Translated by Joshua Dyer and first published in Pathlight summer 2015.
Read in Chinese here.
Where are you, she asks.
I’ve been here all along. She must be completely blind now. I reach out to touch her. I feel her chest and notice her heartbeat is irregular, sometimes stopping altogether. She lets me touch her ears. I find a thick, sticky pus leaking out.
I feel a sudden wave of compassion – I should say something to comfort her.
“Don’t be sad, sister. Dying in the womb might not be a bad thing.”
When she doesn’t react, I begin to think she might be deaf as well as blind – but no, out of the blue she pulls up both legs and stomps down on my knee. She keeps at it until I cry out in pain and choke on a mouthful of fluid. Then she returns her feet to their position near my mouth.
Y and I have been here for a while already, and I don’t know how much longer we can stay. Many people have a fondness for the place where they grew up, but no one ever thinks about this place we’re at now, save for the obstetricians and gynecologists who make their living here. Instead everyone misses wherever they went afterwards, the first place they spent any time. They call it “home,” but they’re wrong. This is their real home.
Of course, there was one person who cared about our home aside from our mother and the doctors, and that was the philosopher. He was at least fifty, but with his dental veneers and dyed hair he looked much younger. He was always shuffling back and forth in front of our door, like a dog turning in circles chewing its tail.
He often carried a rose in one hand. She was easily overcome by its perfumed scent, and once this happened they would make love on the sofa. I want to return to the womb, he said once, become a fetus again. When I heard this I said to Y, it’s easy for him to talk from out there. Let’s trade places you old windbag! You come in and I’ll go out!
It seems he heard my wisecracks. He had lost face and immediately vented his anger. His method was to prod us with a cudgel, and crush us under his belly. He was a pathetic man, but I was glad it was him and not one of the others. Why? Because he never prodded us for long, and his belly exerted the least force. One or two thrusts and he was done. With some of them it was like being crushed under a millstone. They came rolling over us, grinding and prodding like it would never end. If anyone could be called the cream of this woeful crop, it was the philosopher, and for this reason I liked him a little.
Later, he died. He flipped his car on the freeway while driving to give a lecture. He ended as a pile of ground meat, dozens of pages of his lecture notes blowing down the lanes. The topic was, “How Do We Learn to Live? How Do We Learn to Die?” The one thing we can be sure of is he never expected to die on the freeway. The last page of his lecture read:
Human beings are unique because, unlike other animals, we know we will die. Though an animal may watch a member of its own species die, it does not imagine it will face the same fate. This demonstrates that humans are a special kind of animal that can extrapolate its own experiences from the experiences of others.
Then he touched on his own demise, saying he knew he would die at his podium, in front of his students, “eyes slowly closing under their attentive gazes.” What a windbag. Really.
Things were a little better when the philosopher was alive, mostly because there weren’t so many people coming to crush and prod us. After he died it was nonstop. When we took account of our situation, our increasingly cramped quarters, and the ever murkier fluid that surrounded us – all of our pissing and shitting has to be done in here – it was clear that our current environment was intolerable. If you could actually remember this motherland, you would most likely agree. Then again, if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t know anything other than shuffling back and forth in front of our door, and rubbing your meat-cudgel on our doorframe, then I’m wasting my time. I may as well play piano for an ox. That’s an expression I picked up from the philosopher. He said it all the time, but he was too stuck-up to explain what an ox was.
I just remembered something from a while back, when we still thought this place wasn’t so bad, when we still prided ourselves on being self-sufficient because we were drinking our own piss and shit. It happened the same day the philosopher died. It was afternoon and she had just returned from the scene on the freeway. She smoked a bunch of cigarettes, went to the mirror to brush her hair and do her make-up, and then hauled us off to the hospital. In a corridor that led to the stairs I saw a bunch of kids in similar circumstances to our own. Mostly they were curled up in their mother’s bellies, eyes darting around, anxious and unsettled. Only the smaller ones had no idea where they were. Happy in ignorance, they paddled in their narrow waterways without a care in the world. One chunky kid was hanging upside down in his womb sniveling, wiping his nose with his toes. In other words, a pessimist (another word I learned from the philosopher). When things quieted down I took the opportunity to ask him why he was crying. As long as you’re here you may as well make the best of it, I said. For a moment he just stared at me. Then, as he was about to be taken upstairs, he said, I’m about to die, idiot. Is there any reason I shouldn’t cry? I came to understand a lot of things in that moment. I suddenly knew why there were so many pessimists, so many living without hope. Then, just as he was heading upstairs, he asked, do you have a father? I thought for a moment, but I couldn’t imagine who my father might be. Afraid to disappoint him I lied and said, my father is a philosopher. He stopped crying and smiled as soon as he heard those words. Count yourself lucky, then. None of the rest of them have fathers. Then he went upstairs and I never saw him again. By the time it was our turn to go upstairs it was dark outside, but the room we entered was lit as bright as day. A pair of doctors in diagonally striped uniforms whispered a few words to each other, then directed our mother to enter a complicated piece of machinery. A blinding light shone through the skin of her belly and onto our bodies. It was so intense it hurt my eyes, and we thought we might melt. Y covered her eyes and screamed, and I remember thinking I was about to pass out. I came to a while later and began to lick the burns on my skin. Y kept crying out that she couldn't see. Just as I was about to say something to comfort her I heard adults speaking nearby.
I have good news for you. You’re three months pregnant.
Take it out.
Not it. Them. There’s two.
Well, take them out. Get rid of them.
It can be done, of course, but there are risks. These surgeries have been rather frequent in your case, and things are already a bit of a mess down there. Once more and you may not recover.
These monsters are ruining my life.
There is another option. A new kind of medication. Just hit the market. It’s a little on the expensive side, but…
I’ll take it. I’ll take the medicine.
She received a pile of pills from the doctor, pills that were supposed to kill us, so we could be excreted like parasitic worms. She took them on the spot, borrowing the doctor’s cup to wash them down. They were blue, like the Viagra the philosopher took. On the way home she bought a bottle of mineral water to wash down another dose.
She took the pills with her coffee. She took them with red wine. She took them with liquor. Once in a bar she lifted her face from a man’s crotch to say, wait a moment, I have to take my medication. That time she washed them down with the man’s semen. Those pills were powerful stuff. Most days they made Y and I vomit and suffer diarrhea. Whenever she went to the toilet she brought a pair of chopsticks and a hammer. The chopsticks were for sifting through her feces to see if she could find our remains. The hammer in case she found us there still alive.
Those were difficult times.
Once she brought us to a job fair, and that initiated a brief period of happiness for us. This is how it happened: just as we reached the point where life was no longer bearable, she received an invitation letter. The moment the gold-sealed envelope appeared through the gap under our door, I had a premonition that big changes were coming. For an entire day she could hardly contain her excitement. She even lay naked on her bed caressing us through the skin of her belly. With her belly resting against the mattress, and her back arched, Y and I could rest somewhat comfortably in our constricted environment. This unexpected treatment was a happy surprise. She woke up early the next day and took a run by the polluted river than ran past our front door.
Thousands attended the job fair. The participants were separated into large halls each with a capacity of a hundred or so, though the actual numbers were probably much higher. Very quickly I realized that most of the colorfully made-up and attired women at the fair were pregnant. The only exceptions were the reception staff shuttling through the crowds carrying ceramic trays loaded with glasses of wine. Scratch that. Two of them had fellow rugrats-to-be in their bellies, never mind that they were only seventeen or eighteen years old.
One of the pregnant ones was registering the names and addresses of the attendees. She wore a professional smile, while the kid in her belly attempted to stifle his sobs with a hand. I noticed the kid’s face bore a resemblance to an older gentleman who was making small talk with new arrivals in the main hall. The woman approached us and asked if it was a boy or a girl. A boy and a girl, she replied. Well, it looks like you’ve struck gold! Then the greeter turned to another attendee and asked if she also had a boy and a girl. It’s too early to tell, the woman said. That’s fine. Either way you’ll make a killing.
Before long we were shuffled into small, dark rooms at the sides of the hall where we had to endure ultrasounds. Then we were sorted again according to how many months along we were, though to be honest, that’s a rather vague concept. In the end there were just three groups: those who had already developed lanugo, the soft downy hair that grows in the womb, those who had not, and those who already had shed their lanugo, indicating they were in the final months. This last group was sent home. Fortunately Y and I belonged to the middle group and were allowed to stay.
Next we had a test of our physical fitness. An emcee appeared and began encouraging us to dance until we no longer had the strength to move. He directed two of the reception staff to bring in a massive sound system bigger than a man. It squatted in the center of the main hall like some kind of monster, while a team of young men and women scurried around it busily pushing buttons and checking displays. The emcee was rail-thin and had a yellowish pallor, as if he were malnourished, or at least thoroughly debauched. In a raspy voice he encouraged us by saying music was the purest of art forms, without a trace of depravity, an innocent indulgence of the senses. So dance, he cried, dance! Start dancing, damn it! Yes, I mean you. And you, too. Don’t try to fool me, you’re no virgin! Dance! That’s right, you too! Get dancing or get out! Go on! It’s only when you dance that the little ones dance, too. And if the little ones don’t dance we can’t assess their fitness. So come on and dance! That’s it! There you go!
Soon all the kids were dancing with abandon, even Y. Some wrapped their umbilical cords around their waists. Some were rocking back and forth sucking their toes. I have no idea how long we danced before the adults began forming pairs, dancing in each other’s arms. The emcee was delighted. He did a back flip right there in the main hall and then made funny faces for the crowd. He was so deeply moved he even cried like an albino ape moaning in its cage. He then approached our mother with a flip and separated her from the man she was dancing with. He said, I want both of your little ones.
I wouldn’t lie to you. I’m more gentleman than businessman. Without the integrity of my word, I have nothing.
Is it because they’re gifted in some way?
It all comes down to education. It takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred to train a man. I’ll make time to come see you, tonight or tomorrow, one way or another. I want to give those two little ones an education, raise them to become people of worth. Let’s just leave it at that. I’ll call soon.
After the job fair she was a different person, so overcome with happiness she could hardly sleep. She leapt out of bed in the morning, and, without putting on a single strip of clothing, stood flirtatiously in front of the mirror. She lightly caressed her neck, breasts and belly, and shot enchanting looks at her reflection. In all the time I’ve been conscious I had never seen her so elated. Normally she was resentful, bemoaning her fate. In fact, I don’t ever recall her being happy. Even when the philosopher made love to her she had folded her hands behind her head, chewed her gum, and stared up at a spider on the ceiling. Why was she so happy now? I felt it had to be because Y and I performed so well at the job fair. We had honored her as a mother. We were no longer a humiliation.
Late one night the man came to visit. She opened the door for him with obvious surprise. He held a strip of paper on which our address was written, but oddly he kept addressing her by another woman’s name. She mildly corrected him, but he persisted in his error. After hearing my recommendation, the director of the circus immediately sent me to get your signature on a contract, he said. We’ve been fretting so much over how to fill these slots, we’ve practically ground our teeth down to nothing.
I won’t sell just one. If you want them, you have to buy them both. Otherwise one will be left alone. I can’t bear to separate brother and sister for life.
But I’ve only got one slot, and you’ve got twins in there, right?
Yes. You said you wanted them both.
Did I say that?
Yes. And you said you were a gentleman, that your word was good.
It’s true, I am a gentleman, but…
Please, take them both. I’ll settle for a lower price.
All right, then. I suppose I could bump someone else off the list and give you their slot.
The man pulled a slide projector out of a case. It was the first time Y and I had ever seen one, so naturally we were curious. He projected images of circus life for us to see. I had never seen lions, tigers, and elephants before. Though they weren’t living in the jungles or on the savannah, they still looked powerful and strong. The images of them playing and roughhousing with their keepers were especially appealing. On some level they must have sparked my own fantasies. How wonderful it would be to spend every day in a place like that! I immediately fell in love with the circus. Excitedly I began to imagine a future in which I rode across the world on the back of a tiger with Y dancing, leading the way. I explained each slide to Y as they appeared. As we watched the images, the two of them held each other – I knew what they would do next. I saw slides of dwarves, three-legged circus freaks, and animals born without eyes and noses. By that time the man was pressing us under his belly so hard we could barely breathe. He said to her, you’ve signed the contract, so you must do exactly what it says. Make sure you take your medicine every day. Draw your belt tightly around your belly. We don’t want them growing into big oafs – I’m not hurting you, am I?
Then, I remembered how much Y and I had enjoyed dancing, and I realized this was all a farce. But Y hadn’t noticed that anything was wrong. Later she would enjoy thinking about the animals, and imagining she was a dancer turning pirouettes and somersaults. Even when it became clear that the woman who signed that contract was turning us into freaks, Y felt it was a gift. My voice hoarse, I shouted that we were being taken advantage of. Y replied in deliberately matter-of-fact tones: Who knows, maybe we’re taking advantage of them? As long as we’re still alive what do we have to complain about? I felt a sudden wave of pity, but this pity was in fact an extraneous thing, like a polyp growing in your bowels or sinuses.
I told Y that when the time came, I should be the first one out. I did this because somehow I knew that the first one out was likely to die. Even if there was just a slight chance, I wanted to be first. I crammed Y off to one side and strained to brace myself in position as close to the cervix as possible. Every inch was a battle. If that woman so much as twitched I slipped back to my previous position and had to start all over. A few times I groped my way right to the threshold, but there was nothing I could grab onto to hold myself in place. I had no choice but to abandon my plan.
Then I thought of a hunger strike. For a while now it seemed that all we were eating were the drugs. Whenever the man from the circus came to visit, aside from groping her up and down he always checked if she was taking her medicine. The pills, which gave off a bluish light, were meant to disfigure us as quickly as possible: grow an extra leg, or an arm, or another pecker. An extra pecker wouldn’t make any difference to me – I already had one – but if Y were to grow one I wouldn’t know what to do. Would she still be my sister?
When I announced my hunger strike, Y was beside herself with excitement – it meant more food for her. My gluttonous junk-food loving sister thought about little else besides her next meal. It was like an addiction. By the third day of the hunger strike I was barely conscious. A doctor was visiting regularly to take the woman’s pulse, measure her temperature, and give her injections. All of their conversations revolved around me. It seemed he had never seen a case like this. My ploy was completely unexpected. Though barely conscious, I could still sense their frustration, and that made me happy. Death was approaching. I passed out. In the moment before I lost consciousness I felt a deep satisfaction.
But something went wrong. I wake up again. I quickly realize that I haven’t died. All of these days of effort were wasted. I want to ask Y, why did I wake up again? How did they force me to eat? But the words don’t come. I am too shocked by the change in Y: she’s completely blind and deaf. There is an occasional heartbeat, but mostly her heart is silent. Her senses had been in decline for a while but I had no idea they would give out so quickly. The truth is I envy her. I can only guess that while I was unconscious she was eating my portion of food as well, chunking up considerably, and getting a double dose of the drugs.
Y dies two days later. We miscalculated. She wanted to live, and I wanted to die. Now, I would be the one to leave this place alive, and she’s gone, all because of my hunger strike. If I had instead wrested her food from her and eaten it, I would have died in her place. After Y’s death they add a new drug to our regimen based on an analysis of our excrement. I don’t know what the drug looks like, nor what it is called. From their conversations I gather it is a Chinese herbal treatment used for generations by a family of traditional doctors. Once it enters the fluid around me, my appetite increases dramatically. It forces open my lips. It makes my tongue wish to taste food again. This drug is like a fantastic elixir from the heavens, a magic potion. Once it is in your system, the effects are powerful. All of your efforts to resist come to nothing.
I keep watch over Y’s body. She will never again vent her frustrations at me. There is no one to kick my knees. I begin to lose hope. Is Y feeling the same? Probably not, I guess. She would be happy to know someone is watching over her. Now that I think of it, I shouldn’t be discouraged either, as I don’t care if anyone watches over me in the end. Once I’m gone it’s none of my business what anyone else does. I no longer feel hopelessness, or anything else for that matter, and when I realize this, I become terrified.
In the morning the doctor gives her two shots to induce labor. With each shot I feel more and more like the legendary monkey king Sun Wukong trapped in the burning oven – I have to get out of this place. She is sitting in the rocking chair with her legs spread wide, pushing me out. If I lose hold for one second I’ll pop out. I shove Y out first, then move into a horizontal position, bracing myself across the threshold. I won’t be able to hold out against the labor-inducing drugs for long, but I want to put up a good fight, make them wait, give them a taste of my strength. What else can I do?