked. He felt that he was more aware than a bat. Bats rely solely on sound waves, but he could rely on his nose as well as his ears. Everything in the world has his own scent, and he could imagine the appearance of an object through its smell.
      Through their smell, he could even imagine the shapes of the leaves on a tree by the side of the road. Of course, no one had ever told him whether the shapes he imagined were right or wrong, but he thought they were accurate. Therefore he never thought of himself as blind. "I can see,” he often told himself, “and see more clearly than anyone else".
      He strode ahead along the winding lakeside path toward the sound. He often had the illusion that the sounds he heard were rays of light, and when he heard the booming on the water in the distance, his eyes lit up like there was a light flashing in the place it was coming from.
      He took a breath, trying to figure out what the heck the thing was. It didn’t have a fishy smell, so he concluded that the booming sound wasn’t a big fish jumping.
      For him, the only difference between night and day was the smell. Daytime air was full of people's turbid breath, but the dark had a strange, ghostly air. It was gloomy but quite refreshing, and made the world seem unblemished. It was because plants sucked away the smell of people, he knew, but these days there were fewer and fewer plants. People often cut down the trees by the lake. He was worried that there’d be no trees to suck away the smell in the future, and the world would be filled with the stench of human sweat.
      Right now the smell of a human was piercing his nose. He stopped in his tracks and looked around alertly, as if his eyes were whole. He knew the village militia usually had men on duty at night and was afraid they might take him for a counter-revolutionary. There was no one in the immediate vicinity, though. He concentrated, and this time he was able to sense that the smell came from the same place as the sound. That being so, the thing in the water was human, but he still wasn’t clear about why a person would jump around in the water for so long. Things were getting stranger and stranger in this world.
      He continued to walk in that direction, and the person’s shape began to float up in his head. He still couldn't tell who it was, though, so he sniffed hard again. From the faint, feeble scent he guessed it was Friendly Glint, who was classed with the Four Bad Elements – the guy who walked like he was falling forward, like a shrimp.
      The man obviously knew someone was coming. There was suddenly no sound of movement in the water. Blind Guy sensed that the man was watching him alertly. After a moment, a timid voice wafted across the water:
      "Who is it? Who’s there?"
      It was indeed Friendly Glint’s voice. Blind Guy couldn’t help but be filled with pride over his accurate judgment. “Jeez, Friendly,” he said. “What are you doing in the water? Have you really turned into a shrimp?"
      “Oh, Blind Guy.” Friendly relaxed at once, and then felt like his tears were about to flow, as though Blind Guy were a dear relative who he’d been longing to see.
      "I’m freezing to death,” he sobbed. “I can't stand it. They can't torture me like this."
      "Why are you in the water? What happened?"
      "I don't know why, either. They changed their pattern for abusing me. They tied my hands and tied a big rock to my foot. They’re using this method to abuse me. I have no strength left at all. I'm dying.”
      They were getting worse and worse. They could do all kinds of stuff like this. Doing this was even more cruel than killing someone. Blind Guy was rather sympathetic. "Don't worry, Friendly,” he said. “You’ll warm up when you get something to eat. Wait, I’ll go get you something."
      "If you do that, aren’t you afraid they’ll abuse you, too, Blind Guy?"
      "I’m blind. What do I have to be afraid of?”
      He ran along the river back to his hut, where he had several roasted sweet potatoes in his pot. He decided to take them all to Friendly.
      The nighttime atmosphere slowly faded. The ghostly air dissipated like fog. The cries of bugs in the area made the blackness appear even more extensive, but there was a hint of morning in the sound of the breeze. Friendly felt a little warmer after he’d eaten something, and panic no longer showed on his face.
      He took another big bite and, with his cheeks bulging, smiled and said, "You scared me to death the way you walked up on me just now, Blind Guy. You stepped so lightly, no sound at all. I thought I’d met up with the Big Head Ghost."
      "You’re the Big Head Ghost," Blind Guy replied, disagreeing.
      While he was on the shore listening to Friendly eat, a group of militia night guards caught him red handed. It was just starting to get light and the guards were bored after being on duty all night, so when they saw what he’d done, they decided to have some fun. Without a word, they tied Blind Guy’s hands and feet, hung a big rock from his foot and, splash, threw him into the water. “You like the Four Bad Elements so much, we’ll let you keep this one company.”
      Friendly got a kind of warm feeling when he saw Blind Guy get thrown in with him. He’d really been too lonely in the water by himself. He felt more psychologically balanced with another person immersed in the lake. Some happiness showed on his face, but he didn't dare smile because he was afraid the militia would beat him black and blue. Once they’d gone, he couldn’t help himself and said with a smile, “Landlord that you are, Blind Guy, you should have been in here a long time ago, but they kept forgetting you.”
      Blind Guy had already known that Friendly was smiling. All Friendly had to do was move his mouth and Blind Guy would know what his expression was. "You’re a man without a conscience, Friendly,” he said. “When someone’s gone completely blind like me, why would anyone want to torment me to no end like they do you?"
      "It’s not that I don't have a conscience, Blind Guy. I'm too lonely. It makes me happy to have someone to keep me company."
      Early that morning, the kids got excited when they heard Blind Guy had been thrown into the lake, too. They were going to have some fun with him. Teasing Blind Guy really was fun. “He’ll never figure out who’s throwing mud on him. He’ll just smirk and laugh stupidly along with us, like a dumb dog.”
      The kids came along at the same moment the birds took off chirping from a tree. Blind Guy felt their arrival like a dark cloud passing over his head. Then splotches of mud come down on his head like a heavy rain. Friendly agilely ducked under the water to avoid the barrage.
      The kid who'd looked in the dictionary was with them. When he saw Friendly stick his head out of the water, he laughed and said: "Blind Guy has syphilis, Friendly. Be careful you don't get infected."
      The expression on Friendly's face didn't change, but his eyes perked up.
      "When people get syphilis," the kid continued, "their hair falls out, even the hair on their cock. Who knows, Friendly, maybe soon you'll become a blind guy, too."
      That really scared Friendly. He knew why Blind Guy had gone blind. Everyone said it was syphilis. Friendly had been around and he knew how serious syphilis was. He thought, he'd really been stupid just now, happy that Blind Guy was in the water with him. Why hadn't he thought about it a little more deeply. He started backing up to get far away from Blind Guy.
      That made Blind Guy angry. "What're you afraid of? I don't have syphilis," he said, "Maybe you're the one that's got it."
      Then he moved closer to Friendly and tried to wrap his arms around him.
      Friendly couldn't get far because of the rock tied to his foot, so he pleaded, "Don't get near me, don't."
      Blind Guy really was mad. People like Friendly disgusted him. He felt almost hopeless. He yelled at the kids, "I didn't go blind from syphilis. It was something else. All right, I'll tell you a story. I know it'll be a waste of time, though, because I know you won't believe what I say."
      The children were obviously interested in the story that Blind Guy wanted to tell, and they quieted down for a moment. They stood on the shore of the lake in a condescending position, waiting to see what he’d say.
They saw him raise his head like he was looking at them. He had an odd smile on his face, a sly look like he could see everything. They even thought beams of light were coming from his eyes.
      After a bit his unemotional voice rolled out over the water. "You all know I used to be a landlord. Everyone laughed at my stupidity because I was always giving things to the poor, to people begging for food. Later more and more people started asking me for things. There was often a gang of raggedly dressed people in front of my house. Gradually I gave away everything in my house.
      "My brother and I had already divided up the family's assets, but he was still incensed by what I did. One day he said to me, 'They all say you've gone crazy, and I think so, too. You think those people don't have enough to eat? They're scamming you. There's evil in this world, much more than you think.'
      "I didn't believe the ways of the world were evil. My brother didn't want to argue about it. He said, 'Let's make a bet. We'll go ask three people. If they say worldly ways are good, I'll blind myself. If they say worldly ways are evil, I'll blind you.'
      "I said OK, and we set out to find three people. We asked a farmer, a merchant and an official. The result, I'm sure you've guessed. They all said worldly ways are evil. I lost.
      "I lost. Of course my brother didn't blind me. He said as long as I realized I'd been wrong, it was OK. You won't believe me when tell you, but the oath I'd sworn to my brother had to be fulfilled in the end. My mood worsened over a period of time. It felt even worse than being blind. I got really sick because of it. Maybe I was too broken-hearted. Gradually my vision got worse and worse, and I ended up not being able to see the world clearly. My spirit brightened after I went blind, though. I often comfort myself like this: ‘I'm not blind, it’s the world that's blind.’”

21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Short Stories, p. 159
Translated from version at

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