Autumn Night 秋夜

By Lu Ling 路翎

Translated by Kirk A. Denton [*]

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2023)

A young Lu Ling, circa 1940s.

When Zhang Boyao, a clerk for the county government, heard the county magistrate hold forth that morning on the merits and rewards of strenuous study, it dawned on him how very young he still was and something stirred inside him. Before lunch, paging through some “Secrets to the Success of Great Men,” he had a noble presentiment that provoked a plan of great passion. He borrowed a copy of Selections from the Classics and an Introduction to Accounting and took an abacus from the office; first he read “Military Counsel” by Master Zhuge Liang, then he read some accounting, practiced the abacus, and drew some charts—hard into the wee hours of the morning. He felt contented, full of yearning. There was no one around; a cold fall wind blew outside, and the indistinct sound of dogs barking could be heard in the distance. He listened intensely and felt that this was the most beautiful moment of his life.

“How nice to sit here reading quietly, I didn’t even notice the time!” he said, pushing aside the abacus in front of him and stretching.

“Now back to the grind!” he said with determination. He sat up straight and pulled the book toward him. “‘Tears are shed as I write this memorial, I know not what to say’ . . . Now look here on page two! ‘There are three kinds of vouchers: revenue vouchers, expense vouchers, and transfer vouchers. What must especially be noted here are the transfer vouchers, which act as the link between credit and debit,’” he read. He moistened his index finger with saliva and began drawing with his fingernail in the book. He raised his head from the book and began reciting, his eyes blinking; then he lowered his head again and recited with his head on the desk. It was even quieter than before.

“‘A scholar’s value lies in perseverance.’ Today I’ve accomplished something; from now on, I’ll refuse to join the others in the evening to drink tea and gossip,” he said. He stood up and paced back and forth contentedly. It was a low humid room sandwiched between two bathrooms. It cost him 500 a month to rent. His cousin, who was also a colleague at work, lived with his wife in the room next door. “It’s been four years already since the war against Japan broke out, since I turned my back on my hometown. How times flies! I’m twenty-four now, I really must rouse myself to achieve great things. Not like my cousin, who has bid adieu to any future because of his wife . . . How soundly they’re sleeping! . . . My life’s plan is divided into four steps. If I don’t get into university, I can still make a name for myself, and if I don’t get into accounting school, I can still become an accountant. . . . How soundly they’re sleeping! . . . ‘Oh, a stallion rides off, the west is cool, the frontier warm,’” he began to sing. “The second step is to become the head of the department . . . I must never look down on myself. The third step . . . the third step is marriage.” He walked over to the wall, moved his head closer to it, and listened for noises from next door. “How soundly they’re sleeping. These sorts of cool autumn nights are just right for . . .”

Gradually his thoughts began to drift. He imagined he had already married the county magistrate’s daughter and that she had brought with her a dowry of a hundred pounds of grain. Then he saw himself getting into a car to attend a meeting of the provincial government, the provincial chairman warmly shaking hands with him (bending at the waist, Zhang Boyao extended his hand and practiced shaking). When the war was finally won and Nanjing recovered, he would return to his hometown where he would be received with warm welcome and admiration. At this time, he would marry a second wife, a Suzhou girl, for Suzhou girls are so slender and loving.

“No, why do I need two, one is plenty enough,” he said to himself, laughing happily.

He paced back and forth, thinking of the glorious career ahead of him. Suddenly he stood completely still—listening to the sound of the wind and the flow of the river in the distance, he felt a kind of bleakness; he was confused and sensed that what he had been thinking about was not real. In the vastness all around him, he felt he was the only person alive in the world. Suddenly, he sensed his miserable and hoary old father standing behind him; he trembled for a moment but when he turned to look, his father was nowhere to be seen.

A great solemnity suffused him.

Unconsciously, he walked over to the door, opened it, and looked out into the hall. He stood there stupidly, straining in thought of something, listening to the sound of the wind in the deep of the night. He thought of his mother and how she would call him tenderly to eat; tears began to fall.

At this point, a rat ran down from the ceiling and crouched onto the frame above the door; it cocked its ears and looked at him with its suspicious dark eyes.

He looked at the rat.

“What gall the rats in Sichuan have! As rotten as men!” he thought. He shook the door and as the rat moved toward the outer edge, instinctively he closed it quickly and by chance caught the rat in the crack of the door.

He was filled with joy. With eagerness he took to the job of crushing the rat. He put pressure on it by closing the door; watching its squirming backside, listening to its cry, he felt happy. But he didn’t crush it to death; it continued to move and cry. That fine, sharp cry was the only sound in the vastness of the deep night. Carefully watching its trembling, blanching backside, he felt slightly terrified. His happiness and eagerness suddenly died out. He bolted the door and put a bench in front to hold it shut so as to keep the rat from escaping. He watched it attentively, becoming nervous and agitated, and his terror grew.

He fell into a state of nervous apprehension, as if he had encountered a terrible danger. Excitedly, he found a hammer and scissors, as well as a large nail.

“Sentence—execution!” he said with a laugh, obviously trying to rouse his enthusiasm, but the laugh only revealed his terror.

The sharp, struggling cry of the rat, its urgent trembling, its blanching body, and Zhang Boyao’s anxiety filled the deep and silent gloom with terror. And yet it was precisely this terror that he was using to rouse his determination and daring for butchery; in fact, he had already developed a profound disinterest, void of any real enthusiasm.

Carrying lamp, scissors, and hammer, he opened the door that led out to the corridor. Once in the corridor, his legs weakened and began to shake. Not the slightest human sound could be heard; the dark night was vast and endless; only this rat, this living thing, struggled before him.

He forced himself to raise the lamp.

He saw a live black thing hanging upside down from the crack in the door. He also saw two rolling black eyes, round and bright. The eyes were watching him.

He trembled for a moment, and the lamp fell to the floor. He escaped quickly back to his room. He found a match, but his hands quivered and for a long time he was unable to strike it. He felt completely alone in the world.

“This just won’t do. I am a tough guy,” he thought.

He lit a candle and went out into the corridor where he spun around in a circle, looking furtively about. He picked up the hammer, raised his head, and gazed at the rat.

The rat scratched and cried out.

He raised the hammer, closed his eyes, and began to strike it fiercely. Again and again, he knocked the rat’s head; it cried sharply and then was silent. He engaged in this terror-filled assault as if in a state of utter chaos. He had once heard someone say that rats often feign death—all told he struck it eight times.

Again, he raised the candle and shone it on the bleeding rat; its dark, protruding eyes were still watching him. He thought it hadn’t died so he struck it three more times.

He ran back to the room in a state of confusion; forgetting that he had placed a bench in front of the door, he couldn’t open it. When the door did finally open, the rat dropped to the floor. He quickly closed the door and jumped onto his bed where he covered his head with his sheets.

He sensed those bright protruding eyes still watching him.

“This won’t do. I’m sure to have nightmares tonight,” he thought, jumping up from the bed.

“‘There are three kinds of vouchers: revenue vouchers, expense vouchers, and transfer vouchers. What must especially be noted is that they act as the link between credit and debit’!” he read quickly with his head between his arms. “The ledger is also divided into three parts: general account, daily account, and detailed account . . . As for report forms and the like, in general, . . . In fact, the accounting work of the nation!’,” he raised his head, deep in thought, and once again saw that pair of horrible eyes.

“This won’t do, just won’t do!” he said. “‘Minister Zhuge Liang said: King Liu Bei’s enterprise was but half complete when he was struck dead in mid route; today the world is divided into three. . .’” He stopped, lost in thought. “My life’s plan is divided into a total of four steps: the first is to study accounting, read the classics, English . . . I won’t necessarily get into university, but I can still be a department head. ‘A scholar’s value lies in perseverance.’ I must strive to work hard. . . . The war is in its seventh year now, and I’ve been away from home for four; I’m twenty-four, born in the twelfth hour of July 8th. My younger sister was born in the second hour of May 20th. Cassia perfume, blood oranges, New Year’s supper, firecrackers. This won’t do, just won’t do! Why isn’t there a single human sound,” he said anxiously.

Suddenly he heard the rat cry out. The cry of rats gradually surrounded him: squeak, squeak, squeak! He doubted the rat had died and thought it had rallied its comrades to take revenge.

“Can a rat bite a man to death? Some people say that rats are poisonous; if not, how could the plague have happened? Ten, twenty rats could certainly bite a man to death!”

“There is a total of eighteen items on this transaction form. Nine plus two, carry the one. Three over four minus two, four over five minus one. . . . Maybe I’ll go drink tea tomorrow. . .  Four over five minus one!” he read aloud as he played with the abacus. “First, I must learn the abacus, then I can become an accountant. Nine plus two, carry the one. They’re crying out. What about thirty rats, they could bite a man to death!” He rocked the abacus for a moment, then despondently cradled his head in his arms.

“Cousin, cousin,” he stood up and shouted.

His cousin angrily pounded on the wall from the room next door. “What’s all the fuss about!”

He opened the side door and ran over to his cousin’s door.

“I have something to tell you,” he said excitedly.

“Really, hasn’t your diligence proved effective!” said his cousin.

He heard his cousin’s wife turn over, and he made a face.

“Come and see, I killed a rat!” he said cheering up.

September 15, 1944

[*] The story was first published in Hope 希望 1, no. 2 (1945): 185-86. It was then collected in In Search of Love and Other Stories 求愛和其他 (Shanghai: Haiyan, 1946). Lu Ling 路翎 (1923-94) was a member of the so-called “Hu Feng clique” (胡风集团), which was the target of a nationwide campaign in 1955. He was imprisoned for nearly twenty years. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis for his valuable suggestions for improving the translation.