By Wen Zhen, translated by Dave Haysom, and published in Nothing but the Now (Bridge 21 Publications), 2023
When Song told me he wanted us to go on a trip together, somewhere far away, I agreed without much hesitation. This was after his stay in hospital, and we knew what to expect. When he said he wanted to go by train, I avoided teasing him about whether this was meant to be some kind of nostalgia trip. We quickly got everything ready, packed up our luggage, bought our tickets, and were on the train that very night.
Taking the night train always feels like travelling through the dreams of strangers: each pulse of distant amber light reflected in the window is a ripple we have creased into the stillness of their lives. We went to brush our teeth, wash our faces and use the toilet before the lights were switched off for the night, and then lay in our bunks, top to tail and stiff as fish in a freezer. Listening to the rumble of carriage against rail, eyes closed to the projections flitting past the window.
Hands joined across the guardrail.
This was the K497 to Jiagedaqi, one of the old green trains. The rush of Spring Festival travellers was not here yet, and the shabby carriage was mostly empty. The temperature outside must have been minus fifteen degrees or so, and there was a draught. It felt cold even with clothes on under the blanket. Occasionally the thin curtain was blown open to reveal the silhouette of a distant mountain looming like the maw of some enormous beast. Frightened, I pressed Song’s hand tight, and then noticed the gleam of his eyes in the dark. He was watching me.
“Do you want to go out for a smoke?” he asked quietly.
After a moment’s consideration, I agreed, even though I didn’t much feel like stirring.
There was an old man smoking between the carriages. It wasn’t quite right to address him as daye, despite his grey hair, since we were in our thirties ourselves. But I couldn’t think what else to call him. He glanced at us with utter indifference, and made no move to open up space at the ashtray. There were no curtains out here, and it was totally dark outside.
We lit our cigarettes. The three of us soon filled the vestibule with white smoke. A woman started coughing in the bathroom. Song looked at me, and his eyes were bright. I knew what he was thinking. We had watched a foreign porn film before where they did it in a train bathroom. But that wasn’t an option here. Too dirty, too many people. The one thing China has no dearth of is people. To the daye over there, we were the undesirable presence, and he could only hope against hope that it wouldn’t be too long before our disappearance restored his solitary silence. From the toilet came a loud flushing noise, as if some tremendous force had sucked down the entire bathroom, and was now preparing to suck down the rest of us. A woman with untidy hair soon heaved open the door and stepped outside. I recognised her: she had been sitting at the table in our berth before the lights went out. She looked to be in her forties, and the boy with her was eight or nine years old. Apart from the occasional glance down at her phone, she had spent the entire trip staring dully out of the window. Her interactions with the boy were limited to curt commands. Drink some water. Eat this apple. Sit down. Stay still.
I’d asked Song whether he thought she could possibly be a child trafficker. Unlikely, he said, not with a kid that old. He did look a bit brighter and cleaner than your typical village boy, but he didn’t have the look of a city kid. And she didn’t have that wary look in her eyes.
Now this potential child trafficker appeared again. She didn’t recognise us as the people who had been sitting on the bottom bunk waiting for her to leave the table. The toilet window was half open, and the opening of the door let in a cold gust of wind that carried a vaguely malodorous stench. I shivered. Only a crazy person could imagine getting it on in a toilet like that.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]I glanced at Song. He understood. We put out our cigarettes and went back to our bunks, allowing the smell of feet and instant noodles to envelop us once more. I climbed up into the darkness first, and felt for my bag. Still there under the pillow. I heard him clambering up behind me.
We didn’t hold hands this time. “Sleep,” I said quietly.
I pulled the blanket of many odours a little further away from my mouth. Sleep.
The sunlight was sharp and bright when we woke the next morning. Lying on my bunk, I figured there must be snow out there. Such a surfeit of brightness and warmth. In the vestibule, someone was shouting that there was no hot water left. I looked over at Song: he was curled up, facing away from me. I was suddenly struck by the chilling possibility that he might have died. I poked him a few times, and he eventually rolled over. “Are we there already?” he asked blearily.
I exhaled. “No. I just wanted to see if you were awake.”
There were another two hours to go. The villages and towns of night, behind us now, might as well have belonged to a world that had never known sunlight, or a past that had proved expendable. The woman was no longer sitting at our table – she and the child must have got off the train at some point while we were sleeping. After a yeasty night in the overheated train, the body odour in our carriage was overpowering. Outside this trundling tin can, the temperatures were in the minus twenties, but in here my feet and back were itching with sweat. How I would have loved to step out onto a platform and slap a handful of snow into my cheeks. But the next station remained somewhere off in the distance, and the windows were firmly locked. It was hopeless.
“Song, it’s been snowing.”
He didn’t respond. Since waking up he had been sitting over by the window, reading an atlas. “Look here,” he said in excitement. “Jiagedaqi is in the northwest of Heilongjiang, on the southeast side of the Daxing’anling mountain range – but also within the Oroqin Autonomous Banner within Inner Mongolia. Longitude 123.45 to 124.26 degrees, latitude 50.09 to 50.35 degrees. The south and west sides join Oroqin, and and the north side borders on Songling district. Total area 1587 square kilometres.”
“Seems pretty normal. So?”
“Do you not see the problem?”
“Think about it. Jiagedaqi is in the northwest of Heilongjiang, and on the southeast slopes of the Daxing’anling range, which belongs to Oroqin in Inner Mongolia.”
“Oh, I get it. So does it belong to Heilongjiang, or Inner Mongolia?”
“This is such an unusual city. On paper, it’s an enclave – geographically within Inner Mongolia, but under the control of the Heilongjiang government.”
Feeling pleased with himself, Song continued reading: “Daxing’anling is a unique district in the northeast. The government office is located in the capital, Jiagedaqi. Jiagedaqi has a population of one hundred and twenty thousand, and is a prefecture-level city. But because Daxing’anling straddles two provinces, it is very difficult to separate the city from the district. Along with Songling District, Jiagedaqi is physically located in Inner Mongolia, but under the jurisdiction of Heilongjiang. This means there is a conflict over the control of the region. Since Jiagedaqi and Songling are geographically part of the Oroqin Autonomous Banner, the government of Heilongjiang must make an annual payment to the Inner Mongolian government. Hulunbuir and Orochin have repeatedly requested for the Inner Mongolian government to reclaim Jiagedaqi and Songling. The request has been put to the authorities many times over the years, through the local governments, the National People’s Congress, and the CPCC, but since both regions also involve the interests of the logging industry, there remains no immediate solution to this long-standing problem.”
“So complicated.” I ran my tongue along my lip. “Are you thirsty?”
Song tore his attention away from this quirk of geography. “I am,” he said, turning limply and pointing to his throat. “Parched, actually.”
We had finished the bottles of water we brought with us. In our university days we would have remembered to bring a flask any time we took the train. Not that it would have done us any good, seeing as how the water was out. If there was no cold water then it meant there was no hot water either, or else some thirsty person would have figured out a way to cool some down and use it to wash their hands or face, or drink it. Not a drop wasted.
We waited for the attendant to bring the refreshment trolley round again so we could buy a couple more bottles. The state of Song’s dark, cracked lips concerned me; his complexion was worse than it had been when we got on the train.
I wanted to forget all about the way he looked. I wanted to lie down together under the same blanket, open the windows, and let all the fresh air of northern China come rushing in while we rolled about under the covers, as safe and cheery as a couple of grizzly bears.
A rumbling sound drew near. The refreshment trolley had returned at last.
It was three thirty when we got off the train at Jiagedaqi Station. The temperature out on the platform felt pleasantly cool for an instant, until I let out a long breath and the chill hit me right through my puffa jacket. My body felt like a frozen anchor, and it was hard to even walk. Song looked bulkier in his bulging winter coat.
“They call Jiagedaqi an enclave, but it’s an enclave of one and a half thousand square kilometres, with a hundred and twenty thousand people living out their lives here.” He was blathering away again, apparently indifferent to the cold. “I wonder whether the people here introduce themselves as Northeasterners or Inner Mongolians.”
I interrupted his speculation: “And you just had to come here, did you? To a place that belongs to no one?”
“Perhaps because this place that belongs to no one reminds me of me.” In high spirits now, he started declaiming a Zang Kejia poem we had studied in class: “Some of those who live are dead… some of those who died live still.”
“Hey, enough of that,” I said.
“And this place is controlled by Daxing’anling. No one else is in charge of their enormous forest.” He pointed casually into space. “Take the road north through Daxing’anling, and you get to Mohe county. The furthest north you can get in China. You can see the aurora there.”
He had never mentioned any desire to go to Mohe before. But I reckoned he would want to go now, if the chance arose.
It was an old train station. The K7108 to Mudanjiang had stopped on the other side of the platform. Song stopped babbling and gazed, spellbound, at the train.
“Are you planning to go to Mudanjiang now?” I asked. “Because of that Nan Quan Mama song?” I hadn’t heard that song since we were at university, over ten years ago.
Travellers flowed across the platform, clutching bags and pulling suitcases, their faces expressionless. As if it was the end of the world. Out of nowhere, Song started crooning a song: Who’s out there singing of Mudanjiang, the sweet sound of your voice makes me sad. The crisp tinkle of bells, the village on the riverbank is calm like naptime…
This bit of the song was meant to be sung by a woman. He strained his voice, inhabiting the role. Then it was back to a gruffer male voice: Faraway is what we call the places we can’t go, Home is the name we give the place we can’t return to.
I left him to his own devices. Song was once an antisocial engineering student who was happiest at home. Then he got sick and became a fiend for travel. I was still struggling to get used to the change. It was like he was in the process of rediscovering all the reasons it might be hard to leave the world behind. Just like he was suddenly rediscovering me.
At three thirty we arrived at the guesthouse Song had booked. The building, we discovered following a protracted check-in process, definitely had the Soviet throwback vibes that Song was hoping for, but was decidedly deficient in terms of heating. The last vestiges of the train’s lingering heat had long since dissipated into the cold air. Fortunately the bathroom had hot water, and I lost a layer of skin to a very brief, very scalding shower. In the thirty seconds it took to get out of the shower and under the blanket, the droplets on my skin were already icy cold.
“This place is fucking frigid. Do they even have any heating? We’ll have to move. How can we stay here if it means freezing to death? I’m close enough to dying as it is.”
There was real fury in his pseudo-Beijing accent, but the tough talk was just for show, and his voice was trembling. Just like I was trembling in his embrace from the cold. A Zhejiang native, he had been working hard to survive in the capital since we graduated, over a decade ago now, and had picked up the Beijing habit of blurring consonants off the end of words. I thought of the Nan Quan Mama song when we got off the train – Faraway is what we call the places we can’t go, Home is the name we give the place we can’t return to – and for some reason felt the tears springing to my eyes.
Alarmed, he made a trembling attempt to kiss away my tears. Desire soon made its presence felt, like a creature thawing out of ice, and soon enough things were simmering along nicely. The heating came on, too – clearly we were their sole clientele, and they must have switched it off to save money until we arrived.
When we were done, we lay back on the bed, relaxed and satisfied. “We were never so happy just being together, before. Just think what might have been, if only we hadn’t been fighting all the time. Still so many places I could take you. Mohe, Mudanjiang, Istanbul, Kashgar, Cambodia, Luang Prabang. I’ve been stupid. So stupid. I always figured I had a whole lifetime to fritter away.”
I laid my head on his arm, and concentrated on trying to work out whether the knob on the ceiling was a light, or something else. They have them in every hotel, like it’s standard issue or something, and I’ve never managed to figure it out.
Song had not finished. “You’ve never forgiven me, not really.” Now he was getting maudlin again. “You’re just letting me have my way because you feel sorry for me, because I’m doomed. Aren’t you.”
“We agreed we wouldn’t talk about this.” I rolled quietly away from him.
He ignored me, and continued monologuing: “There was a time when I hated you. I hated you for not caring about me, for threatening to leave me. For always finding time to text your friends, to chat and eat and watch movies, but never choosing to come home early. I’d do anything to make you angry, but then it always felt empty afterwards. Sometimes I felt afraid, felt I had done wrong by you. For a while there I was drinking a lot, sacrificing my liver to secure business deals, and I used to moan about how there was no point in living, how I’d rather fucking die, because then you’d regret not treating me better. Ridiculous, looking back, how simple my intentions were. All I wanted was to make you hurt with regret. But I didn’t learn until it was too late that I’d be the one with the most to fucking regret.”
I remained silent, still angry about what he had just said about being doomed. He levered my body back over so we were face to face. “I mean it,” he said.
I told myself not to give in to pity. There was a sobbing tone to his voice, but the tears were out of sync – his eyes were still dry. There is something inherently ridiculous about the face of a bawling man. “What do I have to regret?” I said. “I’m not the one who screwed things up. I’ve been here, all this time.”
Without speaking, he slowly stretched out an arm for me to lean against. I didn’t move my neck.
Apparently I had cheered him up. “You’re really angry.”
“You’re insane,” I said.
“Don’t be too nice to me all at once. Don’t be nice to me just because I’m dying.”
“You’re despicable,” I said between clenched teeth. “The only people nice to you are people who don’t know you.”
I thought that last remark would make him angry. But when I glanced at him after a moment, he was lost in thought.
“Does everyone despise each other? Does anyone really know how to treat each other right?”
The actual city of Jiagedaqi wasn’t that big. It might have been the capital of the region, but it was a city in decline, run-down and dilapidated. Most places brighten up a little at night, but in the orange glow of the streetlights this place looked even more like a town out of the seventies or eighties, all bumpy roads, narrow and muddy. Apparently there had been several snowfalls already, and it would probably snow again tonight. We ate some noodles with stewed meat at a little place near our guesthouse. Song said we were lucky that we’d get to see the town in the snow tomorrow, but to me it was a bleak picture: just a hundred and twenty thousand people scattered across a thousand square kilometres, a few black specks poking out of a vast snowdrift.
I was started to regret coming with Song to such a desolate place. It couldn’t do his health any good, all this cold and damp. But he remained in good spirits, going on about how it made sense that a place like this would be in decline. The old forestry management system had been abolished, and Jiagedaqi was a part of the land that Inner Mongolia had reclaimed from Heilongjiang in the nineteen seventies. Now, with Heilongjiang unable to exercise complete control over the city and Inner Mongolia making noises about taking it back, neither province was prepared to put any investment into the region, in case they had to give it up to the other side just as it was starting to prosper.
“Falling through the cracks is no good. You need to belong somewhere.” We were on our way back to the guesthouse. “No proper status means you don’t really belong anywhere, in the end.”
I acted like I didn’t see the subtext. “No one wants the world to make total sense. It would be dull.”
“Ultimately you realise you need someone to take care of you. Someone to see you on your way.”
“I know that’s what you’re looking for.”
“No,” he said. “Not entirely.”
By the time we had walked halfway round the city the following morning, the two of us were as rigid as insects in amber. I put my hand in the pocket of his coat, just like when we were first dating at university. Except now his hand was like a block of ice, and we both shivered any time I touched it.
Despite the unusual administrative status of this city, and the fact that Bobby Chen and Zuoxiao Zuzhou had been inspired to sing about it, the reality of it was just another dreary county-level city. According to the atlas, after struggling for for forty-odd years to establish a city that was independent of the county, they had failed resolve the question of ownership, meaning that the hundred and twenty thousand residents were still unable to give a definitive answer to the question of whether they were Northeasterners or Inner Mongolians. Which was kind of cool, actually, I thought to myself. But didn’t say out loud.
After a protracted attempt to extract information from the guesthouse clerk, we were only able to discover one dish that could be called a local speciality: noodles in sesame sauce. We ordered a couple of bowls in a restaurant that seemed comparatively busy. The sauce was too thick, and the noodles too thin, making it impossible to mix them properly. And there was nothing particularly local about it. Song said he was done after a few mouthfuls. Every gulp looked like it was difficult for him, but that was to be expected, according to what the doctor had told me before we left. He was supposed to be consuming plenty of nutritious liquids, milk every day and preferably chicken soup or ginseng porridge. But it would have been a challenge to boil them up on the road, and they weren’t to his taste anyway. He always wanted to order lamb and kidney skewers, or a big joint of meat. But since he couldn’t eat them, he just sat and looked at them, watching the steam dissipate as they cooled.
Yangguofu Malatang, Wumingyuan rice noodles – the same restaurant chains you found everywhere else in China. Just like any other boring northern town. You forgot the names of the shops you’d just passed the minute you turned away, and the best brands on offer were mediocre names like Guirenniao, Yishion, Jeanswest or K-Boxing. Even the women working in the shops seem to have been popped out of the same mould: same long puffa jackets in gaudy colours, same black trousers, same desperately bored stares through the window. The dead-eyed locals passing by would never so much as glance into the shops lest they be dragged inside by these ravenous sales assistants. It was right after Spring Festival, and things were still slow in the barbecue business. Two women were leaning against the doorframe of a restaurant, a carpet of sunflower husks spread before them. When they weren’t chatting loudly about family goings-on in their thick northeastern accents, they were teasing the kid from the place next door, a swaddled ball of winter clothing scampering back and forth. At the end of the row was a “barbershop” that definitely had no daytime business, with a revolving, tricolour sign in lights out front. Exact same setup as all the others you saw around the country. Occasionally the insulating curtain would suddenly swish aside to reveal a girl overdressed in winter clothes that were entirely unseductive, out to enjoy some rays with eyes scrunched up against the sun.
Everyone was laughing, young and old alike. They looked as if they could live forever in this warmthless sunlight. Grow up, get old, buy groceries, make dinner, make love, go shopping, have kids, go to a funeral if someone died, then go home and keep eating and drinking. My heart felt tight; all of a sudden it all felt terribly unfair.
“The world won’t stop spinning for the death of anyone as insignificant as me,” Song said calmly. “And you need to keep on living, find a way to forget me.”
I stared at him in astonishment. “How did you know what I was thinking about?”
The knuckles stood out on his scrawny hand as it gripped mine. His thumb brushed back and forth across the back of my hand. I looked down to avoid seeing the people passing by. I wanted to say something, but couldn’t bring myself to speak.
“You’re sad again,” chuckled Song. “Won’t do you any good to pretend otherwise. This is just the way it is. What will be, will be. I know I haven’t always treated you right, but at least I’ve always been honest with you.”
“Have you never thought about how hard that might be on me,” I said at last. “Telling me everything, never worrying about whether I can take it.”
“I know you,” he said. “Other people I might not always understand, but you I know. You can understand. And you can take it. So long as it’s the truth. You just can’t stand people trying to outwit you.”
For some reason, hearing him say that – “I know you” – made me start to well up. “Can we talk about something else?” I was almost begging him. “Let’s talk about something happier, instead of fixating on all this.”
“There’s nothing to get upset about, not really. We’re just out for a walk, looking around. Sometimes all this waiting makes me impatient. The drugs, the chemo – they take their toll. It’s painful. Sometimes I think about how exhausting it all is – go to work, get married, get divorced, have kid, get kid through school, look after aging parents. It feels inescapable. Yet somehow I’ve managed to become a deserter. I don’t have to persevere into old age. You’re the one I feel sorry for – you have to keep putting up with it all.”
“This is your last warning.” I pulled back my hand. “Carry on like this and I’m leaving right now. Don’t think I won’t!”
He laughed, and the indulgent look he shot me was like you’d give some naughty kid. I didn’t like him looking at me like that. It felt like the beatific gaze of a ghost, observing me and my impending decades of struggle and strife. Everything he was soon to leave behind.
Song felt hungry as we were passing a farmers’ market, and decided to buy a half kilogram of dazzling golden tangerines. He carried them proudly along as we made our way back to the hotel. The colour was beautiful in the sunlight, he said. Like a Repin painting.
He lowered his voice: “Let’s go eat tangerines in bed.” He was putting on a sleazy persona, but I liked this playful side of him.
“We haven’t had any dinner,” I objected.
“You won’t die of hunger,” he replied. “Come on, let’s subtract one from the total number of times we have left.”
This was an in-joke. In our first few years together we were forever arguing about breaking up. I was so dramatic when I was younger, threatening to leave him forever any time I was even slightly upset. He would always work his socks off to win me over again, and then, when things were good again, he’d say (through gritted teeth): “I don’t know who’d ever want a girl as stubborn as you. Subtract one from the total number of times we have left.”
He actually kept count the first few dozen times, but eventually lost track of his running tally. We didn’t stop fighting, but it became a less frequent occurrence. It’s been so many years now. We had to get through an eight-year war of our own.
We agreed that neither of us would mention his illness. I rarely broke that rule, but he was a repeat offender. It was a hard to believe a cancer patient could have such a healthy libido
– presumably the liver was far enough away from the prostate that it had no impact on that particular capacity of his. I didn’t worry about it too much once he got his diagnosis, and didn’t ever really turn him down. Perhaps I was counting down our total number of times left, too.
We didn’t need to do anything really. It was nice just to hold him, to hold the body I knew so well even as its strength was ebbing away. I acted like I didn’t see his face getting paler by the day, or the clumps of hair he left on the pillow after chemo. We had painkillers as well as the Sorafenib tablets, and I fed him some any time he complained his liver was hurting. A quick fix. If he refused to take his pills, I’d go out and get some tangerines, his favourite, and alternate between a mouthful of fruit and a mouthful of medicine. I’d tried them myself, and they weren’t so bitter really. He was probably just making a fuss for the sake of the attention. But there was no harm in indulging him – he never used to be this way. Before it was always conflict, sex, relationships, influence.
His family didn’t know too much about all this. He told his parents it was benign and could be treated, because he hadn’t dared tell them the truth. If they knew, they would insist on keeping him in hospital, and there would be no escaping their wailing exhibition of grief. Dying in a hospital meant dying after enduring endless rounds of chemo. Dying with no dignity in a such a reduced state. I hadn’t told them. There wasn’t really anything they could do to help, and there was no point in having them worry in vain.
It became our secret. A secret simultaneously enormous and so slight it seemed like a child’s game. At times I felt like a terrible person. But one doctor told us it wouldn’t make much difference now whether it was treated or not. It had been six months since we broke up. He always blamed me for the ache in his liver, said it was because I made him so angry. Never went to get it checked out. When he finally did, it was too late.
Sometimes I even found myself hoping he would die like this, in bed with me. And then I would walk out, calm in my grief, and call for the ambulance, the police. But it never happened that way. He would always struggle upright once we were finished, and even find the strength to get out of bed to grab a tissue and clean up.
“Is there any chance it could all be a mistake?” I asked. “Maybe you’re not sick at all. You might live for millions of years yet. Probably still be buzzing around long after I’ve turned to dust.”
“The evidence is right in front of you,” he said. “I never used to be so horny before I got sick. No, we had the diagnosis confirmed again and again. It’s hopeless.”
Eventually the heating in our room approached the unbearable temperature of the train. I managed to wrest open the rusted-shut window, and a few snowflakes drifted in, settling like cold kisses against the skin. It was getting dark. We kissed each other again, and kept on kissing. A moth came fluttering in from somewhere – more likely from the corridor than from outside. Song stopped me when I tried to get it out through the window, and pointed out that it was minus twenty-five outside.
“I hate moths,” I said. “They shed powder.”
“They’re still living beings. Out there it’ll die.”
Song had turned maudlin since his diagnosis. There was nothing I could really say in response, so I didn’t reply. We lay side by side, heads together on the pillow, and looked up at the moth circling the room. I could almost see the powder tumbling down everywhere. It made me feel itchy all over.
“It’s just one moth, all alone in here – how can it reproduce?” I asked Song. I figured the best I could do was distract myself. “Even if it makes it to spring, it’ll be all on its own.’
“Perhaps it had a partner who’s died already.”
“Death is cleaner.” I couldn’t help myself. “The one that survives is lonely. And they have to die eventually all the same.”
“Life is basically meaningless,” he said, staring at the moth. “I’m so grateful, now, that we never had kids.”
He didn’t always feel that way. Song had always blamed me for not getting pregnant. He told me his family were all losing their heads worrying I was secretly on the pill because I didn’t really love him. We had so many fights about that. Later, when we were in hospital, I took the opportunity to get him a check-up in the andrology department. Exoneration at last: low sperm count. Made sense, him being sick and all.
Now it was just the two of us, and we no longer had to worry about any of that. In this enclave no one else knew about, at a guesthouse where no one else was staying, without kids, without anyone else, without a past, without a future, just us and a lonely moth going round and round in a room. Eternity was not something I gave much thought to, but in that moment I truly wished I could make time stop.
He was the one to break the silence. “When the time comes… don’t feel too bad.”
“Not your call,” I said.
“Isn’t that how it always goes in books and movies – the person dying has to act super mean so people don’t feel too bad when he’s gone? But that’s not what I want. I want you to miss me, a little bit. Not feel too bad, but not too great. Not be thinking about me all the time, but not forget I ever existed. I lived, and we fought, and we made up. Am I too selfish? Is it wrong of me to drag you around after me, and make you listen to all this crap?”
I was wary. “Don’t think you can go running away to die some place I’ll never find you. You know I’d turn the whole world upside down to find you.”
“Are you joking? I don’t want to let you out of my sight for a second.”
I didn’t like him getting this deep. We went at it again, just to stop him from talking. I wasn’t really in the mood for it this time, and I’m not sure he really was either. It just felt like something we should do, as a way of proving the existence of our bodies. But something was wrong with him: his breathing was so fast and laboured that he had to pause several times before he could go on. I asked him if he was okay. His affirmative came through gritted teeth.
The wait was exhausting. I opened my eyes. It was getting dark outside; the last few snowflakes were drifting through the yellow streetlight glow, whirling one last time through the air before they disappeared. I felt like we had left the world of the living, like I had been dead for a long time. But the dead were still grinding away, and there was no end in sight.
We had originally agreed to go deep into the snowy Daxing’anling mountains. Pluck some wild snow lotus, ideally, and maybe grab a pheasant to boil up into a restorative broth for Song. He had become obsessed with the idea ever since he saw a story in the news about how the last forester in the mountains had switched to a new career, and there were all these abandoned log cabins out there in the wilderness. He kept going on about travelling to the forest, foraging for mushrooms and hunting wild rabbit, making a fire and living like a savage in a cabin. In the process, perhaps, escaping the cycle of reincarnation, leaving behind the three planes of existence, and becoming immortal.
That was why we had travelled here, despite the cold weather. I told my family I was going on a business trip, and told work I was taking my annual leave to travel home. Though he hadn’t told his family, Song had showed his medical documents to the manager of his work division. “You can’t imagine,” he said to me later, laughing, “the way he looked at me – it was as if he was attending my funeral right there and then.”
I hadn’t imagined Song could talk about life and death with so few inhibitions. Which proved that I had never really understood him as well as I thought I did. For six months after his diagnosis we were at a stalemate. Six months that coincided with a steep decline in his condition. Song said it was karma, punishment for not treating me better. But it would be worth it, he said, to die in your arms. “Why did we use to make such a big deal about making vows to each other?”
It was true: we were forever swearing vows back when we were at university. In the early days of our relationship, I used to ask him what he’d do if I died. “If you died,” he said, “I’d go jump off the top of this building, obviously.” A few years later, his answer had changed: “I’d cry a fair bit, and then find someone else after a couple of years of mourning. But I’d tell her how much I loved her predecessor, and your glory would never fade.” And, later still: “This again? Let it go already.”
Such a fuss over the smallest things. Projectiles and dramatic exits. That was it, I thought when we got hitched, no escape from the swamp of matrimony for me now. The fear of the ordinary left me trembling. Making yourself a little bit better every day, the Confucian ideal. I had such high expectations of him, which meant disappointment was inevitable. I deliberately provoked him, like when I made a big deal about how I’d always wanted to go and study abroad. Though I’d never really done anything more than memorise some TOEFL vocabulary on the subway. Why exhaust yourself earning the chance to go become a second-class citizen in a country that belonged to other people? Unless you were compelled to – unless you encountered some vast chasm that it was impossible to traverse. But our peaceful existences are rarely so violently breached.
But then we did encounter a chasm. Not Song’s illness – his affair.
There was so much going on that year. Things started off well. We were driving to and from work together, because our jobs were only five subway stops apart, not too far. During holidays we tried to brighten our lives with group discount deals on fine cuisine. But still we kept fighting. This was our fourth year of marriage, and our seventh year together. Perhaps this was our version of the seven-year itch. One day he starting laying into me for being bad-tempered and always refusing to compromise. Strange, I said, you never used to have such an acute case of misogyny. Did all that good food turn you into a chauvinist pig?
Another absurd remark from him when we were out for a walk, holding hands: “It’s weird how when I hold your hand, it feels like I’m holding hands with myself.”
It took me a moment to realise he was not implying we had an incredibly close and intimate connection. What he meant was that he felt nothing.
I always used to be the one criticising him, but he turned the tables on me that year. Anything I did could potentially trigger his scorn. He stopped making the effort to win me round when I got angry. One time I jumped out of the car in a rage, and he just drove off with my bag still inside, leaving me with only five yuan in my pocket and no choice but to take the bus home (a trip that meant two changing buses twice), tears streaming down my face. Divorce seemed like a real possibility, but we never managed to make it work. Any time one of us brought it up, the other refused to cooperate. We struggled on. The first thing that came into my head when I woke up each morning was why. Why was he treating me this way? I hated him so much it made my teeth hurt. I admit it: I even wished he was dead.
When the two of us were occasionally both at home, I might find myself in the mood to prepare a nice meal for him. But he wouldn’t eat it properly, choking on his food and barely saying a word. I used to open the door and tell him to leave, before sweeping the untouched food to the floor. Then he’d go, and I wouldn’t call him. The most ridiculous occasion was when we both stormed out of the house separately, and ended up seeing each other again outside the library. He seemed quite pleased to see me. “I was planning to stay out after returning these books,” he said, “and leave you all on your own at home, so you’d regret the way you’ve treated me.”
“It’s odd,” I said, “how you don’t feel any regret for the way you’ve treated me.”
The stalemate lasted for a whole year. His family could all see that something was different when we went to see them at Spring Festival, that something had changed in the way he felt towards me. Rejecting my every suggestion and constantly picking fights. Having survived the holiday, I told him we might as well just go ahead and get a divorce.
“Why?” he said.
“Every day we find new ways to think less of each other. New reasons to be unhappy. It’s only going to get worse. What’s the point? Get a divorce before we get stuck with children and it’s too late. Let’s just give each other a way out.”
It was Valentine’s Day, as it happens. He gazed at me in the lamplight for some time. I was wearing the pyjamas he bought me when we first started going out, the ones with the two bears holding hands and sniffing flowers. It looked like he was grappling with his emotions. A pause, before he spoke again: “I think you’re seeing someone else.”
“You’re insane,” I said.
“I read your diary last year.” Clearly he had decided to slam down his trump card.
I was stunned. There was someone I had written about it my diary, but it basically amounted to fiction. I was no writer, but I had been passionate about literature for years. Since married life was so tedious, I had imaginatively created a relationship with my first love, a boyfriend who had never managed to get over me. In reality, I’d forgotten all about him – this was just me writing sexual fantasies in my diary as a way of venting frustration at the state of my life.
“Your memories of him – you put so much love into them. The time, the place, the mood – it was all so vivid. That was when I knew you didn’t love me – not really. So I found myself someone else too. She really feels something for me. And… I feel something for her too.”
No need to describe what followed. Our Valentine’s Day evening was ripped apart. The man in my diary was just a fictional character – I hadn’t been in touch with the guy himself in years. But Song’s woman was an actual living human, a work client he met every few weeks. When I grabbed hold of his phone, I found he had been sending her messages on the sly that very evening. Ambiguous messages, carefully saying nothing but implying everything. The phone went out the window. There were still Spring Festival fireworks going on outside, and one of them exploded at that very moment in perfect, glorious synchronicity.
I bit him, kicked him, smacked him around the head, screamed hysterically. He held me up, and when the blows got too much he hit me back, but not too hard. I hadn’t realised I could cry so miserably, but in that moment it felt like my whole world was collapsing. I ran outside to pick up his phone so I could find her phone number, but he pulled the shattered phone away from me, and he was stronger than me. “Come on then,” I said, “it’s Valentine’s Day, send her another message, go on. What are you waiting for?”
“You’re insane,” he said. But somewhere in his eyes I saw a gleam of pleasure. Perhaps he was the one who was really insane.
After a night of fighting he still had to go to work the next day. I tidied up and cried, cried so hard I couldn’t stand up again after I bent down to clean the bathroom floor. When I looked in the mirror I saw my eyes were red like a rabbit’s. Ever since our stalemate he had complained that I didn’t put enough effort into the housework, and now I cleaned up everything as meticulously as possible. I mopped the floor, did the laundry, changed the sheets, scrubbed the toilet. I guess I was hoping to make him feel some form of regret when he got home. For some reason, we had both gone mad with the desire to make each other feel regret. Falling in love, getting married – it was all in the service of this goal, and no stratagem was off-limits in its pursuit.
When I had restored the toilet to pristine condition, weeping all the while, I packed up all my stuff – a few changes of clothes, books, and toiletries – and walked out. I took some time off work, put a new SIM card in my phone, and got on a train to Tianjin. From Tanggu I took a boat to the Penglai peninsula. Crossing the ocean, I cried and stared out across the vast surface of the water. When we got to shore I was going to go out to the reefs, wait until there was no one else around, and jump off.
But I was hungry by the time we arrived, and I’d heard the seafood there was something special. I found a little restaurant and, still crying, ate and drank by myself. I finished two bottles of Tsingdao Beer and a mound of seafood: cuttlefish, oysters, sea hare. Barely came to two hundred yuan. Drunk, I staggered back to my hotel, and when I woke up I didn’t seem to feel quite so determined to die. Because why? For a piece of trash like him? But still I lay there crying in my bed, trying and failing to figure out how we ended up here, where exactly things had taken a wrong turn in our seven years together.
That seafood meal was my last dinner. I spent the next week inside the hotel. I slept, woke up, cried, watched some news, slept, and occasionally ventured downstairs for the complimentary breakfast. After seven days I had finally had enough of this woeful ritual. Now I was angry, and I decided it was time to reach Nirvana and be reborn, to return to reality. I replaced my old SIM card and got ready to go back to work, divorce that worthless scumbag, and return to the orderliness of the past. I read through all the text messages that immediately filled my inbox when I reactivated the phone. Most were advertising; a few were related to work. Song has sent a few dozen – where are you, come back, we can talk it over when you get back, that sort of thing. No acknowledgement that he had done anything wrong. No I love you. I didn’t send him a reply.
The day I set off from the peninsula. I felt nothing but calm as I gazed out at the slate-blue vastness of ocean. I had not died. I didn’t think the desire to die would come over me again. A version of me did die on that island, but a new one had been reborn. One that did not believe in love. Or no longer believed in whatever it was I once thought love.
When I got back to Beijing, I rented a little place near work. I ignored Song’s phone calls. Usually he gave up when I didn’t pick up, but if he was on edge he might try again, two or three times in a row. When he tried my work phone, I hung up the moment I recognised his voice.
Later, he sent me a message saying he was sorry, and he hoped we could meet even though he knew I couldn’t forgive him. Just to talk things through.
I deleted it without replying. A few days later I posted the divorce papers. Then he finally stopped trying to talk to me.
For eight months, anyway. By October, I was able to fall asleep without the aid of sleeping pills, and I no longer woke from nightmares with tears streaming down my face. That was when I got a message from him out of nowhere: I’m dying. I’d like to see you again before I die.
Still making up those mortal vows, I thought contemptuously.
But he was waiting for me outside of work a couple of days later. The sight of him was a shock: his face was a waxy yellow, and thin like a ghost’s. I’d lost weight myself, but nothing to compare with him. If we were competing to see who could suffer the most, he had won.
He stood at the entrance and stared at me, as if it had been years since we last met, and he had to examine me carefully to be sure it was really me. He waved a sheet of paper at me from afar, and I thought I saw something smug in his expression.
Trembling, I walked over and tried to maintain some dignity as I took it from him. I assumed was the divorce agreement. “Have you signed it?” But then when I saw what I was looking at, I laughed. “What hospital did you get this from? You’ll really stoop to anything just to scare me, won’t you?”
“You’ve lost weight,” he said.
I couldn’t stop myself from crying – not because I felt bad for him, but because he felt bad for me. But I kept the smile on my face. I looked up at him, and through my tears I saw nothing more than a quivering of his lips.
“Don’t you think you’ve gone far enough with all this? It’s a shame you won’t make this year’s Oscars nominations. I give up. You win. Okay?”
He kept staring at me, saying nothing. His complexion was awful.
I was still maintaining my rigid smile, but eventually it froze on my face and I started trembling. It scared me, the trembling was so intense. The hand holding the piece of paper started to tremble uncontrollably too. In the late-autumn October dusk, the two of us were locked in some kind of trembling competition, like a palsy had come over us as we stood there facing each other, unable to speak.
I would eventually tell Song what I had been thinking in that moment: You really mustn’t go about swearing vows when it comes to matters of life and death.
We got as far as Yi’ershi – just on the edge of the Daxing’anling range, and not technically inside the Arxan Forest Park yet – when Song had to give up. The pain in his liver was too much. When things got really bad, his hands and feet turned purple and he thrashed around in the bed. No more sexy time happening now, that was for sure. There was a swelling on his abdomen that turned purple if you touched it. One night, after managing to get to sleep for half an hour, he woke up spitting blood. Just a little blood, dark, probably from his upper digestive track. He suffered constant diarrhoea, despite having eaten basically nothing for days now. Where was it all coming from?
I took him to the local hospital that night. The doctor reacted like he was seeing a ghost. “What do you think you’re doing, running around out there with an illness this bad?” Then he directed his scorn towards me. “Is she trying to kill you, this girl? Is this the way she looks after you?”
I told him we would be returning to Beijing in the next couple of days. We would not be going to the Daxing’anling Mountains.
He rolled his eyes at my idiotic remarks. After he left, Song and I were the only ones left in the ward. Song lay back against the pillow. “I didn’t manage to take you to a log cabin,” he said. “Guess we’ll have to wait till the next life.”
I couldn’t speak for a minute, I was crying so hard. Song kept talking: “When we used to do those psychological tests, I always chose log cabin as my ideal home. You always went for a coastal villa. That made me think we weren’t meant to spend our lives together, if our end goals were so different. Makes sense that you went to Penglai after we broke up. I saw the message about the boat ticket, you know. A few days after you left. Penglai, just as I’d guessed. I knew you’d take care of yourself. Eat some nice food? Have a drink?”
I managed to smile through my tears. “I did. Nearly two hundred yuan’s worth. Not bad, huh?”
“I thought you weren’t coming back. That was when I realised how much I... you know... you... Shit, how is it I never have any problems talking all kinds of crap with anyone but you?”
“I was planning to jump in the ocean after I finished my meal,” I said. “You don’t know how delicious the mantis shrimp are down there. And you don’t know what a fucking idiot you were.”
Through the fading light he stretched a scrawny hand in my direction. He was trying to put his hand over my mouth, to stop me from talking, but he couldn’t reach. I moved my mouth closer to him, so that he could cover it up. He slowly turned his face away from me, and I guessed he was crying too.
We were always travelling by train in our university days. And we always ended up fighting when we got on the train, fighting when we got off the train, and fighting when we reached our destination. It wasn’t quite so bad when things were good between us. We often had to save up our money just to buy a couple of sleeper tickets there, and could only afford seats for the return trip. I remember how they kept the lights on all night long in the sleeper carriage, how miserable everyone looked in the fluorescent white glow. Just the way Song’s face looked now. We used to take turns sleeping so that there was always one person awake to keep an eye on the luggage, just in case there were thieves. One time he fell asleep against my shoulder and started dribbling. Wiping it from his mouth with a tissue, I noticed how different he looked with a face slackened by sleep. His eyes, his nose, his mouth. I found myself thinking that I would never feel closer to anyone in my life than this man.
I teased him about his slobbering when he woke up. “You think you’ve never dribbled in your sleep?” he said. “Last time you fell asleep on my leg, my trousers were soaked. Made me look like I’d pissed myself.”
We laughed for a long time. There was no quarrelling on that trip. Which is what made it so memorable.
Song insisted on returning to Beijing by train. K498, the same train the brought us here. Two top bunks.
This time I went to the supermarket to buy a couple of plastic cups in advance. But Song was struggling to drink at all now. Just as he was falling asleep, he said he wanted a Fanta. He always liked the taste of tangerine, the actual fruit and the fizzy drink flavour.
I suddenly felt impelled to ask him a question: “Have you ever wondered why out of all the people in the world it had to be you. When you’re still so young. Do you ever thought about whether you did something wrong?”
“It might be because I spent too long working in sales. So much drinking with the clients. Or maybe it was you making me angry.”
“So you still blame me. Even now.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t.” He thought for a moment. “I did do something wrong. I treated you badly. And I’ve always regretted it.”
“I’ve made mistakes too, I…”
He passed me a tissue and bent his head over his Fanta. It took him a long time to finish the can, one little sip at a time. Like he was savouring it. I couldn’t go on speaking.
On the night train again, back to Beijing. Again, the lights flitting past. Sometimes yellow, sometimes white. Green, at times, like flickers of phosphorescence. There was so much to fear in the dark, so much that remained unknown. Perhaps it made Song afraid too, but I couldn’t think of anything I could do to quell his fear, other than holding his hand even tighter.
“I wonder what happened to that moth in the end,” said Song as we stared out the window together.
Everything was such a rush on the day of his funeral. Perhaps it triggered some kind of protective forgetting mechanism – there was a lot that I found I couldn’t remember later on. I just remember how deeply asleep I was that morning, so deep that I only managed to wake up when my mum came in and gave me a push. She was following me so closely in those days, she would have gone with me into the toilet if I’d let her. As if I was sick now too. She refused to let me wear orange, insisting I wear the black outfit she had prepared. I acquiesced. Then she stood watching and saying nothing as I put on a little make-up.
There were some friends of ours at the funeral. They all put on their saddest faces when they saw me, but they were too young to really know how they were supposed to behave at such an occasion. Again and again, people told me how thin I was looking, how I mustn’t let grief destroy me. But I hadn’t lost any weight at all. I was in the habit of devouring chocolate on the sly any time I had to deal with pressure. Milk chocolate, at first, and later dark chocolate, because it was lower in calories. I must have eaten at least a pound of the stuff. Song wanted to have some too, right at the end. I asked a doctor whether it would be okay; he didn’t give me a clear answer, but his disapproval was written on his face. I didn’t give Song any chocolate. Later I regretted that.
I don’t why I remember this one regret when there are so many others that I somehow managed to forget.
His parents came. His classmates from elementary school, middle school, high school, and university; his colleagues, friends, and even some friends of mine he got on well with. Basically there were at least a couple of representatives from every phase of his life who had showed up, no matter how difficult it had been, to bid their farewell. Some had made the trip specially from out of town. One guy came over to me and introduced himself in a suitably dolorous cadence: “I was Song Qifeng’s manager. Qifeng’s professional achievements were outstanding. Losing him is a tremendous loss to the company. You mustn’t let your grief destroy you, dimei.”
This was the guy who Song told me about – the one who looked like he was already participating in Song’s funeral when he saw the medical report. He must have deliberated for a long time before deciding on that form of address. Dimei, wife of my younger brother. My instinctive reaction was to tell Song about it, to share a laugh with him about his glib-tongued boss. Then I turned my head and saw his black-and-white photo standing there. I would never have a chance to tell him about it.
I didn’t cry at all that morning. I wasn’t going to do a Zhuangzi and start singing and banging a tub – I just wasn’t prepared to perform my grief in front of everyone. It was like I’d already been through the dress rehearsal, back when we were always fighting in the early days, and now, stepping out onto the stage for real, I felt nothing. All of us are going to die eventually, anyway. My memories of the man in the photograph were deeper than anyone’s, except perhaps his parents. The least I could do was try to take care of them on his behalf. In the end they didn’t blame me for taking Song on the trip. Yes, I thought, those are his parents alright.
For those final three months, everyone was there and every day was hectic and chaotic. Friends, doctors, nurses, visitors. Song and I had very little time together by ourselves. I was glad, then, that we’d gone on our trip. I felt similarly about the funeral. So many people I knew, and so many I didn’t, calling out Song’s name in lowered voices, again and again, like a sudden invasion of moths shedding powder everywhere. The floor carpeted with dust, fragments, the carcasses of the past. Nothing to do with anyone else but Song and me and our life of mutual destruction.
I noticed that my mind was wandering. Why had I put on make-up this morning? As I gazed blankly at the crowd, I realised I was looking for one face in particular. A face I had never seen. But there were so many women here who I didn’t know, there was no way of knowing which one was her. While Song’s father was making his eulogy, I became fixated on a tall, slender woman with curly hair. But when I approached her after the speech, she looked at me with total sincerity and concern in her eyes, and introduced herself as a colleague of Song’s from his previous job. Ms. Huang. “You really mustn’t let your grief get the better of you, my dear.” I didn’t know what to think as she held onto me tightly with her soft hands. I could at least be sure that I’d never smelled that perfume before.
I guess there was only one person I could ask, and that was Song. But.
And this was how I ended up crying, in silence, for the second time at the funeral. It lasted longer than the first bout, and eventually I had to find a quiet corner where I could sit and let it all pass me by – all the people, sounds, movements, silhouettes – until eventually it drifted away in a diaphanous haze. None of it seemed real, apart from that faintly smiling face in the black-and-white photo.
Through the haze of my tears, I smiled back. I’m such an idiot. I wanted to wear orange today. You always loved tangerines so much, and I wanted to leave you with a sight you’d enjoy.
For a long time after Song was gone, I could still clearly picture that little log cabin in the woods. Bright sunlight, incredibly blue sky, a dust of snow in the air. Song smiling as he walked along the snowy path behind the cabin, carrying something – sometimes it was a snow cock, sometimes a rabbit. Immortal, at last, in my dreams. Sometimes I saw the flash of a girl, too, her face hard to see behind her sunglasses. Whether she existed, where she lived, who Song loved the most, whether I would have forgiven him if he had lived – these were questions that none of us could answer now. I don’t think I could have given an answer to that last one. But it didn’t matter, the way things had turned out. Love, not love, win, lose. None of it really mattered. Just like Jiagedaqi. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.