Translated by Eric Abrahamsen and first published in English in Pathlight, summer 2013.
Read the Chinese here.
The lass took after neither the mother nor the father – how had she come out so good looking? A crude joke went around the compound: “Dayao, she’s no seed of yours.” Dayao could hear the approval behind the crudeness, of course, and never lost his temper. Unruffled, he’d respond: “Genetic transplant.”
Dayao was a plumber, but he was a plumber at a teacher’s university, so naturally his diction was elevated. He was careful in his speech – he’d known plenty of professors, and even more plumbers, and in this day and age what real difference is there between a plumber and a professor? None at all, you might think. But there is one crucial difference, and it is located in the mouth. Different speech issues from different mouths, and so different pockets are filled with different gold. The tongue is a soft thing, but it holds a hard power.
Dayao, like his father, was no fool. Like any father he was happy to hear his daughter’s beauty praised, but of course he hoped the praise wouldn’t stop at her beauty. “She’s passable,” he’d say. “It’s more a matter of her bearing.” His nonchalance was disingenuous; he threw everything he had into elevating their compliments to a higher level. There’s two kinds of talk, they say, that should always be taken with a grain of salt: a mother’s praise for her son, and a father’s for his daughter. They may appear calm, but inside they’re burning up.
Of course Dayao wasn’t wrong about his daughter’s bearing. When Yao Zihan was only four her mother, Han Yuejiao, began her training. First was dance class – ethnic dance. Dance is a queer thing, it can take root in a child’s bones, and raise them up. What does “raise them up” mean? It’s hard to say, but you know it when you see it. A firm axis ran from Yao Zihan’s waist up through her back, and into her neck, and it never for a moment left her.
She had many hidden talents, as well: She’d played go for four years, and was ranked. She had a lively Ou-style calligraphy. She could sketch accurately. She could do paper-cuts. She’d placed second in the municipal Math Olympics. She excelled at public speaking. She could program computers. She’d performed guzheng solos on the provincial Spring Gala program. Her English was particularly strong, and spoken with an American accent. When she said “water” it never came out as wo-te, but always the proper wa-te-er. Yao Zihan’s full array of skills far outstripped the ancient cultured requisites of chess, zither, calligraphy, and painting. Yao Zihan’s strengths were best displayed in mathematics: her scores had always remained comfortably within the top three of her class, and top ten of her year. It was uncanny. Her second year classmates at the elementary school had long since stopped seeing her as one of them. They weren’t jealous, quite the opposite: they took pride in her, and called her “Painted Skin,” after the beautiful monster of legend. But it went deeper than that. When she stood she rose with elegance; when she sat she was enthroned. She was the very figure of grace, the very image of an arty youth. The dean had seen every type of child under the sun. Never mind “Painted Skins,” he’d known zombies and goblins, too. But to be honest, not one of those zombies or goblins had developed in as balanced or well-rounded a way as this Painted Skin. The dean once cornered her in the library, and asked in the reverent tones of a die-hard fan: “Where on earth do you find the time and energy?” “A girl’s got to be hard on herself,” she’d replied with the self-possession of a true teen idol.
And Yao Zihan was extremely hard on herself. From the moment she became a young woman, she hadn’t wasted a single hour of daylight. As with most children, it began with her parents pushing her. But in truth, whose mother or father isn’t hard on their children these days? Any parent picked at random would make a perfect prison warden. But in the end, of course, most kids can’t handle it: push them too hard and they’ll bite back sooner or later. Yao Zihan was different, though. Her ability to endure was akin to the sponge from Lu Xun’s story, that was squeezed dry by an iron hand: squeeze a little harder, and there’s yet another drop of water to be had. At a parent teacher meeting Dayao had once complained: “We keep reminding Yao Zihan that she should rest, but she won’t listen!” What could you do?
Michelle was very punctual. At precisely ten-thirty in the morning she presented herself in the Yao family living room. Dayao and Michelle had met under interesting circumstances: in the women’s restroom of the library. Dayao had been fixing a spigot in the sink when Michelle had come barging in, a cigarette clamped in her jaw. Before she could light her cigarette she noticed a tall man standing there. She jumped out of her skin, blurted a mangled “sorry” in Chinese, and ran out. A few seconds later, however, she came strolling back in. She leaned against the doorframe, the cigarette trailing from her right hand at shoulder-height, and said archly, “Hey huntsome, are you looking for a taste?” How did this foreign girl know a phrase like that! Dayao said, “I don’t eat in the restroom, and I don’t smoke in the restroom, either.” As he spoke he pointed to his uniform, and knocked on a water pipe with the wrench in his hand – the misunderstanding was promptly cleared up. Michelle was a bit embarrassed. She crumpled the cigarette in her palm and said, “Yours truly made a mistake.” Dayao laughed. She was an American girl, healthy and self-confident, probably in her early twenties. Still girlish, and a little vain. “A good comrade learns from her mistakes,” Dayao said. Once two people have met, they’re sure to meet again. After the restroom incident Dayao and Michelle ran into each other four or five times, and each time Michelle seemed thrilled to see him; she’d call out to him loudly: “huntsome!” Dayao, for his part, would give her a thumbs-up, and answer “good comrade.” Just before the summer vacation began, Dayao saw Michelle walking past a crêpe stand. He squeezed his brakes, set one foot on the ground, blocked her way, and asked her outright if she had any particular plans for the vacation. Michelle told him she would stay in Nanjing, and volunteer at a Kunqu opera theater. Dayao had no interest in Kunqu, he said: “I want to discuss a bit of business with you.” Michelle arched an eyebrow, and rubbed the tips of three fingers together: “You mean, baznessbazness?”
“That’s right,” Dayao said. “Business.”
Michelle said, “I’ve never had done bazness before.”
Dayao wanted to laugh. Foreigners all talked like that. They added “had” to everything. He didn’t laugh, though. “It’s a simple thing. I want you to have a conversation with someone I know.”
It took a moment, but Michelle understood – someone must need to practice speaking English.
“With a princess.”
These poor Americans, they can never keep a problem inside their heads: all their wondering and pondering is right there on their faces for anyone to see. One eyebrow and the corner of her mouth thought for a while, and then Michelle realized what “princess” meant. She spoke in intentionally exaggerated “foreign-devil” Chinese: “Your royal highness, I understand-a!”
But then she wrapped her arms around her waist and glared at Dayao, her chin and gaze slowly shifting in opposite directions. She put on a crafty look, and said, “I’m very expensive, you understand-a?”
Dayao knew the prices, of course. He low-balled: “Eighty an hour.”
“One hundred and twenty,” she said.
“One hundred.” Dayao said. He added, meaningfully: “The yuan is very valuable these days. Deal?”
Of course Michelle knew the yuan was very valuable. One hundred just for an hour of talking was a good price. She flashed a toothy smile: “Why not!”
Standing in their living room, Michelle looked as cheerful as ever. She was excited and kept rubbing her hands; this made her appear to take up even more space, and the living room seemed smaller. Dayao formally introduced her to the princess. During the summer vacation following elementary school, the princess had been given excellent training in social niceties, and her comportment was excellent, proper and noble. She was somewhat expressionless, though, as if Michelle crowded her. Dayao had noticed that his daughter’s face rarely betrayed any expression, as though it were disconnected from her thoughts and feelings. She bore a perpetual look of disinterested amiability. The princess, solemn and noble, ushered Michelle into her sanctuary, and Dayao closed the door behind them, leaving it a crack. He wanted to listen, all the more so because he could not understand. What greater sense of accomplishment could a father have than to hear his daughter speaking a language he does not understand? He relished it; the world was vast and full of marvels.
Dayao took a moment to signal to his wife with his chin. Han Yuejiao, a gardener at the teachers’ university, took the hint immediately. She donned her sleeve guards and started making dumplings. The couple had planned things the night before: they would treat the American girl to a meal. Both Dayao and his wife were canny; they never made a losing deal. They calculated thusly: they were paying Michelle for one hour of language instruction, but if they could get her to stay for dinner afterwards, their daughter would get two.
Dayao had been pondering the question of his daughter’s spoken English for a long time. Her English was excellent, there was no question – her midterm and semester test results were proof of that. But one day last year, as he was eating lunch, Dayao happened to glance at the television, which was showing a middle school English competition. As he watched he suddenly realized – Yao Zihan’s “excellent English” only went as far as the eye and hand, not the tongue. To put it another way, it wasn’t “hard power.” Dayao and Han Yuejiao watched the program together. As luck would have it, they got addicted. As highly-experienced consumers of television, Dayao and Han Yuejiao were like everyone else in the country: their favorite thing to watch was something called “PK.” This is the age of the PK, the “player kill,” the utter annihilation of one’s opponent. Singers PK, dancers PK, pianists PK, public speakers PK, even blind daters PK, so of course English speakers PK, too. On the day of the children’s English PK finals, Dayao came up with a new set of “good girl” standards and requirements for Yao Zihan. Simply put, they were these: One, to get on television. Two, to withstand being PK’ed. Stated a little more clearly: the child who went through the PK and was still standing at the end was the truly “good child.” Those who fell would at best be considered “revolutionary martyrs.” That night, Dayao and Han Yuejiao began drawing up their plans. Their thinking went as follows: Due to an oversight on their part, Yao Zihan had had no spoken English training during elementary school, and if she were to suddenly be thrown into a competition now, as a middle-schooler, she might not even make it through the elimination round. But that mattered little – so long as Yao Zihan began cramming in early middle school, by the time she was in high school three or four years later, she’d be able to tell her moving story on the television; she would do her parents proud. As she imagined this scene of her daughter “doing her parents proud,” Han Yuejiao’s heart swelled and broke, and her eyes swam with tears. She and her daughter had been through so much, so much . . . truly they had been through so much.
At about the same time Michelle emerged from Yao Zihan’s bedroom, Han Yuejiao was setting the table for the dumpling dinner. Han Yuejiao had never before had direct contact with “foreign friends,” and she was feeling embarrassed. Embarrassment can often come out as brusqueness, and she said to Michelle: “Eat! Dumplings!” Dayao noticed that Michelle seemed as nonplussed by the steaming plate of dumplings as she had been the day he surprised her in the restroom – her face had flushed red. Michelle spread her long arms wide and said, “How could I possibly?” Hearing that, Dayao immediately assumed the role of foreign diplomat; it was his responsibility to clarify the stance of the Chinese. He told Michelle, in tones of great gravity: “The Chinese people are very hospitable.”
“Of curse . . . of curse.” Michelle answered, equally grave. “Of curse.”
Michelle was in a bind, however. She had dinner plans. She hesitated. In the end she was swayed by the rising steam – she pulled out her phone, and told her friend that she was going to have a small meeting with three Chinese people, and she would have to arrive a bit later. Ah, so this American girl could lie – and even her lies were delivered in authentic Chinese style.
The dumpling banquet, however, was not a joyous one, mainly because it did not develop according to Dayao’s plans. Before the meal officially began, Michelle delivered a whole speech’s worth of polite courtesies, all in Chinese. Dayao glanced at his daughter, trying to give her a hint. Yao Zihan, sharp as a needle, of course caught his meaning. She picked up the thread of Michelle’s conversation immediately, in English. But Michelle gave Yao Zihan a brilliant smile and encouraged her to “use Chinese,” pointing out that “in her own home” it was “impolite” to speak a foreign language in front of her parents. Michelle was careful to be modest, of course, saying: “I also want to learn Chiniss from you.”
Dayao hadn’t seen this coming. He’d paid for Michelle to speak English with his daughter. Yet now his daughter was speaking Chinese with Michelle, and not only was it free, she was getting a dumpling dinner as part of the deal. How had this happened?
Han Yuejiao shot a look at her husband. Dayao caught it. Naturally it was a look filled with import. Not accusation, exactly, but certainly a degree of disappointment, and Dayao felt that he was to blame.
The moment Michelle was gone Dayao went nuts. He wanted to curse, but couldn’t bring himself to do it in front of Yao Zihan. His taciturn daughter had a constant deterrent effect on him, which he resented, and resentfulness magnified his suffering. After more than ten years of working in an academy of higher education he’d learned to frame his suffering within a larger context, and in tones of great pain he said to Yao Zihan, “The weak nation has no voice – why must it always be we who are cheated?”
Han Yuejiao only stared emptily at the few remaining dumplings. The roiling steam was gone and the dumplings lay like corpses, unappealing. But Yao Zihan turned away from them and began fiddling with her computer and television. Within moments, scenes of her conversation with Michelle suddenly appeared on the television, and she was able to fast-forward, reverse, and replay them. Yao Zihan, the tireless student, had recorded the whole thing so she could study it afterwards as often as she pleased.
Dayao stared at the screen, elated. It was the kind of joy particular to the downtrodden, when at last they’re able to take some small advantage. His mood reversed so quickly and so thoroughly that his joy was also magnified, almost hysterical. Dayao clutched his daughter tightly, and said stiffly: “Our motherland thanks you!”
Dance class was at seven that evening. Yao Zihan wouldn’t let her mother take her. She got on her bike and set out alone. Though Han Yuejiao was ostensibly employed as a gardener, she was essentially idle, and her only real duty and pleasure was to accompany her daughter to her classes. When she was younger Yao Zihan had little say in the matter, and by this point Yuejiao had become accustomed to the routine; it was she who needed it now. But at the start of that year’s summer vacation, Yao Zihan’s face had told them in no uncertain terms that they were no longer allowed to accompany her. Dayao and Han Yuejiao were like any parents: their daughter may be essentially expressionless, but they could still tell from her face what they were supposed to do.
A chill breeze was blowing. Yao Zihan rode her bicycle, her emotions torn. She’d forbidden her parents from accompanying her because she was resentful, and angry at them. Any type of dance would have done – why couldn’t her mother have chosen International Standard Ballroom Dance? Yao Zihan had only recently fallen under the spell of “ISBD.” ISBD was cool; each movement quick and sharp, electrifying. Yao Zihan had fallen in love with it instantly. She’d asked her teacher if there was still time to switch to ISBD, but his answer was vague – it wasn’t impossible. But that was the thing about movement: once you’d trained past a certain point it took root in you, and the harder you’d trained the more difficult it was to make the switch. Yao Zihan had tried a few of the ISBD movements in front of the big mirror, but couldn’t get them right. They were too graceful, too gentle. What you’d expect from a “little woman.”
Then there was the guzheng. Why on earth had they picked the guzheng for her? When had that started? Yao Zihan had recently become infatuated with being “cool,” and developed a distaste for anything that was visually “uncool.” Yao Zihan had once performed in a school concert, and afterwards took a look at the recording. She looked gormless compared to the others. A guzheng performance wasn’t even as impressive as the di flute, not to mention the sax or piano. Embarrassingly earnest, and totally uncool. Yao Zihan cut too miserable a figure to appear onstage.
The evening wind lifted her short hair and made her squint. What Yao Zihan felt wasn’t just resentment, wasn’t just anger. She hated them. Was this what they called taste? Was this what they called vision? Meanwhile all the drudgery had been hers. Not that she minded drudgery, if it was worth it. What she found most depressing was that she’d progressed too far to give it all up now. But she felt cheated. Big time. If only she could just start her life over again, and be her own boss, make her own decisions. Just look at her: her life was obviously off-track but she couldn’t hit the brakes. She couldn’t even let up on the accelerator. It was nuts. What greater sorrow could life hold? Yao Zihan suddenly felt old; in her imagination the crow’s feet were piling up at the corners of her eyes.
In the end it all came down to one thing: money. Her family was too poor. If they had money, her parents’ decisions might have been different from the start. A piano, for instance: they couldn’t afford one. Even if they could it wouldn’t fit in the house, just finding a spot for it would be a problem.
If you got right down to it, though, the problem of money had always been secondary, the real issue was her parents’ taste, and vision. Yao Zihan’s sense of humiliation welled up again. Her classmates all knew Yao Zihan’s home was in the “big yard” of the teachers’ university. That sounded good, as far as it went, but Yao Zihan never went into any more detail. In fact, her parents were peasants from the distant edge of town. It had been the relocation and expansion of the teachers’ university that had allowed Mr. and Mrs. Dayao to transform themselves overnight from a young peasant couple to university staff members. That transformation had cost Dayao’s father no small amount of cash.
It is the nature of humiliation that it can lead to self-pity. Yao Zihan, that renowned Painted Skin, that encyclopaedic giant, pitied herself profoundly. It was all completely meaningless. Through all that suffering and hardship she’d accomplished nothing but to lay the wrong-headed foundations of a wrong-headed life. It was too late to go back.
Thank god for “Her Royal Highness.” “Her Royal Highness” was in the same dance class as Yao Zihan, a goblin-grade boy from No. 21 Middle School. He was actually quite macho, but the girls in the dance class insisted on calling him by his nickname. HRH didn’t mind, he just gave a red-lipped, white-toothed smile.
Yao Zihan and HRH weren’t friends for any particular reason, besides the fact that they had similar problems. People with similar problems might not be able to comfort each other, but just being together can often be reassuring. HRH had told Yao Zihan that his greatest wish was to invent a time machine, in which all the children no longer belonged to their parents. Instead, they would be their own masters, and could choose their fathers and mothers as they pleased.
Yao Zihan and HRH walked their bikes back from class, chatting for a few minutes along the way. Just as they were reaching the intersection, as they were about to part, Dayao and Han Yuejiao appeared and blocked the way. The two of them were squeezed awkwardly onto one electric bicycle, and looked peculiar. The moment she saw them Yao Zihan was unhappy – hadn’t she told them not to accompany her? Yet here they were.
At this particular moment, however, she wasn’t the only unhappy one. She hadn’t attended very carefully to her parents. If she had, she would have seen that Han Yuejiao’s face was severe, and Dayao’s expression could be described as distorted.
He squeezed the brakes of the bike, and said with no preamble: “What do you mean by this?”
“What do I mean by what?” said Yao Zihan.
“What do you mean by not letting us accompany you?” he said.
“What do you mean what do I mean by not letting us accompany you?” she said.
Dayao dropped this pointless back-and-forth and went to the heart of the matter: “Who gave you permission to talk to him?” Without giving Yao Zihan a chance to answer he repeated the question: “Who gave you permission to talk to him?”
Yao Zihan looked at her father – she still hadn’t really understood what he meant. Dayao retained a grip on himself, but it wasn’t a very firm grip, and he could lose it at any moment.
Just as in the classroom, where Yao Zihan didn’t need the teachers to ask a question more than twice, she understood what her father meant. She pushed her bicycle forward, saying quietly: “Excuse me, please let me pass.”
Compared to Dayao’s thunderous power, Yao Zihan possessed at the very most four ounces of strength. But that was the miraculous thing: those mere four ounces were enough to let her simply walk through the thunder. She was as cool as pure bottled water; as noble and self-possessed as a princess, and just as condescending.
The daughter’s arrogance and haughtiness was enough to kill the father. Dayao barked, “That’s the end of your dance classes!” It was nonsense, of course; he’d simply lost control.
Yao Zihan had already quietly passed by the electric bike. She suddenly turned back, this time she looked nothing like a princess – on the contrary, she was a scolding shrew. “I’m tired of it anyway!” she said, her pretty face flushed red. “Send me to ISBD classes, if you can afford it!”
Yao Zihan disappeared beneath the streetlights, and Dayao did not pursue her. He propped his electric bike up by the side of the road. He was calming down. But calm sorrow is the most painful. Dayao gazed at his wife, like a fish newly out of water, his mouth opening and closing. His daughter had finally broached the subject of money – it had only been a matter of time before she said what was really on her mind. As the lass grew older she was increasinly humiliated by her family’s poverty, increasingly contemptuous of them as parents, Dayao could see that plainly. He could feel it – in the first half of the year alone she’d concealed two parent-teacher conferences from him. He hadn’t dared ask; it had made him angry, but even more it had made him ashamed. Shame is a very peculiar organ. It’s full of veins and arteries, just below the surface, and turns into a bloody mess at the slightest touch.
Dayao felt sad, but more than that he was bitter. Bitter not only about what all those years had cost him, but because there was a secret behind that bitterness: Dayao wasn’t rich, but his family was. That’s an awkward statement – Dayao really didn’t have much money, but his family did.
How did his family come to have money? That was a long tale to tell, one that started in the year of Yao Zihan’s birth. It was at once strange and relatively common: the teachers’ college needed land. And the moment the teachers’ college needed land, Dayao was elevated to a Buddha before he could say amitabha. This was a strange age, Dayao felt, and an even stranger land.
Mostly it was thanks to Dayao’s father, Laoyao. The clever old peasant had discovered, long before Dayao was even married, that the city was like a pizzle on its wedding night: it was big, and getting bigger, and would eventually knock up against their own front door. Their house was built on foundations of gold: if the teachers’ college didn’t buy it, the University of Science and Technology would; if an institute of higher education didn’t buy it, a property developer would. In a word: there would be a buyer. Of course, plenty of people besides Laoyao knew this secret. Everyone had figured it out. The problem is that as people survey their future prospects they tend to get greedy, to lose their patience, and to pounce on their perceived gains. But the moment they pounce, they lose their position. He told his son: don’t go anywhere. Whatever you might be able to grasp is just petty cash, you’re waiting for the big one. Earning money by the sweat of your brow is a mug’s game – have you ever seen the wealthy sweat? You just sit tight. He put a firm stop to his son’s imbecile plan to buy an apartment in the city, and refused to let him shift his housing registration, either. He instructed his son to stay put in Yao Village on the outskirts of town, and then to build, slowly and steadily. And finally to grit his teeth and wait. “Do you really think,” the old peasant would say, “that rich people earned their own money?”
Dayao’s father bet correctly, and his plots of land won him big money. It was no small winning, either – it was a proper, respectable chunk of cash. The old man didn’t let it go to his head, though. He handed over everything he’d made to his son, then made three pronouncements to the couple. 1) Nothing we do in life means anything, except what’s done for our children. As your father I’ve made you wealthy; I’ve done my part. 2) Don’t show it off. You’re not a businessman, so live as if you were still poor. 3) The two of you are parents, too, and you’ve got to provide for your children. But just sitting and waiting isn’t going to work for their generation. You’ve got to find a way to send that child in your belly to America.
Dayao didn’t have money, but his family did. As if it were a dream, as if it had been a parlor trick. Dayao often dreamt of counting money – he’d count and count, until he awoke in a fright. Every time he awoke he was happy, and exhausted, though when he thought back on it they seemed more like nightmares.
And now this. The damned lass thought her family was poor, an embarrassment to her. But what did she know? Did she know all of her life’s secret twists and turns? Not by a long shot.
Han Yuejiao grieved with him. She hesitated: “Maybe . . . maybe tonight we should tell her that we’re not a poor family after all.”
“No,” said Dayao. He was firm on this point. “Absolutely not. The get of the poor are great, the sons of the rich wastrels . . . You think I don’t know her? The moment we tell her she’ll drop the ball. If she doesn’t work hard, she’ll never amount to squat.”
But the more Dayao thought the angrier he got, and the angrier he got the more bitter he felt. He shouted in the direction of his long-vanished daughter: “I’ve got money! Your old da is rolling in it!”
He’d finally said it. That felt good. That was more like it.
A young man passing by laughed. He inclined his head and said, “I heard every word!”
This Michelle really was something – it was just an hour of English practice, but she insisted on doing it on a soccer field. Wasn’t she worried about the sun on such a hot day? The lass usually hated being out in the sun, but as her face hardened she insisted on going to the pitch. She was being stubborn; she was still trying to gall her parents. Fine, then – go if you want to go. Anyway, the atmosphere at home was heavy and uncomfortable. So long as you’re diligent, you’re learning no matter where you are, right?
The sun glared overhead, and there was no one besides Michelle and Yao Zihan on the pitch. They weren’t far from home, but Yao Zihan had never been in a place like this. She was frightened by its emptiness – or rather by its size. And also by its garishness: the grass was an expanse of emerald green, surrounded by a brick-red running track, which was itself divided by white lines that zipped all the way down to the end. The stands were even more riotous: painted a different color for each zone. Majestic. Brilliant. Grand. Yao Zihan surveyed her surroundings, feeling a little dizzy – it must have been particularly warm on the soccer field. Michelle told her that back in Michigan she’d been a “very good” soccer player, and had even made the papers. She liked soccer, this “girl’s sport.” Yao Zihan didn’t understand how soccer could be a “girl’s sport.” Of course it is, Michelle explained. Men only like American football. She didn’t like it at all, it was “too brutal.”
As they conversed – that is to say, as they held class – they didn’t notice that the sun had grown milder. The storm clouds were gathering overhead – it was too late, entirely too late. The clouds were gathering with greedy speed, and would break at any instant. As Yao Zihan realized what was happening she covered her head, and watched as Michelle opened her arms and leaned her head back, opening her mouth to the Heavens. Now that was a mouth worthy of the name. It was at once alarming and alluring. The raindrops struck her face and bounced off, leaping and dancing. Michelle went crazy, and yelled at the top of her voice: “Here . . . comes . . . the . . . love!” By the time her voice faded she was thoroughly soaked, her alarming breasts swelling through her shirt.
“Here comes the love?” A crazy thing to say – before Yao Zihan had time to ask, Michelle had grabbed hold of her and taken off running. It was a deluge, so heavy the ground smoked. After Yao Zihan had taken seven or eight steps some mysterious inner part of her body came to life, and her spirit awoke. If she hadn’t been in the midst of it, Yao Zihan would never have experienced the sweet pleasure of a hard rain. It was new and strange kind of physical contact, like a secret not yet revealed, tempting yet troubling.
The rain was too much. In just a few minutes there was standing water on the green. Michelle let go of Yao Zihan’s hand and took off towards one of the goals. As she turned and came back, she acted as if she’d just made a goal. Her face was exultant, and her finishing move was a long slide across the grass, on her knees. She took it a little too far, and nearly crashed into Yao Zihan. Even after her body had come to rest, her breasts seemed to continue their struggle. “Goal!!” she shouted. “Goal!!” With hardly a pause, she shouted: “Why aren’t you celebrating?”
Of course she would celebrate. Yao Zihan dropped to her knees, raising a splash. The two teammates embraced ecstatically, overflowing with ecstacy, as if they really had just won the World Cup. What a thrill! How fucking awesome! It had all popped out of nowhere, as real as anything.
The rain fell harder, and Yao Zihan erupted with a desire to scream out loud. Michelle had been teaching her quite a bit of what they called special vocabulary, and without giving it a thought she shouted something dirty in English: “You’re a fucking slut!”
Michelle was soaked through, her face dripping, strands of hair running with raindrops. Through the thick-falling rain Yao Zihan could see the corners of her mouth spreading in opposite directions behind her messed-up hair. She was smiling, crookedly.
“I am,” she said.
Rainwater flowed rapidly down Yao Zihan’s face. She had frightened herself. There was no way she could have said something like that in Chinese. Foreign languages were strange – you could say anything you liked – but now the “translation” was ringing in her head, disturbing her. What had she said! Perhaps seeking some balance, she squeezed her fists tight, lifted her head, and shouted at the sky:
“I’m a fucking slut, too!”
They both started laughing, and could not stop. The rain roared down, and the two young women roared with laughter until they were dizzy. But then the rain stopped, with no warning, much as it had started. Yao Zihan desperately wished the rain would keep falling – would fall forever. But it stopped, it disappeared, and left Yao Zihan soaked and exposed on the soccer field. The field was washed clean, and all its colors appeared in their original form: the green brilliant, the red bloody, the white snowy, all shockingly unreal.
The fainting spell came over Yao Zihan while she was practicing guzheng. It was startling. She collapsed over the instrument with a twanging bang, snapping several of the strings. What could have made her faint? It was just a cold; she’d been taking cold medicine for a couple of days. Han Yuejiao bitterly regretted letting her daughter out the door when she had a fever. On the other hand, this wasn’t the first time. When had she ever let a headache or a fever stop her? She refused to miss a single class. “The others are making progress!” That’s what she always said, usually stamping a foot. It’s what Han Yuejiao found most lovable about the girl, and of course also what made her most proud.
When Dayao and Han Yuejiao rushed in they found Yao Zihan half-conscious. She’d vomited, and her front was covered in partially-digested dinner. Dayao had never seen his darling in this state. He gave a cry, and started weeping. Rather than panicking, Han Yuejiao set about cleaning her daughter up. No one knows a girl like her mother. She knew that Yao Zihan would hate being so filthy, so she made it look like it didn’t happen. If Zihan knew, she might go silent for three or four days, at least.
Clearly, it was more than a cold. Yao Zihan had been a sickly child, and Han Yuejiao was no stranger to hospitals – she knew her way around blood tests, temperatures, medicines, and IV drips. But this time was completely different. The nurses wouldn’t say anything. The tests they were running didn’t appear to be regular blood tests, either. The needle was alarmingly long, around ten centimeters. Dayao and Han Yuejiao watched from behind glass as the nurses turned Yao Zihan over, opened her dress, and exposed her lower back. The nurse held the long needle over the middle of her back, and plunged it in. What was drawn out was not blood, but what looked like water. It seemed to be thirty or forty ccs of water. Dayao and Han Yuejiao were beside themselves with worry; sensing the gravity of the situation from the number of unfamiliar tests. Two hours later, the situation’s gravity was confirmed by medical instruments. Tests of her spinal fluid came back with a protein level of 890, far in excess of the normal level of around 450. Her white blood cell count was a shocking 560, fifty-six times the normal amount. The doctor relayed the clinical significance of these figures to Dayao: “Inflammation of the brain parenchyma. Brain fever.” Daoyao didn’t know what parenchyma was, but he understood “brain fever,” and he sat down heavily on the polished tile of the hospital floor.
Yao Zihan finally awoke from her coma a week later. It had been an experience worse than death for Dayao and Han Yuejiao. They had kept a silent watch by her bedside, gazing at one another in moments of despair. They were furtive, dread-filled, helpless looks, looks of inexpressible pain. The glances were brief, the pain they saw in each other’s eyes unbearable. They watched as their eyes sunk, and darkened. Unaccustomed to embracing, they nevertheless held each other up and leaned against the other in the hospital. Otherwise neither could have stayed upright. There was hope in their hearts, but as time crept slowly on, hope receded. They had no desire but that their daughter might one day open her eyes again, and speak. If only she could speak again, they would gladly give their lives – even if it meant she would be sent to an orphanage, they would be happy.
Michelle was dutiful – she’d called Dayao from the gate of their building. As soon as he heard her voice anger swept over him. If she hadn’t insisted on Zihan going to the soccer field, the lass wouldn’t have gotten this ghastly illness. He had no real right to push all blame on to her, though. He was a plumber at a teachers college, after all. “Please don’t call again,” he managed to say with great restraint and courtesy. After hanging up, he paused, then deleted her number for good measure.
Hope can never be bought with human suffering, but heaven did finally smile upon them. On the morning of the eighth day – dawn, to be precise – Yao Zihan finally opened her eyes. It was Han Yuejiao who noticed first. She was in shock, and her scalp tingled. But she didn’t cry out. She didn’t dare feel happy. She simply looked at Zihan with complete focus. She was looking, studying her expression. Great heaven above, a smile crept onto her face. She was smiling at Han Yuejiao, her eyes limpid and lively, her gaze in silent communion with her mother’s.
Yao Zihan looked at her mother, and her lips parted weakly. she said, “ma.” Han Yuejiao could hear no sound, but she could tell by the shape of Zihan’s mouth that she was calling for her mother, calling out – it was true. Han Yuejiao’s answer welled up from the depths of her heart. She kept answering, she needed to grab hold. Dayao, sensing something, followed her into the room. Yao Zihan’s limpid gaze shifted from her mother’s face to her father’s. She was smiling, only a little wearily. This time she spoke audibly.
“Dad,” she said in English.
“What?” he asked.
“Where is this place?”
Dayao stared at her, uncomprehending, then leaned in closer and asked, “What are you saying?”
“Please tell me, what happened? Why aren’t I at home? God, why are you two so thin? Have you been pushing yourselves too hard? Mom, if you don’t mind, would you tell me if you two are sick?”
Dayao stared fixedly at his daughter. She seemed perfectly normal, apart from being tired – but what on earth was she saying? Why couldn’t she speak Chinese? “Lass,” he said. “Speak sense.”
“Thank you, boss. Thank you very much for giving me such a respectable job, and of course such a respectable salary. I could never have afforded a piano otherwise. I have to say I still think it’s too expensive, but I like it.”
“Lass, it’s your father. Speak properly!” Dayao was seeing double, he couldn’t hold himself together. “Doctor!” he shouted, in a near-squeak.
“And my thanks to all the judges, thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here. May I have a glass of water? It seems I’m not expressing myself clearly, allow me to repeat myself: May I have a glass of water? Water. God . . . ”
Dayao reached out his hand, and covered his daughter’s mouth. He couldn’t understand her, but he couldn’t bear to hear any more. He was terrified, dread-filled. Hurried footsteps sounded in the corridor, and Dayao stripped off his shirt. He knew for sure his daughter needed emergency assistance, she needed a transfusion. He was willing to open every vein in his body; he was willing to give until he was dry as a bone.