By Hao Jingfang 郝景芳
Translated by Ursula D. Friedman
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2020)
He ventured cautiously through this strange twilight city. The sky was gray, the city gray. There was a peculiar feel to this city, the air swollen with an impending danger. The skyline was punctuated by a relentless succession of high-rises—the buildings’ rebar skeletons were gray, their glass flanks tinted gray. The gaps between the buildings were inked an impenetrable charcoal-gray. The sky was choked by a dense layer of low-hanging clouds, the skyscrapers’ invisible crowns swallowed by the ashen haze.
As he strode deeper into this city of shadows, he took stock of his surroundings, on constant guard against potential dangers lurking behind hidden street corners. His pace was slow and measured.
He did not know where he was. The last thing he remembered was blowing through a red light along Beijing’s Second Ring Road at two o’clock in the morning. A black Maserati had come flying out of nowhere, striking his vehicle full-on and flattening him into a corner of the driver’s seat. His car slammed into the guardrail, metal and glass debris piercing his flesh like a rain of bullets. . . . Later on, he vaguely recalled the bluish gleam of the lights in the operating room, and the IV bag in the hospital ward . . . and then . . . and then . . .
After regaining consciousness, he had found himself in this strange city, not knowing where he was, not knowing whether he was dead or alive.
He had once heard of a place called Death Row Island, where convicts sentenced to death were sent to await their fate. This way, they could be imprisoned without the faintest hope of survival, while satisfying the humanitarians’ insistence on a delayed execution. Death Row Island was a remote, frightful place, suffused in the clammy chill of the Gulag Archipelago. Could he have somehow ended up in this no-man’s land? After all, no one knew where this island was, much less whether it was an actual place.
As he traipsed along, the steady crunch of gravel under his boot soles reassured him that the ground beneath him was indeed real and solid. There were plenty of people out and about, but no one so much as spared him a glance. Most people moved at a quick clip, shrouded in icy hues, their faces obscured by dark hats and headscarves. He wanted to have a word with someone, but no one was inclined to stop and chat. He tried to hail a couple of passers-by, but they just kept on their hurried way.
His measured footsteps led him to a small hole-in-the-wall shop, which he took for one of those nondescript tobacco-and liquor-stores—perhaps a snack booth or corner store of sorts, he couldn’t quite tell. A faded handwritten sign hung at the shop’s entrance, empty save for the lone shopkeeper skulking behind the counter, which was tucked away in a shadowy corner at the back of the shop.
He entered the shop and looked the place up and down. The dusty shelves, snaking down from the ceiling like a cobweb of rope ladders, were stocked with small dust-covered curios. Still on his guard, he was hardly in the mood to investigate more closely. The shopkeeper, who looked to be in his late sixties, fixed his empty gaze on the doorway, not bothering to get up or greet his customer as he entered.
“Excuse me, sir . . .” The customer cleared his throat. “Could you possibly tell me . . .?”
The shopkeeper looked up at him, fixing him with toad-like eyes the size of saucers, sending an inadvertent shudder through his spine.
“. . . where we are?” He swallowed, and continued, “You might find my question abrupt, but I just got here, you see. I—I would be much obliged if you could kindly tell me the name of this place.”
When the shopkeeper finally spoke, his voice was unusually hoarse and muffled, as if these were the first words he had uttered in quite some time: “This place has no name.”
“I see . . .” He did a double-take. “Then which country or continent is this?”
“This is nowhere.”
The shopkeeper clambered to his feet: “Nowhere. No man’s land. This place doesn’t belong to any particular continent or country.”
“Then, could this be . . .” He gulped, mustering up the courage to ask the question that had been weighing on his mind, the question he hardly dared ask, “. . . Death Row Island?”
“Death Row Island?” The shopkeeper glanced up at him, his expression unchanged, and began to shuffle toward him. “What kind of place is that? I’ve never heard of it.”
“But this has got to be somewhere,” he insisted, and asked, “What about you—are you from around here?”
“No,” he shook his head. “No one is from these parts.”
“Then where are you from?”
“Then how did you get here?” he asked, his heart skipping a beat.
“The same way you did.”
“Actually, I haven’t got the faintest clue how I ended up here,” he admitted.
“In time, the answer will be revealed to you.”
The shopkeeper drew up beside him, bent over to grab an old horsetail whisk hanging by the wall, and began dusting the shelves with slow, methodical motions. He shambled along slowly, as if every footstep cost him an enormous effort. The whisk was gray, just like his sandals and sweater, and the sunlight filtering through the door bathed him in a luminous white halo.
“Do you know how we can get out of here?”
“Where is it that you want to go?”
“I dunno . . . maybe back to Beijing.”
The shopkeeper dusted the items one by one with extreme care, as if he feared that they would shatter at the slightest touch. The visitor trailed behind him, and saw to his surprise that the shelves were stocked with what seemed to be ordinary household cups and saucers, interspersed with a few decorative objects. Most were made of assembled metal parts, some rusted beyond recognition.
“Once you arrive here,” the shopkeeper informed him, “there is no turning back.”
“You cannot overcome what is insurmountable.”
“And what exactly is insurmountable?” he exclaimed, alarmed.
The shopkeeper paused in his motions, picked up an old pocket watch, the clock-hands frozen at two o’clock, and caressed it gently in his palm. After a long pause, he murmured,
“The kind of thing that teaches you remorse.”
“I—I don’t understand,” he weighed each word carefully, his eyes fixed on the shopkeeper’s hand.
“So much the better. May you never understand.”
He mulled over the shopkeeper’s words, sensing a hidden meaning, but what exactly it was, he could not say. The shopkeeper continued to dust the objects with the utmost patience. The blurry photos displayed on the worn packages were creased beyond recognition, and he discovered with a jolt that no sooner had the curios been dusted off than they accrued another thick layer of dust.
He realized that he would get nothing more out of the shopkeeper. He detested his way of speaking in evasive riddles. He still had so many questions he wanted to ask, but knew that this man would not give him straight answers. He decided to swallow his curiosity and take his leave once and for all.
Just as he was about to step back out onto the street, the shopkeeper suddenly spoke:
“Go and ask her, perhaps she will be able to give you the answers you seek.”
He stopped in his tracks.
“The woman in gray, the one with the teacup, who lives up there.”
“Up where, exactly?”
“Up in the sky.”
In the sky . . .
He could make neither head nor tail of that. “And how exactly do I find her?”
“You won’t find her. Just keep on walking, and she’ll find you.”
“But who is she?”
“She’s the only one who elected to stay here of her own volition.”
That was the last thing the shopkeeper said. Ask as he might, he received no further answers. Faced with an infuriating silence, he straightened up and headed for the door, turning to take one last look at the store. The shopkeeper sat in the corner facing the wall. He gently drummed his fingers along the body of the steel kettle he had been polishing, back hunched, seemingly lost in thought. After a while, a slight tremor came over him, and the creases on his face contracted.
The visitor found himself back out in the street, wandering aimlessly, not knowing where he was going, or what he might encounter ahead. For now, all he could do was to take things in stride, and attempt to deduce the facts based on his surroundings.
He wondered whether he had already crossed over the divide. At first, he suspected that this was indeed the world beyond, but as time went on, his undiminished physical capacities rendered that prospect less likely. He didn’t buy into all that mystical nonsense about the soul, the afterlife, or the supernatural—he was a firm believer in hard science, not imagined places like heaven or hell. In this world governed by scientific principles, built from concrete atoms and molecules, there was no place for any of that that wishy-washy supernatural nonesense. If he could still think and move, then how could he possibly be dead? Judging from the shopkeeper’s stoic expression, it didn’t seem likely that this was Death Row Island, either. But if he wasn’t on Death Row Island, then where on earth was he? He couldn’t imagine any place stranger or more difficult to pin down.
The deserted streets were a chilly gray, hardly a soul to be seen. The few passers-by he did encounter were all a blur; every once in a while, a shadowy figure emerged from a hidden alleyway, then sped off in the opposite direction, which gave him the willies. These figures seemed otherworldly and distant, their attire eerily refined and elegant, like a flock of ghostlike moths fluttering to and fro.
He mulled over the shopkeeper’s words. What exactly was insurmountable? He had experienced the most powerful political system on earth, and could not so much as shake its foundations, but he was certain of one thing, at least—there were bound to be cracks in the pillars. The matrix itself was not insurmountable. In his experience, the powers that be could be beaten—all you had to do was locate the Achilles’ heel and apply relentless pressure. These supposedly insurmountable government systems were all bogged down by sprawling, inefficient frameworks and could not possibly cover all of their bases. Yes, all he had to do was proceed with caution, find the chink in the armor, and that would lead him to the way out. . . . But who exactly was in charge here? And how could their authority be insurmountable?
He longed to return home, to escape this chilly, ominous place. He ventured forward cautiously, pondering over the strange woman the shopkeeper had mentioned, the one with the teacup . . . who could she be? As he strode along, he carefully surveyed his surroundings. He had to admit, the unearthly passers-by aside, these gaudy streets and shops, were not unlike those he remembered from back home. The familiar high-rises and wide streets, patches of flashy storefronts, each trying to outdo the other . . . he could have been back in Beijing, if it wasn’t for the fact that this place was nearly deserted. He imagined that the people he would encounter in this kind of place would be shrewd and meticulous, hellbent on protecting their own interests and well-versed in the legal avenues for doing so, ready to talk business anytime, anywhere.
A boy suddenly skidded around the corner right in front of him, a throng of policemen wielding batons in hot pursuit. He stepped forward to intervene, but by this time the escapee and his pursuers had already disappeared. He followed in their trail, and before long the police re-emerged in his field of vision, frog-marching the boy, their faces obscured by the jutting walls all around them.
He trailed behind the entourage, but the distance between them widened with each passing step. They seemed to gain momentum at every turn, galloping along at a wild pace, the detainee included. He turned a corner, and they once again disappeared from view. He saw them up ahead at the next intersection, but by the time he got there, huffing and puffing, not a soul was to be seen. He put his head down and sprinted flat-out, but there was no sign of anyone.
At an intersection not far ahead, he spotted a whole crowd of people. He pressed on and found himself at the fork of an even wider street flanked by towering buildings. The buildings were gargantuan—their proportions greater than any he had ever seen before. They shot up like a hulking fortress, and he saw that they were disproportionately constructed. The supporting columns, tipped at an incline, connected to spherical roofs; their spires, surrounded by iron fencing, pierced the sky like daggers. Long robotic arms swayed high above, dexterously forklifting a small pagoda, and gingerly transferring it over to another building.
People had begun to congregate on either side of the street, where a vehicular roadblock was stationed. Now people flooded into the center of the road, jostling each other for a closer view, and the trucks wove in and out to create a staggered formation, unleashing a net that filled the gaps between them. The crowd swarmed ahead, but no one made a sound. The armored vehicles were unmanned, darting back and forth of their own accord. He silently turned to stand at the back of the crowd, suspecting the road was being barricaded for some high-up official. He pressed forward with the surging crowd for a closer look, to see what kind of bad-ass figure was in charge here. He forced his way through the throng, inadvertently stepping on some toes and getting his own feet stomped on in return. Yet no one spoke. The whole place was eerily desolate.
Without warning, a formation of policemen stormed onto the scene, barreling in his direction. The onlookers scattered, fleeing at a tremendous pace. He trailed behind the retreating crowd, and once again found himself lagging behind. The police were quickly closing in on him. He ran for dear life, the cold air knifing through his lungs, until he thought he could not make it another step.
Suddenly, a strange idea occurred to him. What if he stopped in his tracks, turned around to face his pursuers, and allowed himself to be dragged away? He might be able to obtain some useful information, or at least find out who was in charge here. He slowed his pace, straining his ears for the sounds of his pursuers. He skidded to a halt, gasping for breath, and braced himself for what was to come.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned his head, and what he saw sent a shudder down his spine. This was no policeman, but rather an elegant woman wearing a long gray dress that accentuated her slender figure, a wide-brimmed hat perched on her silky raven-black locks. He didn’t know where she had come from, only that she was suddenly standing behind him, just as if she had been waiting there all along.
“Come with me,” she beckoned, the hat brim half-obscuring her exquisite face.
The policemen were still close on their heels and had nearly caught up with them.
“Where to?” He was frantic.
“Just follow me.”
She tugged at his sleeve, and without so much as glancing around, pulled him through a hidden revolving door. After nearly falling through headlong, he quickly scrambled to his feet and followed her down the long hallway at a dead sprint. They soon emerged through another revolving door at the other side of the building; she dashed ahead, her companion trailing on her heels. He was expecting to find another street, and was dumbfounded to find himself instead in an overgrown plot of land in the open country, empty save for a pile of rubble and a collapsed wall.
The street and high-rises had disappeared from view; only the fuzzy silhouette of a lone skyscraper remained. Pausing to scan his surroundings, he realized that the hallway and door they had passed through just a moment ago hovered in midair and were not attached to any particular structure. The revolving door continued to turn on its own like a pinwheel in the breeze, stirring up gusts of air behind them.
The woman waved at him from up ahead, urging him on. She vaulted onto a crumbling ledge, then leapt once more, landing gracefully on the top rung of a derelict iron staircase. He hastened over to the wall, discovering it was nearly ten feet high. He stared up at her in bewilderment.
“How do I get up there?”
“C’mon, give it a try. Just jump!”
He made a few valiant efforts. The first time, he nearly made it, but then lost his balance and tumbled back down. On his second attempt, to his great surprise, he cleared the ledge. With his next vault, he landed squarely on the iron staircase and climbed the last few rungs to the top, hand-over-hand. She continued to scale the wall, and he followed along behind her, alternately hopping and climbing his way up. She bounded effortlessly up the crumbling precipice, using tree branches and street lamps as handholds. Eventually the wall’s edges grew jagged and uneven, and she continued to ascend along the rough razor-thin edge. They were now engulfed in tufts of cloud. This solitary wall, once part of a skyscraper, now towered into the troposphere, thousands of feet above the earth. What law of physics enabled the lone wall face to stand erect unsupported?
When they had almost reached the top of the wall face, the slope suddenly shot up at a sheer ninety-degree angle. He discovered, looking up, a small one-room hut supported by a lone steel support beam at the end of the crumbling wall. The cottage’s walls were gray and cone-shaped, tilted upward like a gazebo. He squatted at the end of the steel beam, ensconced in the clouds.
The woman in gray leapt onto the landing in front of the cottage. He took one last look at the encircling clouds and bottomless earth below, closed his eyes, and jumped. He landed, bum first, on the hard granite platform.
The woman handed him a glass of water. He took a sip—it was water, not tea.
He looked around. The cottage had a cozy, homely feel, consisting of a simple room with just a bed and desk for furniture. The bed was neatly made, the white bedspread decorated with a gray floral pattern. The single window framed the gray clouds outside, distant dark gray hills rolling on as far as the eye could see.
“Who are you?” He pressed her.
She craned her neck out the window, looking outside, her figure slender and graceful. She turned to face him, her milky white chin peeking through, the hat brim obscuring her face.
“I’m the one who welcomes our new guests.”
“Where are we?”
“Where do you think we are?”
“Honestly, I have no idea.” He cast his mind around. “I’ve thought about it plenty, but nothing comes to mind. Besides Death Row Island, I can’t think of any place as creepy as this.”
“This place frightens you?” Her voice was soft and gentle.
“Did something you hear or see frighten you?”
“Everyone goes about their business without speaking, so I haven’t been able to hear anything in particular,” he admitted, and continued, “Everyone rushes around frantically, as if they were on some top-secret mission. The city is completely gray. People are immaculately dressed, but seem to be irritable and inhibited. The people in charge here abuse their privileges, and often clash with the masses. The rulers have enforced martial law, and deploy the police to suppress revolts. There must be some secret operation or suppression going on. The whole city is eerily silent, like everything’s happening in the dead of night.”
She gazed at him for a while.
He wanted to get a proper look at her face, but the brim was pulled down low, exposing only her shapely lips.
“You sound anxious,” she observed. “You have allowed your life to be dominated by one series of busy tasks after another. You hold a lot of stock in social rank. You resent the government, yet are seemingly obsessed by authority figures. You seem to have gotten yourself worked up about some conspiracy theory or other.”
She paused, “Let me guess—you’re from Beijing.”
“Uh-huh . . .” She had caught him off-guard. “That’s true, I am from Beijing. But this place. . .”
“The environment is a reflection of your inner state.”
She raised her hands, her slender, shapely fingers caressing the window frame. “Do you like it here?”
“Like it here?” His eyes followed the motions of her fingertips, hypnotized. “I dunno, I just got here. This place is okay, I guess, although it does weird me out a bit.”
“How would you like to stay here for good?”
“What do you mean?” He saw the corner of her mouth crinkled upward in a half-smile, as if she were egging him on. “What do you mean ‘stay here for good’? Would you like that?”
She laughed, turning back to lean out the window. He was enchanted by her sweeping neckline, the way her flowing, raven-black hair was swept off to the side, a few stray hairs lingering on her pale delicate shoulder. The contour of her back was slender and delicate. From the looks of her figure, she must have Venusian dimples, he thought to himself.
He was drawn to her by an animalistic magnetic force. He advanced toward her, his footfalls slow and heavy, panting with nervousness and excitement. Before he knew it, he had extended his hands, making to touch her hips and draw her toward him.
At first, she didn’t move, but right when he was about to touch her, she ducked to the right, nimbly gliding out of the way, floating over to the desk without so much as a stumble.
“Let me see your face,” He couldn’t help himself.
She leaned gingerly against the desk and picked up a small globe, her motions gentle and dainty.
“Let me tell you about this place first,” she still spoke softly, “How do you think you ended up here?”
“I really have no idea,” he replied. “Take off your hat and let me see your face.”
“What happened to you before you got here?”
“I was in a car accident. Then I had an operation, and lost consciousness . . . and then—and then . . . I really have no idea what happened next.”
He slowly advanced toward her, his eyes tracing the contour of her shapely lips. He decided to lift off her hat as soon as he got close enough to reach.
“Normally what would happen after a serious car accident?”
“You’d die, I suppose,” he said absent-mindedly.
He was now within arm’s reach, close enough to touch her. He could almost taste the sweet aroma of her smooth milky skin.
“Well, do you think you died in the accident?”
“Obviously not, otherwise how could I still be here talking to you?”
This was his chance. Palms sweating, but motions steady, he raised his right arm forward and deftly snatched off her wide-brimmed hat. Waves of luxurious raven-black hair cascaded down her elegant back.
“You’re wrong. The truth is, you’re already dead,” she informed him.
“Yanran!” He exclaimed.
It was really her. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he would meet Yanran, not to mention chat with her face-to-face in such close quarters. There could hardly be eight inches between the two of them. All he had to do was reach forward and grab her waist. In the past, he had only gazed at her from a distance—the closest he had ever gotten was a table’s length away. She was always surrounded by a gaggle of admirers, and he had never worked up the nerve to have a word with her.
“Did you hear what I said?” she asked.
“Yanran, how could you of all people have ended up here?” he demanded.
Her eyes were almond-shaped, eyelashes long and full. Some people said her nose was not straight enough, but he thought she was perfect. During class, she would always stare straight ahead, lost in thought, just like now, as if she had sunk into a deep trance. Her eyes were always so expressive, brimming with unsaid words.
She sighed softly: “I’m not Yanran.”
“You’re not?” He asked, unconvinced. “How could that possibly be? Did you really think I wouldn’t be able to recognize you?”
She didn’t answer. “Did you hear what I just said? You’re already dead.”
“AAAAAAH! Stop, you’re scaring me!” He put on his best frightened face. “Are you a fan of ghost stories?”
“Okay, fine, suppose I’m dead. Then who’s this person standing here?” He raised his hands and flexed his wrists, gesturing around at the room. “Let me guess—I’ve crossed over into the next life, and this is the prefectural seat of the Netherworld.”
“Then I’d like to ask you this,” She took one step to the side. “How do you think you were able to jump up here just now?”
“I’d like to ask you the same thing,” he retorted. He trailed closely behind her, “If I had to guess, I’d say you used some sort of gravity-defying device.”
She shook her head. “No. This is the world beyond life. Your world. Here, you can do as you please.”
He laughed with delight. “You mean, I can do whatever I want?”
“The environment is a reflection of your inner state.”
“Are you serious?” He was seized once again by an inexplicable brazenness. Normally, he wasn’t one to let his carnal impulses get the better of him, but he was certain that any man would conduct himself as he did if he found himself in this position. He slowly extended his hands toward her exquisite waist.
“If I can do as I please, you must know what I really want. If you really mean it, then prove it!”
His arms had encircled her waist at last, her impossibly delicate, supple waist. He lowered his head and moved in for a kiss, but he was thwarted once again. She slipped effortlessly out of his clutches and glided away, her body lithe and limber. She contorted her figure at an impossible angle and ducked beneath his arms, like a fish escaping a net.
“You aren’t ready yet.” She addressed him from the opposite side of the room.
“Ready for what?”
She deftly smoothed her rumpled skirt: “Ready to face the truth.”
His heart itched with desire. He wanted to hear what she had to say, but he was having trouble focusing. Just now, he had been so close…
“What truth?” He tried to collect himself. “Tell me everything, I’m listening.”
She shook her head, a somber, far-off expression on her face. “It’s not time yet,” she announced. “I’ll come back for you later.”
“Once you decide what matters most.” She stood by the window and glanced outside.
He crept to the entranceway. He wanted to block the door to prevent her from leaving.
But she didn’t come near the door. She gave him one last long, profound look, and then turned to leap out the window.
“Yanran, don’t do it!” He pleaded. He rushed to the window, searching frantically below for any last sign of her.
Yet below there was nothing but a vast expanse of gray clouds, rolling on as far as the eye could see.
He stood there staring off into space for quite some time, before opening the door and climbing hand-over-hand back down to the ground below. He retraced their original route, searching in vain for that hidden revolving door they had passed through on their way over there. He passed block after block of unfamiliar streetscapes.
As he walked, he mulled things over, attempting to regain his calm. Yanran’s graceful demeanor slowly faded from his mind’s eye, and little by little the hormone-induced bout of excitement wore off. The cold breeze whipped his face, and desire was replacement by shame and embarrassment. He had let himself get carried away just now. He gradually recalled the words she had spoken and played them over and over again in his mind. As he pondered, a bone-deep chill crept up his back.
You’re already dead.
He was dead.
He shuddered. That was impossible, completely out of the question. Even if he admitted that he had been seriously injured in the car crash, he was still not willing to accept the prospect of his own death. He had never felt more alive than he did now. He could clearly discern every detail of his surroundings—the coarse concrete walls, each weed and grain of dirt, his own dusty fingers and shoelaces. He was walking just fine, in control of his legs, feeling his feet rubbing against the heels of his boots. He kicked at some pebbles in the middle of the road and sent them flying. He could feel the cold wind knifing at his cheeks. His knees ached, and his stomache grumbled faintly.
Everything felt so real. He moved about freely and uninhibited. How could he possibly be dead?
He wandered aimlessly, breaking now and then into a quick clip. Every time he arrived at an intersection, he turned randomly onto another street and kept going. The streets were still empty, but not nearly as bleak and desolate as before. The shops gradually reappeared. He spotted a small bakery identified by an iron signboard. There was a small wooden table by the entrance. On the table sat a long wooden tray laden with an assortment of baked goods: croissants, baguettes, chocolate pies, seemingly all fresh out of the oven.
He looked around the bakery, stomach rumbling. The place was deserted. He called out to summon the shopkeeper, but there was no response. The tantalizing aroma of freshly baked pastries filled his nostrils, reminding him that he was famished. He couldn’t hold back. He picked up a croissant, still warm from the oven, telling himself he’d just pay the shopkeeper once he appeared. The baguette looked equally crispy and delectable. If only there were some foie gras to go with it. . . . He bent his head and was astonished to spot some foie gras in the straw-woven basket right in front of him. Delighted, he picked up a paper plate and plastic cutlery, selected a small can of foie gras, and settled into a wooden chair at one end of the table by the lawn. His mouth watering, he dug in.
He wolfed down the baguette, and before long his hunger was satiated. But it was so delicious that he soon craved more.
As he chewed, he ruminated over Yanran’s every word, searching for clues, leaving no leaf unturned. But he soon found his memory muddled, until he couldn’t even recall the gist of what she had told him. His body burned with longing for her. He missed her supple, slender waist, her exquisite swan’s neck, not knowing when he would next lay eyes on her.
Why had she asked him what mattered most? What did this have to do with the present situation?
“You, Yanran. You’re my one and only,” he imagined confessing to her the next time they met.
Maybe she wanted to test the waters, gauge the depth of his feelings for her. In that case, she would be hoping he’d confess his love for her. Wasn’t this, after all, what all women were dying to hear?
“Yanran, I’ve done some soul-searching. Honestly, it’s you I care for most. It’s been you all along. You’re my one and only!” He rehearsed aloud with the utmost seriousness.
Just then, he spotted a familiar figure in the intersection up ahead. She looked a lot like his girlfriend Xiaohui.
He scrambled to his feet and rushed over for a closer look, but no sooner had he turned the corner, than the street was deserted once more.
He wondered if he was imagining things. An inexplicable anxiety prickled over him. He turned in his tracks, and settled back at the wooden table to finish his lunch, but the pastries did not seem as appetizing as before.
He thought of Yanran, and then of Xiaohui. He and Xiaohui had been together for almost two years now. He wasn’t particularly smitten by her, but wasn’t exactly turned off by her, either.
She wasn’t bad-looking, just maybe a bit daft. Her figure wasn’t bad either, although she was a bit plump. In fact, he thought she would probably be marriage material. Xiaohui was head-over-heels in love with him, took his every word and judgment to heart. Those mind-numbing T.V. shows she was obsessed with—the Taiwanese talk-show “Here Comes Kangxi,” for instance, that got her all worked up night after night—they all bored him to tears.
They didn’t have very much in common—he was an agent for a broker company, and she worked for the Beijing Garden Bureau. She set a lot of stock by her regimented daily routines—mealtime, bedtime, manners, social etiquette . . . this nonsense started to get on his nerves after a while. But each time after he flared up at her or gave her the cold shoulder, she invariably submitted to his black moods and usually went along with whatever he said afterward.
He didn’t feel like thinking about Xiaohui just now. The prickly feeling still lingered in his gut, and every time he thought about her, sorrow and guilt settled over him. Could it be because of Yanran? Xiaohui had never triggered these sorts of emotions before.
This was his first time alone with Yanran. After he’d graduated and started working, he had experienced pangs of regret. They had been classmates for years, but he had never mustered up the courage to confess his feelings for her. He’d never had the chance—or, to be fair, maybe there had been opportunities, he had just passed them up. In his defense, he had been a bit clueless in his college years. He had never in his wildest dreams imagined that Yanran would have returned his feelings. But one night after watching the film You Are the Apple of My Eye, out of the blue, one of his classmates remarked that back in the day, he had actually made a pretty good impression on Yanran. This revelation churned up a whirlwind of complex feelings, sending him into a tailspin.
But what was Yanran doing here now? And why was she saying all those strange things?
You aren’t ready yet . . . aren’t ready to face the truth.
And why did she insist that he was dead?
If he leapt down from the cottage in the clouds, would he injure himself? Or would he be protected by some mysterious physics-defying force, just as when they had ascended? Yanran had looked so calm and nonchalant when she leapt from the window, as if the confidence she exuded shielded her from danger. If he channeled that same boldness, would he also land unscathed? Or could it be that Yanran was a bit soft in the head and had been talking nonsense? Had she committed suicide instead? His instincts told him otherwise. She seemed to know this place inside and out, so she was probably not just putting on a show of brazenness. But why would she be so at home here? None of it made any sense.
She had said that this was his world—his own world beyond the land of the living. How absurd, he thought—if she was right in saying that he could do whatever he pleased, then he should be able to topple that skyscraper on the horizon through sheer mind power.
Why did Yanran have to keep him guessing?
After he had eaten his fill, he stood up. Lost in his own thoughts, he had forgotten about paying the bill, and the shopkeeper had never showed up.
He kept on his way and turned at the intersection where he had spotted Xiaohui earlier. From a distance, he saw a gaggle of people, seemingly engaged in a heated debate. He was about to go over to investigate, when he realized something wasn’t quite right. He stopped in his tracks, his heart racing. He stared wildly about, searching for the source of his misgivings. A strange breeze blew through his hair.
He turned right, and finally saw what was wrong.
Off in the distance, the skyscraper he had willed into collapsing was swinging toward the ground like a pendulum, drooping like a candle wick, soundlessly, slowly but surely, falling . . . falling . . . falling . . .
He was stupefied, his mouth agape, the hairs on his neck standing on end.
He froze in place, not knowing what to do.
There was no denying it. The skyscraper on the distant horizon was careening toward the ground, disintegrating floor by floor, brick by brick. He recalled images of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11. But he had only ever seen that kind of thing on TV. The building had snapped at the middle like a wishbone, split at the seam, and was being stripped away floor by floor, shattered bricks and glass spilling out like exploded innards, shooting out every which way and disappearing into the ether. There was no dust to speak of, only white smoke that evaporated on the spot. His heart dropped like a stone, joining the endless rain of falling gravel, past the ground, past the shattered debris, deep, deep into a bottomless abyss. Little by little, the entire city was crumbling away into nothingness like an evaporating mirage. All around him, the buildings were dropping like matchsticks, collapsing one after the other like an endless chain of dominos, rippling through the city in all directions. Yet strangely, there was still no sound, as if he were watching a muted slow-motion video playback, every last detail crystal-clear. The rebar and concrete disintegrated, flew into the air and vanished without a trace.
He watched, transfixed, as his world folded like a deck of cards.
As if sleepwalking, he turned his head, and once again spotted Xiaohui up ahead.
That uneasy feeling returned. He was gripped by anxiety and fear, and was tempted to turn and run. Just as when the city collapsed before his eyes, his heart once again plunged into an icy abyss.
Instead, he stepped forward and called out to Xiaohui. She seemed not to have heard him. He watched as a throng of men in black engulfed her, as one of them dragged her away by the armpits. He couldn’t take it anymore and rushed to intervene. Xiaohui, dressed in a full-length red dress, tried to shake them off, but could not break their grip. The men in black nonchalantly dragged her away by the armpits to a parked car idling nearby.
Seized by fear and anxiety, he sprinted at maximum speed, but they were moving at a tremendous pace. He increased his stride length, crossing streets in just a couple steps. He leapt over a car in a single fluid motion, bounding through the city as fast as his jello-like legs would take him. He was seized by an inexpressible melancholy, and ran as if his life depended on it.
But by the time they had nearly reached the parked car, he still lagged far behind. He raced forward with all his might, and nearly caught up with them . . . but he was still one second too slow. Before he could so much as blink, they had already pushed Xiaohui inside the Maserati waiting nearby and peeled away from the curb.
He was seized by a bottomless anger, simmering with an indescribable fury. He was determined to catch up to that car, whatever it took. He accelerated, feeling an infinite energy coursing through him, as though he were driven forward by an indescribably powerful force. He pushed himself to run faster, faster . . . to will the Maserati bearing Xiaohui to stop . . .
He took huge strides, speeding up exponentially. He cursed at the vehicle, demanding it stop. At first, nothing happened, but after speeding through five blocks, the vehicle actually slowed down, as if it were skidding on ice, the wheels losing traction. Seeing this, his fury dissolved into delight, but he was moving so fast that it took him half a block to stop, steady himself, and turn around to face the Maserati.
He peered inside the car. No sign of Xiaohui.
He was dumbfounded. Just now, he had seen her forced inside the vehicle in broad daylight! They hadn’t stopped to let her out. Where could she be?
He didn’t know what to do. Fury and adrenaline mounted inside of him, reaching a fever pitch.
“Get out!” He ordered the driver.
The driver, busy trying to straighten the vehicle, ignored him. The Maserati continued to swerve along at a tremendous pace.
He dashed in front of the car, pushing it backward with all his might. The driver put the petal to the metal, revving the engine, but the man obstructing his bumper pushed back with every last ounce of strength. Sweat and blood flooded over him, his feet grinding against the pavement until he thought they might splinter under the weight of the vehicle, his muscles spasming uncontrollably, white-hot pain coursing through him . . .
But he had at last succeeded in shielding the Maserati. The driver could not budge an inch.
As he pushed, he realized with a sinking sensation that this really was his world. He really could do as he pleased.
He threw his whole body into his task. He couldn’t fail to see the pathetic irony in breaking his body to stop a moving car in a world built for him.
The car had frozen to a standstill. A few of the men in black hopped off, and encircled him, as if they were all gearing up for a fight. He stared right back at them, shielding off their glances. They were dressed to the nines—all wore tailored black suits, the creases in their trousers pressed and ironed, their collars starched, lying flat against their Adam’s apples. He wasn’t afraid of them—this was his world, after all. The men approached, making to grab him. He calmly rolled up his sleeves, reading himself for the fight.
Childhood memories bubbled to the surface. He recalled when he was bullied back in the second grade, and when he lost in a fight with a classmate in the fifth grade. And in the eighth grade, when he was robbed by some local riff-raff from the neighboring high school. When he tried to fight back, the other boys beat him black and blue, bloodying his face to a pulp. These memories all came flooding back, and he knew this was his one big chance to turn the tide. In the back of his mind, he knew this would be a pathetic display of bravado, but the blood had already rushed to his head, and his muscles popped, itching to have a go.
The gaggle of black-suited men rushed at him. Their stout ringleader threw his entire body into the first punch; it was all he could do to fend him off. The two cronies flanking him brandished two gold police batons with which they began hacking at him mercilessly. He swung his arms wildly to ward off their blows, searching for an opportunity to punch the ringleader in the gut. The man aimed straight for his head, but he dodged the blow and seized his upper arm, deftly twisting his shoulders around to chest-butt him, and then used a powerful arm-throw to hurl him away. The man crumpled into a brick wall, rebounded, and slumped down to the ground, motionless. The two men wielding batons continued their fierce onslaught, one of the blows catching him straight in the calf, causing a white-hot spasm to seize hold of him. Dazed, he saw stars, and almost lost his balance, but then his fury was reignited, and he zeroed in on a new point of counterattack. He threw in a chin-na joint-lock combat move, seizing his attacker’s wrist, and using acupressure techniques to deftly wrest the baton from him. He spun the baton in concentric circles as he leapt, wheeling and whirling toward the ground. His victim jumped back in alarm and ran for his life. His buddy also seemed uneasy, and after a few lackluster swings of the baton, he realized he could no longer hold his own against such a powerful opponent, and followed his companion in desperate retreat. The last potential attacker had been watching the battle unfold from beside the Maserati, not daring to advance. Now, seeing the turn events had taken, he decided to abandon ship and make a break for it. The three of them scurried toward a nearby building, and he followed in hot pursuit, still brandishing the baton.
They ran at breakneck speed, completely disregarding their carefully coiffed appearances, their artfully creased pantlegs riding up to expose their fleshy calves, sock cuffs in plain sight. He ran flat-out with colossal strides, an inexhaustible, electrified strength pulsing through his veins.
The fleeing men rushed into the building. He was almost upon them, but they scattered as soon as they entered the building. He was shocked to discover that the place was bustling with office workers going about their daily work, a far cry from the desolate streets outside. Two of the men squeezed through a break in the crowd, and disappeared from sight, and another sprinted through the magnificent chandelier-lit lobby and up the marble staircase, flanked with statues of angels. He followed the man up the staircase, jostling the crowd, sending a flurry of papers fluttering to the floor.
As he flew up the staircase, he realized that this could have been his own workplace, only it was much posher. The walls and high roof were gold-plated, embellished with plum blossoms inlaid with pure gold. Enormous crystal chandeliers hung in midair like twinkling flying saucers. The staircase looped around the chandelier, snaking up and up, and the pursuant and his victim ran tirelessly, one hell-bent on escaping, the other steadily closing the gap between them.
Hundreds of spirals later, they had nearly reached the apex. The corridors on both sides shrunk with every level they ascended, until only a couple of rooms were left on each floor. The men in black slipped into the last room on the top floor, and he followed them in. The room was quite spacious, the glass convex walls providing a panoramic view. In the room there was a large writing desk, with a throne-like velvet armchair behind it, on which a bald, corpulent man was seated. His stomach sagged and his neck hung with ripples of fat. Three thick gold rings glinted on his fleshy fingers. Two rows of black-clad sentinels stood at either end of the room, and the fleeing man took his place in the ranks. It was impossible to tell which one he was. The men in black stood, expressionless, their feet set wide apart, hands folded stoically in front of them.
He stood in the center of the room, and swept his eyes around, taking in every detail, from the dark wooden bookcases to the wine cabinet and enormous leather sofa off to the side, his heart burning with inextinguishable flames of rage.
The paunchy patriarch motioned imperceptibly, and the rows of men in black marched forward in unison, encircling him, pressing closer step by step. He sized up the terrain, and in one mighty leap, landed at a corner of the desk closest to the glass. The sentinels hesitated for a split-second, then followed, bypassing the desk and lining up in single-file.
He laughed. They were pathetic—a pathetic bunch of sheep. Loyal, sure, but stupid. He paused for another long moment.
All of a sudden, the glass wall panels on either side of the room shattered, and a fierce wind swept into the room, uprooting a patch of floorboards, and leaving a cavernous pit where the floor had been. The two rows of men in black were sucked away into the spinning gale, vanishing in an instant.
The room was very quiet and seem to have shrunk. He was left face-to-face with the paunchy man behind the desk. The files and handiwork were whisked away, fluttering to the floor in a shivering heap. He stepped out from a pocket on the leeward side of the gale, and walked to the center of the room, staring into the man’s flaccid, feeble face.
“Will you finally admit defeat now?” He sneered, addressing the man in the armchair.
The man did not respond.
He repeated the question. Still no answer.
He realized that Yanran and the shopkeeper were the only two in this world who had spoken to him.
“Did you hear what I just said?” He grew impatient. “Get up!”
The corpulent man didn’t move. He strode over and grabbed him by the collar. The man struggled a bit, but his eyes were glazed over and soon gave off an air of defeat. He slapped him in the face, unleashing the years of pent-up anger he harbored toward his own boss. He smacked him a few more times, but the man did not put up a fight. After a while, he lost interest, so he raised his arm, and with one fell swoop, picked him up and threw him out the window.
Satisfied, he settled into the vacant velvet throne. Outside, the wind was still roaring.
He reached for a sturdy pen container on the table and absently fiddled with it. But before he could properly savor his victory, a voice suddenly spoke out from behind him.
“Now are you ready to face the truth?”
It was a pleasant, familiar female voice. Electrified, he turned his head to face her as she emerged from behind the bookshelf.
“Yanran! What a surprise!” He couldn’t help but cry out. “I thought I would never see you again.”
She still wore that same well-fitting long gray dress, her long hair hanging like curtains and framing her exquisite face. She approached him ever so slowly.
“You came at just the right moment.” He laughed in elation, gesturing around at the room, “You see all this? This is all mine now. Now all that’s missing is you.”
She continued to question him. “Now have you come to terms with your death?”
His smile faded, and his expression turned sour. The word death made his stomach turn.
“Come, sit here,” He patted the spot beside him, shifting over to make room for her. But she still stood a good three feet from the desk and didn’t budge.
“I guess so.” He had no choice. He considered for a moment. “But then again, not really. It’s hard to accept death. But I do admit that you were right—in this world, I can do as I please.”
She nodded. “Everyone goes through the same process.”
“The process of forgetting and letting go.”
“All right, all right, fine—as you wish, I’m d—dead.” He found the word didn’t sit well with him. “Tell me then, how is it that I’m still walking around, experiencing emotions?”
“The death of the body happens in the blink of an eye, but feelings do not disappear immediately. Thoughts can continue circulating for a long, long time even after your brainwaves stop. Even if these thoughts are completely severed from neural pathways, imagination can sustain them for quite some time afterward.
“So all of this is only happening in my imagination?”
She nodded slightly. “The imagination continues after death,” she explained, “The recently departed constructs a fantasy world by mobilizing their authentic, subconscious desires.”
“Are you sure I’m really dead? It’s not just a coma?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said gently.
“But—.” He wanted to stand up to face her properly, but found he suddenly lacked the strength to do so. “If I’m already dead, then who could possibly have imagined all of this?”
She nodded, seemingly in agreement.
“That’s a very good question indeed,” she admitted.
He didn’t say anything. She slowly traversed the room, sliding her hand across the polished surface of the wooden desk.
“The environment is a reflection of your inner state,” she explained. “People say that dreams are born from the heart, but they never seem to pursue that line of reasoning. Actually, everything people see when they are awake is also born from the heart. The world after death is the same way. Everything you see, everything you feel, all wells up from the unknown ocean inside of you.” From across the desk, she looked straight into his eyes. “But you must know that better than I.”
He said nothing. The eerie atmosphere in the room sent shivers down his spine, making him tense up. The surrounding floor dropped a few stories, and with it the leather sofa. Only the writing desk, bookcase, and a small patch of floor were left.
She lowered her gaze once more. “You asked me earlier who is imagining all of this. I don’t know if you’ll be able to make sense of my answer.”
She fell silent for a moment, as if she were searching for the right words.
“Have you ever heard of the term ‘energy force-field’? As you know, life bears energy, but this energy force-field alone is but a razor-thin slice when situated in the vast timescale of the universe. But remember that a human life contains both energy and time. Now consider the temporal force-field. When we transpose life-energy onto its temporal force-field, it gains substance. That is to say, a single human lifespan both contains and transcends time. However, when stripped of its temporal component, this energy field is rendered insignificant. Time and energy are inversely proportional to each other. Time can be converted into energy, and vice-versa.” Again she paused. “And these two inverse force-fields are what we call life and death.”
At first, he couldn’t quite follow her meaning. But that last sentence sent a jolt rippling through him. He didn’t know what to say. Her explanation lay beyond his scope of comprehension.
“Um—,” he hesitated. “Do you mean that people never really die?”
She fell silent again, seemingly struck by his phrasing. Her gaze wandered to the corner of the room. She seemed to be pondering something. She picked up the miniature golden horse statue on the desk and pensively weighed it in her hand. After a while, she looked up at him and slowly nodded.
“Yes, you could say that life never ends. Life unfolds in a particular space in its own way, and then enters another space. Back and forth, coming and going, over and over again.”
He gulped. “Are you talking about reincarnation?”
She nodded gently. “That’s right. Each birth, each death, each journey out, each journey back—all woven together in an endless cycle of life and death.”
Seeing that her words had put him into a daze, she smiled faintly and continued, “You may not believe it. You may even think it’s impossible. But why do you think Buddhism talks about reincarnation? Why does Hinduism say that man is the window through which the God of Eternity filters His eternal light? Why did Plato talk about anamnesis, the idea that humans are born with an innate knowledge which they must rediscover through learning? And why is artificial intelligence doomed to fail?”
He shook his head.
“Every person born into this world is an iteration of an eternal existence. Each new life is a vessel infused with eternity. The memory of the previous life is gone, but an echo of its thoughts and actions are still there, seething beneath the surface. When children learn, they are simply reawakening these prior propensities. Artificial intelligence will never be able to learn this astonishingly simple principle.”
This all sounded quite abstruse. He found it difficult to follow her train of thought. Now that he had stopped to think about it, what she said was hardly earth-shattering. In fact, she might have been blowing things out of proportion, making this sound a lot more mystifying than it really was. Although judging from the present state of things, he had to admit that what she said was probably true, but he still didn’t want to hear it. Deeply philosophical matters had never sat well with him. He took an innate disliking to the term “energy force-field.” He gazed at Yanran, making one last-ditch attempt to follow what she had said, but found that he could not.
All he knew was that he was still sitting here, in an extremely comfortable high-backed armchair fit for an emperor. That was enough.
The wind originating high in the sky rustled by his feet, and the papers on the writing desk were whisked away, vanishing one by one.
“Everything you say is all so profound. I can’t follow you,” he admitted, and then reached out to her, “Anyway, I’m doing pretty well in this world, aren’t I? I’ve grown to like it here. Come sit.” He patted the spot beside him, and added, “Come, Yanran, let’s talk about something else.”
Yanran did not move.
“So you like the way things are?”
“Yeah, everything is splendid. Look at all of this. You have to admit, it’s pretty swell.”
“So you don’t want to go back to the human world?”
“Go back? What would I want to go back for?”
He smiled, cocked his head, and gave her a long look. Her exquisite figure, perched in the center of the room, melted his heart. He wanted nothing more than to go over and embrace her, but this time, something stopped him, something kept him glued to the armchair.
Behind him, the last corner of glass-paned wall in the room shattered, leaving nothing but bare floorboards. Outside, the wind roared.
He gestured all around him: “This place is growing on me. This is my world, and I like it here. I don’t understand why other people would want to go back.”
She looked at him, her long, raven-black hair whipping in the wind obscuring her expression. “When it’s all said and done, the vast majority of people decide to return.”
“Everyone has their own reason.”
“But you’re still here,” he pointed out.
“True,” she nodded.
“That means,” he smiled, “You and I could stay here together, in this world. We could do as
we pleased, for ever and ever. What’d be wrong with that?”
She wasn’t smiling anymore, but she didn’t look angry, either. She just shook her head, and said, “You’re not speaking from the heart.”
This was his chance. He wanted to get up, go over and confess his love for her, sweet-talk her into believing him. But he found he just couldn’t do it. An inexplicable force kept him glued to the armchair. Her words had unhinged something deep inside him. Resent it as he might, there was no denying the strange reluctance bubbling up from the hidden recesses of his heart.
“Actually . . .” he began.
No sooner had he spoken, than the ground shook beneath his feet. It was if he were riding a rollercoaster. The desk in front of him quaked violently, and the objects perched on top slid to the floor. He was rocked back in forth in the armchair, oscillating from side to side. The ground had begun to cave in, and a great crack fanned out from the center of the room, spreading every which way. The cracked floor fell away piece by piece, until only one small board in the center was left.
But Yanran hadn’t moved. She stood in the same place as before, still as a blade of grass on a windless day.
One split second later, he felt himself falling. He was sucked into the vortex, along with the floor, the desk, and the armchair, plummeting toward a bottomless abyss. He saw the boundless gray sky, the oppressive low-hanging clouds, the remains of the distant city. The high-rises were collapsing one by one, the city reduced to debris and rubble. His building was the last. The center of this world. All around him, reinforced concrete thudded down like rain, shattering into a million sharp-edged thorns. Desolate strands of grass peeped through the cracks. He was falling, falling . . . the wind whistling beneath his feet.
As the ground rose to meet him, the landscape around him transformed rapidly. The silhouettes of the stretches of high-rises dissolved into fuzzily outlined stone clusters, their jagged edges washed away. The city was reduced to an array of rough-hewn gray boulders dotted with primitive caves. Nothing but layer upon layer of squarish geometric shapes, like a bunch of Legos stacked on top of each other. His world was transfigured into an expanse of bottomless gray. The new buildings had only rough-hewn square windows for decoration. It was a coarse, primitive wasteland.
He hurtled toward the ground, plunging deeper and deeper into what seemed to be a bottomless ravine, or a cave-like abyss.
He looked around. His line of sight was broken by some sort of cliff or looming wall, he couldn’t tell which. A thin stream of water trickled down the stone face. The next instant, he had fallen with a thud onto a stretch of gravelly soil. Emerald-green grass sprouted from the chinks in the nearby stones.
He was dizzy from the fall, and it took a long while to recalibrate. He looked around, and spotted what seemed to be Xiaohui’s silhouette at the mouth of the cave. Her expression was melancholic, and she was still wearing that same form-fitting red dress. She gripped the hemline in both hands to keep it from dragging. He felt another spasm of pain and pity. He wanted to stand up, but his limbs were like jello. The next thing he knew, Xiaohui had disappeared from sight. He struggled to raise himself into a sitting position. He sat there on the cold gray ground, rubbing his temples.
After a while, he discovered that Yanran was there too, perched on a stone by the stream.
The cave was suffused in a faint gleam. The half-light accentuated her beauty. She sat in silence, calm and composed as ever, her profile lit by the dim glow. The soft light threw the fine lines around her nose into sharp relief. But for some reason, she seemed different, changed somehow.
“It seems,” she began, “that you don’t want to go back for the time being. I’ll be going, then, and return once you’ve made up your mind.”
Her voice seemed especially ethereal and unrestrained in the echo of the cave. She stood up and walked toward the shadowed depths of the cave.
“Wait—Don’t go!” He stood up and called after her.
She stopped in her tracks and turned around. “What is it?”
“I still have one last question. It’s just that—.” He searched for a reason to make her stay. He didn’t want to be stuck here alone in this dreary cave, gripped by fear and loneliness. But once again something stopped him. He seemed to have lost that swooping sensation he had felt when he first laid eyes on her. He fished for something to say. “I was just wondering, will this world always be like this?”
“Of course not. In time, your memory will fade, your previous way of thinking will gradually diminish, and you’ll adapt to your new state of being.”
“What kind of state?”
“You’ll lose all weight and energy in the physical world, but will be able to ride the winds of time, and ultimately transcend time itself.”
“That’s difficult to imagine,” he admitted.
“Relinquish your grasp on the material world, and you’ll see it. The process may be a bit chaotic, but in the end, you’ll find yourself floating tranquilly on the currents of time.” Those last couple sentences lingered in the air, as if her voice were being transmitted from afar. She spoke in a calm, flat tone, without a shred of emotion. He suddenly realized that the gentle charm and sensual elegance in her mannerisms were gone, replaced by an impenetrable calm. Had she changed, or had he?
She advanced a few steps, then changed her mind and turned back, adding, “But you’ll probably never experience all of that. Once you decide to go back to the human world, I’ll come back for you.”
He was astonished. “Why do you say that?”
“Because you have not yet broken free from your earthly fetters.”
Having said this, she turned and continued toward the shadowed depths of the cave, the hem of her gray dress dragging on the ground without gathering dust.
“Wait!” He called out once again. She turned around.
“Then why don’t you go back yourself?” He asked.
“The reason is quite simple—so simple it would bore you. Do you really want to know why?” She smiled, and continued, “The truth is—I once had an epiphany.” She paused. “One year during the Chinese New Year holiday, I was watching someone setting off firecrackers from the tranquility of my room. There was a loud racket outside, but inside the house was quiet and still. In this moment, I realized that I was no longer one for this world. I had been freed from my earthly fetters.”
“But . . . but how can you know something like that?”
“You just know.”
“Then how do you know I’m still bound to the mortal world?”
He discovered for the first time that her smile was tinged with sadness.
“There are still memories you don’t dare face. There’s a corner of your heart you’re afraid to explore.”
At that, she turned and left, disappearing into the depths of the cave. Her graceful figure faded from view. Without knowing why, he had a feeling that this would be the last time he ever saw her. His heart ached.
He sat there on the cave floor, picked up a small stone, and pensively weighed it in his palm. Waves of pain crashed over him.
Should he stay or should he go back?
Why would anyone want to go back to that world?
That world of pain and suffering.
Looking back, he saw Xiaohui once again standing at the entrance to the cave. His heart was burning with flames of pain and remorse, though he couldn’t pinpoint the source of his anguish. He walked toward Xiaohui, who quaked like a leaf in the wind. The moonlight outside the cave set her face aglow. She wore a desolate, longing expression, as if there was something she was dying to say. From up-close, he realized that Xiaohui’s dress wasn’t made of red fabric at all; it had been stained red with blood.
Alarmed, he ran the last few steps toward her, but Xiaohui had already turned and fled. He chased after her, but she had vanished into the night.
He stepped out of the cave and into the open country. No buildings, no trees, no streetlights, no signs of people. He didn’t know what this expansive of wilderness was doing here in his heart. He ran in one direction, not knowing what he would encounter up ahead. He searched desperately for Xiaohui. His nerves were on edge, and it seemed that something ominous was about to happen. Maybe it already had.
He ran and ran, hurtling through the darkness. The endless night was closing in on him.
He came to a lake, the surface whipped by the whistling wind. There were stones and rockeries by the water, weeping willows and shrubberies, wooden benches and students enjoying the shade. Suddenly, the wind was quiet, and his heart grew tranquil. An indescribable sweetness and contentment filled his heart. He slowed his stride, ambling along at a leisurely pace. He walked and walked . . . suddenly Xiaohui emerged from a side road, and tugged urgently at his sleeve.
“I’m back, I’m back!” She panted.
“Xiaohui!” Delight seeped through him. Where did you go just now? You had me worried!”
Xiaohui wore a long beige dress, wearing her hair pulled back in two silly little pigtails, like a schoolgirl. She tugged at his arm, twisting it back and forth.
“Why are you acting so weird today? I can’t stand it!”
“How am I acting weird?” He suddenly felt like laughing. “I haven’t done anything.”
“Why’re you saying you didn’t do anything?” She pinched him in the arm. “You’re bad!”
“Xiaohui, where did you go just now? I was really scared!”
But she seemed to have spotted something. She bounded ahead, calling over her shoulder: “I wanna eat some watermelon! Quick, over here!”
The road forked, and she took the path to the left. He kept up with her this time.
But after turning past a rockery, she once again disappeared from view.
He chased her, but he knew nothing would come of it. Like each time before, once she had disappeared, he wouldn’t be able to find her again. But running felt good. His anxiety had reached a fever pitch. This time, he could almost locate the source of his uneasiness, but it flitted away like a shadow lurking just behind him, a stone’s throw away. His uneasiness followed him like an invisible fox, inescapable, out of reach. Running eased his anxiety considerably, and masked other deeper negative emotions—pain, fear, and remorse.
He suddenly skidded to a halt. He came to a street. He couldn’t remember where this was, but the lights twinkling around him made him feel at home. The street was lined with a row of small shops, their neon lights winking at him in the night. In the window of one of the shops, hung a long wedding dress, the lace and feather-trimmed skirt swaying slightly. The dummy struck a graceful, alluring pose. The shop next door specialized in wedding photos. The enormous wedding album in the shop-window was propped half-open, showing a photo of a bride and groom posing against a luxurious snow-white sandy beach, framed by a magnificent jade sea and azure sky. The water was so clear you could see straight down to the ocean floor. The bride’s smile was bright enough to illuminate an entire valley. Next to the wedding photo shop was a household goods store, marked by a “Welcome” sign decorated with a fancy bluebird pattern. The shelves displayed cheerfully colored coffee mugs and candle-holders, and an apron patterned with pink pigs swayed in the window display.
As he walked, he heard a voice calling out to him.
“Over here, over here!” She squealed with delight. “Look at this! It’s soooo cute!”
He leaned over to take a look. It was a miniature frying pan, about the size of a palm, the kind you used to fry eggs. Upon closer inspection, he saw that the base of the pan was heart-shaped. Xiaohui pressed her head against the glass, pointing excitedly at the pan. She wore a loose flower printed blouse that made her look matronly. He didn’t especially like it, but he remembered her saying that this top had a slimming effect.
He actually found the frying pan amusing, but opted for a prickly retort instead:
“What’s the point of buying such a useless thing?”
“It’s so cuuute! I can use it to make you little heart-shaped omelets for breakfast.”
“How much is it?”
“Just seventy-eight kuai. Pretty cheap, don’tcha think?” She chirped happily.
“Seventy-eight kuai! You call that cheap? I’m not about to waste that much money on this useless piece of shit. Let’s go, I don’t even like omelets.” He dragged Xiaohui away from the display.
“C’mon, wait a sec!” Xiaohui was reluctant to turn away. “I wanna go in and take a look.”
To tell the truth, he also wanted to have a look around, but his feet were glued in place.
“We don’t even have our own place together, what’s the point of accumulating all this house stuff? C’mon, let’s go.”
He didn’t know why he said these things.
“You don’t want to get our own place together someday?”
Xiaohui stood forlornly on the steps of the boutique, her animated expression melting into one of bitter disappointment.
“It won’t hurt just to have a look around.”
She turned to open the door and entered the warm-lit shop. He stared sadly at her retreating back, and felt he was doomed to lose her over and over again. Sure enough, once he had caught up with her, and ducked into the shop, she had already vanished. All he could see were the shop attendants busying themselves among the shelves.
He stepped back out onto the street. He had a splitting headache, but he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t know what exactly he was looking for, or where he should go to look for it. All he knew was that he just had to keep on looking. He massaged his forehead, and sat down dejectedly on the sidewalk. His sense of loss mushroomed into full-fledged despair.
When he raised his head, he suddenly spotted Xiaohui standing in the street.
She was standing there in the middle of the road, covered in blood. Cars from both directions drove over her, leaving wheel track marks on her skin and clothes. But she just stood there, motionless, her clothes torn, her exposed skin covered in blood. The blood pooled from her body, but her expression was calm and peaceful.
He started to walk toward her, but the humming traffic prevented him from getting any closer.
“Love is a spark from nowhere, but once ignited, it can never be extinguished.” She chanted softly.
His despair reached the breaking point. Her life was in danger, and he wanted to save her. Even if it was impossible, he still wanted to give it a try, to put his life on the line for her. He zeroed in on a gap in the cars, and when the traffic on his side of the road had lessened, he bolted across the road toward her. She stood motionless. The whooshing of the cars ruffled her torn clothing.
He saw a car rushing toward her weaving in and out of traffic. The driver was all over the road. He couldn’t stand it. His heart burned with rage. He screamed “Watch out!” and launched himself in front of Xiaohui, trying to push her out of the way. He leapt with all his strength, sweeping her up into the air, shielding her body from danger. He wanted to carry her to safety. They successfully avoided the first car, but not the next one. The two of them were sent flying by the car coming from behind and rolled back down to the pavement. He hugged Xiaohui and fell into a coma.
Upon waking, Xiaohui was still in his arms. He had her pinned beneath him. Her eyes were closed, and she was biting her lip.
“It hurts! It hurts!” She screamed in agony.
“Are you in a lot of pain?” He asked.
Beads of sweat had accumulated on the tip of her nose, and the towel she clung too was already dripping with blood. Her eyes were half-closed, her brow furrowed. A gentle tremor shook her frail body.
He could tell that she was in a lot of pain, but after a while, she said, “I’m ok. It hurts a lot less now.”
He hugged her, pressing his lips to her neck. But her body had grown oddly cold.
He felt like sobbing, but the tears did not come. He remembered her expression when she said she didn’t want to, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what she had looked like when she’d said she was willing.
He imagined himself in her arms, and nearly fell back into the darkness of deep sleep. There was nothing there, nothing but her blood-soaked body lying in the middle of the road, and her last words.
Love is a spark from nowhere, but once ignited, it can never be extinguished.
When he woke up, he was lying on his bed in his dorm room. He had lived here for the first two years working for the broker company. His roommate was playing Dota, locked in intense concentration, the frames of his large glasses nearly touching the TV screen. Yawning, he tousled his sleep-mussed hair.
“Have you seen Xiaohui?” he asked his roommate.
“Yeah, she took your clothes to the laundry room.”
His roommate was engrossed in his video game and didn’t bother turning his head to look at him.
“Was I asleep a long time?” He asked.
“Yup.” His roommate paused. “You’re really lucky to have a girlfriend who does your laundry for you,” he sighed jealously.
He was secretly very pleased, but he didn’t know why he answered cheekily, “Nonsense, what else are girlfriends for?”
Still groggy, he went to the laundry room to look for Xiaohui. But maybe on account of his oversleeping, he felt light-headed and his steps were unsteady. He stepped out of the dormitory, walked down the dark hallway to the laundry room.
The hallway seemed endless. How come he hadn’t yet reached the laundry room? He walked along the corridor, but it seemed like an endless tunnel—entirely devoid of light, save for the faint glimmer on the other side. The doors to all the rooms he passed were bolted shut, and no one called out to him or welcomed him inside.
He never found the laundry room. But once he reached the other end of the hallway, he came to a restaurant.
He pushed open the restaurant door. In a chair beside an ordinary wooden table, Xiaohui sat beckoning to him.
He walked over to where she was sitting, pulled a chair back from the table and sat down. He stared at the deathly pale plates, at the razor-sharp knives and forks. The fork seemed to be lodged in his heart. He took a long, deep breath, raised his head, and drained the red wine from his glass.
“On this visit,” Xiaohui broke the silence, “Mom might bring up the subject of betrothal money. That’s just a custom we have where I come from. Country people spend all their time trying to keep up with the Joneses. Mom has her heart set on getting a hundred thousand. But you don’t have to worry. Just promise her for now, and when the day comes, we’ll find a way out together.”
“Do we have to talk about this right now?” he heard himself ask.
“We’ll have to cross that bridge eventually. It doesn’t hurt to plan for these kinds of things.”
“Let’s talk about it later. It’s still too soon to be thinking about all this.” His voice grew impatient.
As they chatted, he texted the class whizz, the guy who knew everybody, asking him for Yanran’s number.
“What do you mean?” Xiaohui demanded. Her face fell. “Hey—what’re you doing?”
“Nothing.” He quickly switched off the display on his phone and slipped it back into his pocket.
Xiaohui was rambling on and on, but he found that he couldn’t concentrate. Despair threatened to engulf him once more. He didn’t know what he was doing sitting there, much less whether that was actually his real self.
Nothing to do but drown his despair in booze. He downed glass after glass of wine, and slumped onto the table, absolutely shit-faced.
When he came to, the table had been replaced by a rough-hewn boulder. The place across from him was empty. He had a splitting headache. His head was spinning, as if he were lost in the clouds. He managed to stand up, the ground rocking beneath him, his body swaying back and forth. He stepped forward and discovered a stream trickling down the nearby wall. He rushed over to scoop the fresh spring water into his mouth. He was parched after all that wine! At this point, he suddenly found himself back where he had started, alone in the empty cave.
Shocked, he scrambled to his feet and looked around. It was as if he had never left.
His heart was beating wildly, and he flew into a panic. This was all beyond his control. He knew what he was about to see.
He whipped around, and looked expectantly in the direction of the cave mouth.
Sure enough, there was Xiaohui, standing right there in front of him.
She wore that same blood-stained red dress, and her expression was melancholy. He walked over to her. Slowly, she peeled off her dress, exposing her underwear and the blurry outline of her belly, her intestines exposed. His heart nearly leapt out of his chest. He almost didn’t dare look back at her.
Suddenly, Xiaohui mustered a faint smile.
He wanted to rush over and embrace her, but didn’t dare advance any further. He despised his own cowardice, but he found he didn’t have the heart to face her. She hovered there, mangled and mutilated, her clothes hanging from her arms. Her intestines spilled out from the gaping cavity in her chest and onto the blood-stained ground. There were tears in her eyes, but they did not fall. The corner of her mouth was still turned up in a half-smile—a bleak, forced smile. Her face was twisted by that sad shadow of a smile. But he thought she was beautiful. She didn’t seem to feel the pain. She just stood there without moving, staring deep into his eyes. Then, she reached into her chest. For a moment, he thought that she was going to rip out her heart and hand it to him. Yet instead, one by one, she fished out the bloody fragments of a heart shattered into a million pieces. He watched the trail of blood cascading down her outstretched hands and onto the ground.
He was gripped by a terrible fear and pain. Waves of nausea threatened to engulf him, but something kept him moving toward her.
At last, it came to him. He recalled what had happened on the morning of the accident. She leaned on his thighs as they cruised along the highway. At first, she hadn’t wanted to, but he persuaded her. Distracted, he ran a red light, and when the Maserati rammed into his vehicle, the impact thrust her into the air. She instinctively arched her head to see out the window, which caused her to absorb the brunt of the hit. Shards of glass and metal from the guardrail cut straight into her chest like a hail of daggers unleashed on their target.
She dug her hands out from her ruptured chest and reeled backwards in slow-motion. He rushed forward and clasped her to him, screaming her name, but she didn’t respond, and little by little her body stiffened and grew cold. He embraced her, sobbing, his tears trickling down her neck and into the open gash in her chest. Her body diminished in his embrace, pulse weakening and silhouette fading with each passing moment, becoming limp and light as air, before melting away into the night. He clutched at the void between his arms, sobbing silently.
He shouted her name into the empty cave, but only his own echo answered.
The water trickled down the distant mountainside—drip, drip, drip, chiming through the blackness.
Then it happened. It was an out-of-body experience. Everything vanished—the cave . . . the ground . . . the light . . . all of it. He felt himself hovering above the scene. His arms grew fainter, his silhouette dissolving into the surrounding darkness. His body became feather-light, transparent as a veil. He was acutely aware of everything surrounding him, the universe, and the distant stars. And then, even the stars vanished, and he was engulfed in nothingness.
Just then, his life flashed before his eyes. His memories were refracted into a series of still-life images, from a downy-headed infant to a frail boy, slender as a bamboo reed, fast-forward to his present-day self—hairline receding and belly bulging. All at once, he saw thousands upon thousands of images of himself frozen in the river of time, like so many stones strewn across the distant earth. In that moment, he saw time itself, perceived the tracks carved by each passing year.
Sometime later, a dazzling ray of light greeted his eyes, and he saw a gray skirt billowing in the darkness before him.
He looked up. A graceful figure backlit by a white halo of light flitted down from the sky. Her outline was blurred, blending into the interminable darkness surrounding her, but her form and facial features were clearly defined. She extended her spotless milky hands toward him, sending a wave of energy rippling in his direction. Face-to-face with her at last, he realized with a jolt that this was not the Yanran he knew.
He closed his eyes, and then blinked them in rapid succession. Only once he was certain there were no tears obscuring his vision, did he finally look her straight on. She was still wearing that same long gray skirt, and her long hair was still swept back in that same rippling waterfall, but her features were different from the previous two times he had laid eyes on her. This was an exquisite face, to be sure, but it certainly did not belong to Yanran. Her almond eyes were delicate and shapely, without a trace of makeup, her face plain and unadorned, but without the coquettish twinkle in her eye he had come to associate with Yanran’s alluring beauty.
He had never seen this woman before.
“You’re not Yanran,” he pointed out the obvious.
“No, I’m not,” she agreed, “I was never Yanran to begin with.
“Then is it really you?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “Once you rid yourself of all presuppositions, you’ll be able to see me for who I really am.”
“Who are you then?”
“You can call me Youran. Sounds a bit like Yanran, doesn’t it?”
He nodded, knowing in his heart of hearts that somehow he had already bid goodbye to the past. He was gripped by sorrow.
“Do you miss her?”
“Do you want to know what happened to her?”
His eyes bulged from shock: “Where is she? Can you take me to her?
“That is beyond my power.” She sighed. “Xiaohui died five days before you did.”
“Five whole days?” He went numb.
“Indeed. She was in critical condition, and died on the way to the hospital, but you were in a coma for five days after they attempted resuscitation.”
“Then . . . Xiaohui . . . where . . . where is she now?”
“She never forgot you. I tried explaining to her all about this world, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. She could think of nothing but finding you.”
He felt another pang of remorse. He was deeply moved. So he still had feelings for her, after all.
“She could think of nothing but returning to the mortal world,” Youran continued, “So I sent her on her way.”
“Sent her . . . on her . . . way?” he croaked, “Do you mean to say . . . she’s . . . she’s. . .”
“Yes,” she nodded, “She has returned to that world.”
His heart plummeted. “So I’ll never see her again?”
“That’s right. If you choose to remain in this world, that is. This world is quiet and deserted, with only memories to keep you company.”
“But everyone I saw before . . . ?”
“That was all just a figment of your imagination. You never communicated directly with those people, did you? There are only two immortal souls in this place—we are the only ones you can interact with.”
“You and that old shopkeeper, right?”
“Exactly. Mr. Burnett—he has been waiting for his wife to pass on, so that he can be reincarnated with her. He squandered away their family’s shop with his heavy drinking, and wants to make it up to her.”
He heaved a long sight: “I would give anything to make it up to Xiaohui.”
“I know,” she replied, “All along, you’ve avoided thinking of her. After all, it’s human nature to fixate on those who have wronged us, while blocking out memories of those we ourselves have wronged.”
“What do I do now?”
“That’s entirely up to you,” she said. “If you want to go back, I can send you on your way.”
He realized with a jolt that her eyes were tinged with the sorrow of parting, and he suddenly realized that she had known all along that this moment would come.
“So that’s why you said I had not yet broken free from the bonds of this world.”
“The vast majority of people are still bound by earthly fetters.”
He covered his face in his hands, choking back a sob: “I thought I didn’t love her anymore.”
He felt exhausted beyond measure. He was utterly spent and didn’t know what to do. She raised her slender hands toward him once more and patted him gently on the shoulder. He was consumed by regret, preventing him from making this ultimate decision. He was afraid of returning to the mortal world, but the thought of the interminable remorse and loneliness that would await him if he stayed filled him with an even greater trepidation. This was the first time in his life he had felt so utterly hopeless.
“Love is a spark from nowhere, but once ignited, it can never be extinguished.” She chanted softly.
He was astonished: “Where did you hear that?”
Unphased by his reaction, Youran continued to recite: With love, the living can die; with love, the dead can live again. He who is born but cannot die, he who dies but cannot be reborn, has never experienced true love.
He felt as though he suddenly understood, and at the same time as though he understood nothing.
“So what do I do now?” He was at his wit’s end.
She reached behind her and produced a teacup brimming with a steaming amber liquid, which she had kept waiting all along, and handed it to him.
“Drink this brew, and become one with the universe. Your soul will find a newly formed embryo to inhabit.”
He stared doubtfully at the seething amber liquid: “What is this?”
“The Elixir of Oblivion,” she explained. To prepare yourself for your new life, you must wipe your memory clean—bringing memories from a previous life into a new womb will unsettle the host.”
He tipped his head back and downed it in a single gulp. The elixir gave off hints of sweet herbs and musky earth. He was still filled with uncertainty, but he knew this was what he must do. Even if he were able to achieve immortality, he would never be able to live with himself.
“If Xiaohui and I are both reincarnated, will I still be able to recognize her?”
Youran shook her head: “There’s no guarantee—that’s entirely up to chance.”
Youran sighed. He knew this would be their final farewell.
“Are you the one who sends everyone on their way?” he murmured, “How long have you been here?”
She smiled faintly. “You could say only a short while, or perhaps quite a long time. I am not bound by time. I can travel six hundred years into the past or future at a whim.”
His body relaxed and grew slack, and drowsiness gradually stole over him. He wanted nothing more than to drift off to sleep, to enter the realm of sweet slumber. He nestled against Youran, his eyes half-open, hoping for one final look at this world, hoping to carry these memories with him into the next life . . .
“This broth distills your life-energy and purifies your soul,” Youran’s voice interrupted his reverie. “They call me Old Lady Meng, and this brew, Old Lady Meng’s Elixir of Oblivion.”
At this, he fell into a deep slumber. Darkness subsumed him. He was falling . . . falling. . . . In the illuminated passageway, his spirit latched onto a new womb.
 “Limbo” (生死域), was published in The Lonely Depths (孤独深处) (Nanjing: Jiangsu wenyi, 2016). Translated with permission of the author.
 Ursula D. Friedman is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.