From Love in the New Millennium, a novel that was published this month by Yale University Press. Can Xue is the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua, who previously worked as a tailor. Her novel Frontier was published last year by Open Letter Books. Translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen.
Xiao Yuan had left her teaching post many years before. Her current job was somewhere between administration and operations. Concretely, that meant business trips to other regions made up her main responsibility.
Xiao Yuan met Dr. Liu while traveling for work. Dr. Liu, who had opened a Chinese medicine clinic in Nest County, was taking the train to the capital to purchase medical supplies when he met Xiao Yuan. They had both reserved lower bunks, face-to-face. Xiao Yuan hung a pocket watch at the head of the bed, put a small digital clock on the side table, and placed a radio next to the pillow. A digital timer on the radio glimmered.
Dr. Liu was handsome, with the expressionless look of the studious type. Once Xiao Yuan was settled in place she naturally took a good look at the face of this man about the same age as herself.
Dr. Liu bumped into her digital clock when he was pouring himself some hot water and apologized repeatedly. His voice was unpleasant. Xiao Yuan furrowed her brow.
Late at night, despite turning his face toward the partition between the sleeper cars, Dr. Liu was still made restless by Xiao Yuan’s timepieces. He sensed an evil influence in the air emanating from the body of the woman opposite him, like an aura. The passengers in the upper and middle bunks on Dr. Liu’s side slipped away one after the other. The upper and middle bunks on Xiao Yuan’s side had been empty to start. This left them as the only two people in this enclosed area. Dr. Liu, exasperated, sat up with the thought of switching to another berth to get a good night’s sleep. At this precise moment, Xiao Yuan, fast asleep, turned over in her bunk.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I . . . I was going to switch bunks . . . ” Dr. Liu stammered.
“Can’t you see it’s two in the morning? Do you want to die? You’ll be taken for a criminal and arrested! What a hick. . . . ” As she spoke she tapped the timer on the radio.
“Then I won’t switch bunks. I’ll lie down. Don’t be angry.”
“Who’s angry? If you think this is strange, you haven’t seen anything yet!” She covered her face with the blanket and giggled.
Dr. Liu glanced sideways at Xiao Yuan in the dark and saw her fiddling with the radio set. The radio was very unusual. At intervals it reported the time, but every time the same time: “Eleven pm.” Dr. Liu thought, Damn it, no hope of sleep tonight. To control his irritation, he imagined himself picking medicinal herbs in the mountains of Nest County. He was fond of an herb with the common name qingmuxiang, an extremely delicate plant with round, very lovable fruit. Because he loved the shape of the fruit, he often gave his patients this herb for pain relief. There was a cliff on the mountain with a cave slightly lower down where a good amount of qingmuxiang grew. Dr. Liu only gathered a bit at a time, reluctant to pick too much. He climbed the cliff mostly to survey the herb. Such a lovely wild plant—perhaps it grew there because that was a safe place for it to reveal its inexplicable stance of freedom? Dr. Liu’s gaze returned from Xiao Yuan to the darkness over his bunk, his agitation growing calmer, little by little. He had seen the qingmuxiang before leaving for the train station, spending an afternoon at the side of the cliff, and felt contented.
“Do you practice Chinese medicine?”
Xiao Yuan spoke so abruptly Dr. Liu started. “That’s strange, how did you know?”
“Your things all smell like herbal prescriptions. I can’t stand Chinese medicine. It’s all superstition, ghosts, and spirits. It doesn’t kill people, but it doesn’t cure disease, either.”
“I don’t purely practice Chinese medicine. I use the methods of Western medicine to treat people using traditional medicine.”
“Hmm, that would be much better. Chinese herbal medicines are mystical, and people associate them with sex.”
“Do you ever go to pharmacies that sell Chinese medicine?”
“Yes. Especially the well-known brands. I don’t go to buy medicine, I like to stand at the counter and observe. I like to read medical books and can identify many of the traditional herbs.”
“Before I got on the train I spent an afternoon in the mountains. Nest County’s mountains have the finest medicinal herbs in the world. They’ve grown there generation after generation. Naturally they are not growing for people who are ill. Yet who can prove that they don’t grow to treat illness?”
“You’re very interesting. I share your point of view. Every object has secret purposes. What I mean is, life is in and of itself inspiring.”
Dr. Liu noticed that when they were speaking the radio set stopped reporting the time.
“Do you control the sequence of the radio’s time announcements?” he asked quietly.
“I’m controlling it with my thoughts.” Her voice was, like his, in a whisper.
After reaching the capital, they stayed together at the home of Dr. Liu’s younger sister. They both soon completed their work. Xiao Yuan wanted to go to Nest County, so they took the train back to Dr. Liu’s home, which is to say, the train back to Dr. Liu’s clinic. He lived above the dispensary on the second floor.
It was morning when they reached his home, where many of his patients were already waiting for him. He remained busy with his work until nightfall, Xiao Yuan at his side all along observing him and the Chinese medicines. Also the patients.
“You make me nervous. It takes all my strength not to be distracted,” he said.
The next day, first thing in the morning, they went for a ramble on Nest Mountain and stayed the entire day. As they went back down the mountain to the clinic, Xiao Yuan sensed that the next time they met would be in the distant future, perhaps even worse: never to meet again. To avoid an emotional parting, she didn’t return with Dr. Liu to the clinic, but said goodbye at a crossroads instead and went straight to the train station, a small, run-down station.
For a long, long time, when Xiao Yuan remembered Dr. Liu, she could not uncover her true feelings. Had those three days really been what people call a “romantic encounter”? She kept the train ticket and a small piece of rhinoceros horn Dr. Liu had given her. What could these objects prove? He had said to her as they sat on the mountainside, “I understand. You are time itself, time that no one can possess.”
The radio in her bag answered him, “The time is eleven pm.”
They glanced at each other and both laughed out loud until tears flowed from their eyes, and the two, both strangely embarrassed, turned their faces away to look in different directions.
After their parting in the small county town, Xiao Yuan had never seen Dr. Liu again. She gradually became aware that he belonged to another world. Xiao Yuan vaguely sensed that world, even revered it, but after all it was not her world. He calmly wallowed along in that little town, in his own tiny kingdom, saying he was never satisfied, which meant he could always find things on which to expend himself. Also, his being alone verified what he said. He was handsome, warm by nature, but surprisingly unmarried.
Xiao Yuan thought of herself as a woman of taste. She had loved her husband, Wei Bo, and the two were evenly matched. Did this Dr. Liu have good taste? This question flooded Xiao Yuan with waves of emotion so that she couldn’t think clearly. Maybe Dr. Liu was the same type of person as the Lady of the Camellias, the difference lying only in one being demented and one being sane?
Afterward, Xiao Yuan loved to travel for work even more because the atmosphere of her journeys made it easy to relive the scenes with Dr. Liu. Especially on days of heavy rain, when the drops struck the train-car windows toward evening. So strange, she remembered that the two times she had taken the train with Dr. Liu were both sunny days.
She switched to an automatic timekeeping instrument. Every two hours a woman’s voice inside it reported, “The time is now two pm.” Now that Dr. Liu had turned into a bottomless abyss, she stopped wanting to see him. She could not forget him, either, even if there hadn’t been the rhinoceros horn. Who can forget the abyss of the heart?
Afterward Xiao Yuan got to know two other men and continued a physical relationship with one of them. Although she was fond of this man, she had never ridden the train with him. She would rather go to bed with him.
“I want to go to the capital with you and see La Traviata at the National Theater. When do you have time off? I’m going to turn into a dried fish in this city,” Xiao Yuan’s boyfriend said.
“I can’t go to the capital with you. It’s a depressing place,” Xiao Yuan said, feeling downcast and looking out the window.
Flax (the boyfriend’s nickname) thought, She was so passionate in bed just now! Although he suspected she had not reached real satisfaction. Was she the kind of woman who was difficult to satisfy? The first time they slept together, he was terrified by all the timepieces she had arranged beside the bed and couldn’t get used to them for a long time. When he did, and not easily, adapt to the timepieces, he discovered that she lived in two places at the same time and was sometimes almost as hard to predict as someone invisible. It saddened Flax, who was a very attentive man, not to be able to enter Xiao Yuan’s spaces. He and Xiao Yuan had one thing in common: they both valued sensual pleasures. His greatest wish was to sit in the darkened National Theater and listen to La Traviata with her. He thought that after experiencing that atmosphere, their sex life would become satisfying. His idea was naïve; Xiao Yuan said he was “too practical.” She added, “Sex is a black hole. People can’t understand all of its implications within a lifetime.” Flax felt overburdened every time he left Xiao Yuan. Sometimes he wanted to break things off with her, and he tried quite a few times, but without any effect. “Once I sit on the train I become a different person,” she said to him absentmindedly, “someone you wouldn’t recognize. It’s a matter of the body not being under its own control. When I am with you, I am sure of myself. I like this feeling.”
Flax understood that Xiao Yuan was telling the truth and that he had to give up the idea, although unwillingly. Sometimes he even thought that her unpredictable nature was precisely what attracted him. Why turn over every stone lying at the bottom of the river? Besides, to do so was beyond him. Obviously he was greedy, but who can plumb one’s own soul?
Xiao Yuan had said to Flax not long before, “You give me the sensation of a grove of trees. I pass through it. Feathery leaves everywhere whisk across my face, as if they are trying to say something to me. Then I say to myself, ‘This is happiness.’”
“I don’t think you’re happy enough, though,” Flax said.
Late at night when everything was quiet, Xiao Yuan took out the piece of rhinoceros horn to look at it. The keratinous material did not seem to be anything special. Why would Dr. Liu give her this object? Squinting, she turned it toward the light. She heard the racket of a tropical rainforest and far-off claps of thunder. She lost hold of the horn, which fell under the bed. By the time she arched her back like a cat to search for it with the flashlight, it was already crawling with ants.
In the abyss of her heart some object was churning. Her hands shook. She fixed her eyes on the rhinoceros horn again, but those minuscule living things had vanished, leaving no sign they had been there. She wrapped up the shattered pieces of horn, groans spilling from her throat. The groans were nothing like her ordinary voice, but instead like the groan of some unknown beast. The flaring of the hallucination soon passed.
Xiao Yuan asked herself, Is Dr. Liu tormenting me? Would this hopeless, one-sided longing last the rest of her life? Or was this an alternative type of happiness? The thought inspired Xiao Yuan. All of a sudden she felt that she was very fortunate, extremely powerful—her sadness vanished entirely. Dr. Liu knew when to be content with his lot, and she should, too. Everything was in the past, but everything still remained with her. What she had first pursued turned out to be this ideal! Many events can only be understood after they happen! People cannot see what the murky future contains; instead they should be calm and seize hold of what lies before them in the present.
At midnight she heard a bell, ding-dong, ding-dong—silent and then striking. It was coming from that enormous timepiece in the sky. She was given precise information about the time. She was so fortunate. Surely few people in this city had her good fortune.
Xiao Yuan walked outside underneath the ancient scholartree. Not a single person was in sight, but she could sense a few of the workers from the soap factory strolling through the dormitory area. There was no moon, a peaceful night imbued with passion.
She found her husband, Wei Bo, sitting at the stone table under the scholartree. “Oh, it’s you! Why didn’t I see you just now?” she cried out in surprise.
“I’ve been sitting here the whole time. It would be a pity to sleep on a night like this.”
“True,” Xiao Yuan sincerely agreed. “When I’m away on a business trip, there might be a night like this one once in a while, but it’s most beautiful at the soap-factory dormitories. So long as I’m willing, it seems, I can hear the voice of someone I know. They always pace around the edges. Sometimes, I also hear the tiny groans they make.”
“I bought you a small desk clock. A new design, the kind with a calendar.”
“Oh, you’re so thoughtful, Wei Bo!”
“It’s a light little thing, but hard to break.”
They went back inside the building together to look at the small desk clock Wei Bo had purchased.
As soon as Wei Bo opened the packaging, the clock chimed, ding-dong, ding-dong, quite soft, not startling. Xiao Yuan was astounded: this was the same exact sound she had heard coming from overhead! Was it because someone was thinking about her, so that time also thought about her?
They watched the clock, a surge of emotion rising and falling. “Today is New Year’s Day.”
They returned to their own rooms.
Outside their windows, the workers began to talk. In the dark Xiao Yuan listened, carried away and filled with rapture, to voices that seemed to have been once familiar.
“It’s her! It’s her . . . ”
“The Lady of the Camellias—turned into a stone pillar at the entrance of the theater.”
“Let’s circle again, for a different perspective.”
“I’m so excited I can’t breathe. Let’s go this way, there are too many people on that side. . . . ”
Xiao Yuan, gently laughing, burrowed her face into her pillow. There were so many people swimming back and forth around her, it felt very good. Maybe Flax was among them. Where else would he be? She tried to sleep for a while, but the seething night kept her from closing her eyes. Weren’t even the windowpanes making a cracking sound?
The next day at noon she was on the train heading northeast to Manchuria. On this trip the passenger in the facing bunk was a blind man. He told Xiao Yuan to call him Cricket. He said, “I hear you’ve brought quite a few timepieces. I can keep time more accurately than any clock. Listen: ticktock, ticktock . . . ”
He imitated a cricket’s chirp with marvelous accuracy, amusing Xiao Yuan so much she laughed out loud.
“I learned from an old cricket at my family’s hearth. As time went on, I turned into a timepiece. Joy can be found in this.”
One of his long, thin hands kept groping at his chest, the hand showing his apprehension.
“Do you need help?” Xiao Yuan felt she had to ask.
He did not answer. She heard muffled drumbeats, as if from a small drum. “This is my heart beating. I’ve always wanted to make someone hear my heartbeat, and now I’ve succeeded. I’m so glad, knowing that you heard.”
Yet his expression was not glad. He seemed to be waiting for something, gloomily.
“The time is two-ten and twenty seconds,” he said.
“Correct. She’s coming over,” Xiao Yuan said.
“That thing that has an appointment with you.”
“Ah yes, she’s coming!” He began to laugh. “What do you think of me as a timepiece?”
“You work too hard, Cricket! You belong at the hearth. If it were me, I would rather be one of those hermits or vagrants in the thick grass.”
The color of the sky grew darker. The locomotive whistled. They had already passed Shenyang.
Xiao Yuan finished getting ready to sleep. She saw Cricket still sitting motionless. The young man on the upper bunk put his head over the edge to look below, clearing his throat with affectation. Xiao Yuan realized he must have been following her conversation with the blind man. She felt a little uncomfortable, but since Cricket sat there, very dignified, she also felt inferior.
She gently lay down and said, as if into the air, “I like to travel. Making a journey is the same as clinging to one place. If you settle down in your hometown, it feels instead as though you are drifting along.”
“Xiao Yuan, Xiao Yuan, you must have such a big heart!” Cricket exclaimed sincerely.
She gradually fell asleep. In a hazy state she heard the sound of the small drum at even intervals accompanying the rustling sound, sha sha, of the rain. How pleasant! Then she heard a frightened scream.
It was the train attendant screaming because the passenger in the berth above Cricket had fallen, dead, to the floor. The blind man sat as motionless as before. He said, “He wanted me to help him free himself, but I could not. Oh Xiao Yuan, I really want to weep now!”
The traffic police and the doctor came. The body was carried away, spreading a sickening, putrid odor through the air.
Xiao Yuan lay back down. She wanted to continue tracking the sound of that small drum, but didn’t hear it anymore.
“There is a Lady of the Camellias in our hometown. Her performances have been enigmas to everyone so far,” Xiao Yuan seemed to say to him, and seemed to say to herself. “Her type of performance is my favorite. I sit listening, my mind wandering. Then, afterward, for a week on end, her singing hovers in my brain. Her songs aren’t about our past life, or about the emotional life of people today, but instead about the life we have never even imagined.”
“Just like the life we are experiencing in this moment on the train, isn’t it?” he said.
The lights were turned off, so Xiao Yuan couldn’t see Cricket’s face, but she felt he was smiling. A warm current flowed across her heart. She thought, What an incredible night! Tomorrow at dawn, however, he and she would each hurry off after their own tasks. There are some people who you know, without their having been in contact with you for very long, were already in your heart. Xiao Yuan liked to be in contact with strangers. She never made things out to be more shocking than they were.
“Are you always waiting?” Xiao Yuan asked him.
“No, I like to venture out on my own. People like me are always surrounded by all sorts of colors. I’ve never seen colors, naturally, except in my imagination.”
“Will you give me your hand?”
She felt the sound of the small drumbeat on his wrist. “I don’t want to let go of you.”
The train would reach the station in forty minutes. He said he was going to the bathroom and was gone.
Xiao Yuan only then noticed that he had no luggage.
It was raining in the city where she had arrived. The street scene was gray, dripping wet everywhere, the mist spreading through the cafés where a mass of heads bobbed to and fro endlessly. She quickly found the hotel where she had a reservation.
“Are you here on official business?” asked the elderly man signing her in at reception.
“I’m here looking for someone,” she said.
“Ha, that’s certainly a good reason to travel.”
Finally she sat at a table. The room with its enormous windows put her in a sanguine mood. She placed the small desk clock Wei Bo had given her on the table. The hand with which she lifted the clock would not stop shaking. She pressed her hands over her ears and immediately heard the beating of a drum. The drumbeat came again and again, filling the room. What was happening? She stood up and concentrated. Ha, it turned out to be someone knocking! That person was knocking neither fast nor slow.
“Who are you looking for?” Xiao Yuan put her head out at the door.
“I’m looking for my older brother,” the young man said, his head lowered. “He’s been missing for five days. Do you have any clues about him? I’m sorry, I know you arrived on the Number Eighty-seven train, so I followed you. My brother is blind, he has difficulties outside. I’ve been looking all over for him, I feel dizzy. You don’t mind my being here?”
“Please come inside, sit down, and explain slowly.”
“No, if you have no clues, I’ll go.”
“Does your brother live with your family?”
“He left home a long time ago to live independently. He was nearby, though, so we could always see him. No one imagined he would leave his hometown and travel far away. Besides, he didn’t take any luggage. Someone saw him living in someone else’s home, in some small, remote county. Is that possible?”
“Don’t worry too much. I think most people will like your brother. He’s a remarkable man! I just fell in love with him, for example. Yes, fell in love!”
“Is it true, Ms. Oh, you have eased my suffering! I love you, too! Let’s shake hands.”
He held Xiao Yuan’s hand tight, his hand as strong as his brother’s, but without the small drum pulse. Xiao Yuan followed him with her eyes as he left, stab after stab of pain in her heart.
She ran errands to several places across the city. Every place she went she would ask herself, Will I see Cricket? For those two days she seemed to have been traveling in a dream.
During the return journey on the train she finally gave way to despair. She lay there motionless, her thoughts frozen in place by a gigantic block of ice. In the middle of the night a man’s voice said from the radio, “The time is two-ten and twenty seconds.”