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Yuhan Tang


The year I learnt to look back when I heard Suizi–those two crisp syllables coming out of someone’s mouth–I was two.

One evening, I came back home running with half my pigtail chopped off clean. Grandma asked me who had done this, and I replied frantically, “I saw Uncle! Uncle Li was wearing brand new clothes, and he jumped off the roof!”

“You went and saw that too? No wonder the young revolutionaries caught you and snipped off your pigtails!” said Grandma, touching what was left of my braid mournfully.

“But, everyone went to watch! Everyone watched Uncle Li get dragged away from the stairs with his belly showing. They said Uncle’s belly is big because he had good nutrition–because he ate more than all of us combined. They all said he deserved it!”

Grandma made no remark. I kept on babbling until her hands dropped from my hair. When she warned me to never mention Uncle Li again, her eyes were sharp and stern.

The year Grandma died, I was nine years old. I became very quiet and withdrawn. Sometimes, the neighbors would peek through our windows to get a view of Dad–to see how he talked to himself for hours at a time. Then, they would realize that Dad was talking to me, begging me to drink the milk, begging me to eat the eggs, and begging me to go outside for a while. The neighbors got used to it sooner than I did and quickly stopped eavesdropping.

The first time I talked to Wei Zhiyuan was just after Grandma died. He was the son of our old concierge, who had retired and brought him in from the countryside. Wei Zhiyuan was not like his father at all. He never stood in the middle of the yard to yell: “Qiu Zhen’s on the phone!” or “Qiu Zhen sent registered mail!” Wei Zhiyuan would knock gently on our door, and, as soon as the door opened, he would blush and say: “Your dad’s on the telephone!”

Wei Zhiyuan sat on his father’s broken bench and read every day. Nothing could disturb him from his reading. When people walked by, he only lifted his eyes from the book a slight inch and could tell who had passed just by looking at their feet. Sometimes when he saw a large group of feet clad in faux army boots, stomping into the gates of the Writers’ Association, and raking up dirt and dust, he would quickly lower his eyes. When the yellow sandstorm cleared, he would glance up at their backs to see the backs of those wearing fake military uniforms storm out and the backs of those being dragged behind them.

Wei Zhiyuan could also recognize me in this way. He knew my pair of shoes, with the worn edges and tattered soles. Without having to look up, he said, “Suizi, the day your father got dragged away, you didn’t collect any milk for your family.”

I looked down dotingly and asked, “What’s that book you’re reading?”

Still staring at my shoes, he flashed me the cover of his book.

There was no cover, let alone a spine. Without its cover, the book was something without a name. Even the yellow dog that lived here had a name, a surname, and a household registration. Aunt Zhu’s dog snooped around like a thief all day long, sneaking along the black shadows of the building until the day it was finally tied up and dragged away, given the same limelight as it paraded alongside Aunt Zhu.

Books had names, and, as soon as they had a name, people could identify what each was: bourgeoisie or feudalist; anti-party or communist. No one wanted to hurt Aunt Zhu, only her name. And no one wanted to drag my dad into the cowshed. The guy people were dragging was Qiu Zhen, the man who wrote Zhu Yijin’s script. Without a name, a surname, and a household registration, you meant nothing, and the people didn’t know what to do with you.

“Look at this, Wei Zhiyuan,” I called out to him and watched him slowly lift his eyes from his book to my red checkered trousers. Then, I watched him take in the colorful chilblains on my hands, the piece of rice porridge glistening on the chest of my coat, and finally my hair, which I had trimmed all by myself.

We were so close that I could read the words in his book. The sheer number of words made me nauseous, and, as far as I knew, it was saying evil, evil, evil, big, big, and granary.

I sighed deeply. As it turned out, he also liked operas sung by Aunt Zhu.

Every time Aunt Zhu was dragged out, Wei Zhiyuan would stand up and stay respectfully on the side of his bench, as if offering his seat. He would just stand there, watching her arms beat around as they tried to tug her away, not knowing who he should help.

The sky was now darkening, and Wei Zhiyun returned to his book. As usual, an old man came in with a rope over his shoulders and a flatbed cart attached to the rope. There was always a lot of waste paper at our place because writers from all over the province lived here. In the past, they wrote books and plays, but now, they wrote confessions, self-criticisms, and denunciations, so a lot of paper ends up floating around. Young revolutionaries in their uniforms would also come by to paste slogans on our walls. Then when another batch of teenagers arrived, the previous batch of big-character posters became the new waste paper. No matter how fresh the paste smelt, fresher paste would cover it up, and by the time the old man arrived, it would have become wastepaper again. Our building used to be made of red bricks. Now, not a single red brick can be seen. When the wind blows, the whole building rattles; when it rains, ink drips all over the walls.

If it weren’t for this old man, we would have been drowned in all that white paper. Luckily for us, the old man had a passion for tearing the papers down. Everytime he tore, the sound was crisp and clear, and he would hum pleasantly under his breath. He would pull a cart full of white paper out the gate and make his way into the bamboo grove.

Aunt Zhu used to live behind that grove, and it was there that she cut off her long hair. She did it early so that no one would have to cut it off for her. One time, I was brought to the Spring Festival Gala by my father, and a tall lady came over with a bun shaped elegantly like a big honeycomb on the back of her head. She had a cigarette in her hand and held it daintily, exactly how I imagined it would be held by a famous actress. When she smiled, she showed two long rows of white teeth, and when she talked, she flicked her water sleeves around lightly, as if about to throw them in someone’s face. Everyone used to look at her hypnotic sleeves and blink happily.

When she came up to us, she looked at me first and said mistily, “Lao Qiu, your daughter is so sweet! Oh, look at her pretty, round face…” Then, she tossed Dad one of her signature sleeves. Both Dad and I were stunned, and in that moment, I knew we were thinking the same thing: that Aunt Zhu was like a nymph. She walked away with her water sleeves still fluttering. She walked as if there was no ground at all, as if she were gliding through on a boat.

The next time I saw Aunt Zhu, she was on a much more compact stage. There was no opera to be heard, yet a crowd still gathered for the show. The temporary stage set was tiny, and the critics had to take turns to go up and throw the ink.

“Why are you squeezing in?” said a young general, shoving me right back.

Still, I kept pushing, parting through the crowd. I squeezed through the line of tall hats squatting beneath the stage, waiting for their turn to be slandered and doused in ink. It was hard to spot Aunt Zhu, since people all looked the same to me when they wore this kind of tall hat made of flimsy paper.

The young general caught and snatched me up by the back of my jacket. “Hey you! Stop causing trouble!”

It was then that I spotted Aunt Zhu. Her face was barely visible under the tall hat. She rested one inky hand on her chin, while the other hand was raised in the air, holding a cigarette.

“Screw you!” I shouted at the boy.

Aunt Zhu looked up and found my voice among the throngs of people. The young general yelled back, a look of menace spreading across his face, “Say that again!”

“Your momma’s a bitch!” I said, spitting in his face. Then, I looked back at Aunt Zhu triumphantly, letting her see just how much I had achieved.

Aunt Zhu sat dazed for a while, then suddenly started laughing. Covering her mouth with an ink-splotched hand, she laughed almost ecstatically. It was probably because of her hearty laugh that, since then, criticizing Aunt Zhu had to be carried out separately. Her tall hat was heightened, and an even heavier string of shoes was placed around her neck.

Aunt Zhu had an accident last night, according to her Guangdong nanny. It took a lot of effort for everyone to hear through that Guangdong accent and understand that Zhu Yijin “took poison.”

“What poison?” Everyone asked.

“Sleeping pills!” cried the nanny, “One hundred of them!”

“Oh,” someone said, “that would take a long time to eat, right?”

The door of Aunt Zhu’s house was sealed, and the nanny was forcibly released. Young revolutionaries came to their yard and told the nanny many times, “You’ve been liberated! You can go back to your hometown now!”

The nanny just thanked them and said, “Then can you buy me a train ticket?” I thought they ought to do that much at least, since she had lost her job.

It was six o’clock in the evening when I went to the hospital to see Aunt Zhu. The hospital was having dinner, and the sound of enamel basins echoed throughout the entire building. I didn’t know her bed number, so I searched floor by floor. A nurse touched my shoulder and asked who I was looking for. “What’s the illness?” she said.

“No illness,” I replied, “It was suicide.” The nurse quickly withdrew her hand and told me they didn’t have a suicide department in their hospital.

Later, I found out that they did have a “suicide department.” All the beds stuffed in the corridors had little signs on them, and in the box of “cause,” it read: “suicide in fear of criminalization.” The patients had all been found halfway through suicide; some had had unsuccessful attempts, and others grew afraid as they were dying, quickly surrendering themselves. Auntie Zhu had just filled her stomach with pills when the two young men sent to interrogate her arrived, and the two pill bottles were still rolling gently on the table, as they grabbed her feet and hauled her away.

When I got to the sixth floor, I saw many people eating in the corridor. Several of them were on crutches and had difficulty standing there. I didn’t know how these people could climb six floors, unless they were that desperate to see Aunt Zhu. I squeezed through the gaps and saw a bed opposite the women’s toilet, and on the bed was Aunt Zhu, lying undressed.

The nurse trying to rescue her was not much older than me. She gave Aunt Zhu an injection, but there was no blood. She gave it another try; and still, no blood. The doctor coaxed her by saying, “Don’t panic, take your time. Didn’t you always practice on rubber in nursing school? Just treat her like she’s the rubber.”

Aunt Zhu had lost all control of her motor skills now and obeyed whoever was manipulating her body. Her eyes were open, staring into the cobwebs on the ceiling. No matter how the needle pierced her flesh, she would not blink.

After the nurse and doctor finished their work, they covered Aunt Zhu’s white body with a thin sheet. As if a curtain had been drawn, the onlookers shrank their necks, smacked their lips, and filed out slowly.

I barged into the nurse’s duty room, where an old nurse was knitting.

“Hey!” I shouted, “Why don’t you give people quilts?”

“Where did you come from, kid? Get out.” She was very fierce.

“It’s cold without a quilt!” I demanded, “And, why won’t you give people clothes?”

The old nurse continued to stitch, “What clothes does she need? She’s just a cheap Chinese cabbage. She won’t find it cold. She doesn’t have shame!”

“Chinese cabbages also know how to be cold!” I screamed, “They also know how to feel ashamed!”

The doctor came out at this moment and looked at us, his hands full of soap bubbles. He was washing them after he’d touched Aunt Zhu’s skin, as if only that much soap could get them clean. He smiled at me coyly and said, “Is she your mother?”

“She’s your mother!” I fired back.

That finally annoyed them, so they threw out a quilt.

I wrapped it around Aunt Zhu tightly, then sat on the edge of her bed and dozed off. When I woke from my nap, I discovered the quilt had been pulled aside. Aunt Zhu was once again lying open and exposed in the net of rubber tubes.

I went home and told all this to Wei Zhiyuan. He listened with his head bowed, and I could only see the bluish-white hair on the top of his head. The round swirl was so white that it seemed blue, and I couldn’t help but want to reach out and touch it.

“Wei Zhiyuan, are you listening?”

He said nothing. So, I spoke up again, “They said Aunt Zhu might wake up in a few days. A young revolutionary said that once she wakes up, they’ll lock her up with others, and she won’t ever take sleeping pills again.”

He still ignored me. In fact, he’d never paid much attention to me, or anyone else. Someone mentioned before that in the early twilight before dawn, they could hear singing in the men’s bathroom. The rumor was that it was some ghost of an opera singer. I wasn’t scared of ghosts. So the next day, I barged in and saw that the opera singer was Wei Zhiyuan. He was squatting on the latrine, singing so touchingly that his eyes were rimmed red.

He must have liked Aunt Zhu’s operas as much as I did. Once, he brought a stack of paper to my house to seek advice from my dad, saying that it was a play he had written for Aunt Zhu. After he left, Dad stuffed the pile of papers under his bed. All the manuscripts he owned were stuffed under his bed, and the new ones were stuffed in before the mice finished nibbling the old ones.

A week later, Wei Zhiyuan came to knock again. I asked him if there were any calls for us, and he shook his head.

“Registered mail?” Dad asked.

Wei Zhiyuan only smiled and delivered his new manuscript into Dad’s hands: “This is another version, could you look at it as well?”

My dad didn’t have time for his tricks, so he grabbed the paper and feigned looking through it, saying, “Oh… I’m seeing something wonderful! How about next week? I’ll talk to you, huh?”

Wei Zhiyuan still didn’t leave. He asked what time.

“Any time!” Dad said impatiently.

Wei Zhiyuan came again the following week. Hearing his tack-tat-tat knock on the door, Dad hurriedly put on my mother’s dirty coal-handling gloves, and as soon as the door opened, he said, “Look, we’re moving coal cakes!” When Wei Zhiyuan remained silent, Dad said to him, “How about next week? I’m tired today.”

Wei Zhiyuan came every week after that. Later, the Cultural Revolution also came and saved my dad.

Aunt Zhu had been in the hospital for three days now, with no sign of getting better. I brought in a small folding chair from home and set it down beside her bed. Everyone came to ogle at her body; and when they saw me sitting there, glaring back, some walked away. I seldom went to the bathroom, because every time I came back from the toilet, Aunt Zhu’s bright body would be exposed again. I also tried not to sleep, except that was hard. Once, I grew sleepy, and an electrician came towards her bed. He saw that my head was drooping, and my eyelids were half-closed, so he pretended to relax his mouth and dropped his cigarette butt onto Aunt Zhu’s quilt. He patted down the quilt, as if the cigarette would set Aunt Zhu on fire. But, no matter how threw his hands up and down on Aunt Zhu and felt around her body, the quilt still couldn’t be shaken off. At last, he simply grabbed the quilt and lifted it.

As soon as his eyes fell on Aunt Zhu, his hands froze. Aunt Zhu’s beauty had long fled her body. Her chest was shrinking and drying day by day, and her two water sleeve arms were starting to wrinkle. Aunt Zhu looked like a stuffed white butterfly, nailed here before she died, so that spectators could all watch her slowly fade away.

The electrician whipped around when he heard a noise from my side and slowly backed away when he saw the tears glistening on my face.

On New Year’s Eve, my mother came to the hospital to take me back home. “Your dad’s been released from the cowshed for the New Year! You need to come back home.” She was angry but was too afraid to raise her voice.

I said that I couldn’t come. I was guarding Aunt Zhu; and since there were so many people who couldn’t keep their hands off her quilt, I had to be here to watch her.

Ma took in my dirty, stubborn face and shook her head at me, “When Aunt Zhu gets better and she’s back to being famous on the stage, she’ll never even remember you!”

I thought that when Aunt Zhu woke up, the first thing I would tell her was to not go back to that stage again.

Ma seized me by the arm and dragged me down the hallway. Her hand was cold, and the scent of beauty cream flowed from her, familiar and dear. I looked back at Aunt Zhu, still lying miserably under the dirty quilt, and I suddenly grabbed onto my mother’s hand tightly—the only hand in the world that smelt like this cream; the only hand that was clean and safe.

Dad was just another old farmer now. At dinner, he slurped down the sticky porridge, his neck bent so low that his chin scraped against the table. After guarding Aunt Zhu for five days, I became an even quieter person. No matter how Dad tried to talk to me, I didn’t speak. I spooned the porridge into my mouth one bite at a time, wincing as it scalded my newly sprouted tooth. There was only one person I would be willing to talk to. But, he was no longer sitting at his bench.

When I went back after New Years Eve, Aunt Zhu’s bed was empty. The oxygen cylinder was still lying there. A bunch of tubes that used to go in and out of her body had been thrown around the bed in a mess.

I cracked open the door of the nurse’s duty room. This time it was a young nurse, who was knitting. I asked her where Aunt Zhu had gone.

Her eyes widened and then narrowed into slits. The look on her face told me everything: the hospital was short-staffed on New Year’s Eve, and all the patients were made to go home. In the midst of this, someone must have pulled out Zhu Yijin’s oxygen tube, along with all the other needles that kept her alive.

I walked down the empty hallway to the stairs. There was no longer a gathering of people, not a single audience. The show was over, no more display of Aunt Zhu’s naked form.

In the early hours of the morning, I went to find Wei Zhiyuan. His bench was still empty, so I walked through the dead bamboo grove to knock on his door.

He cracked open the door, and I told him that someone had killed Aunt Zhu. Something told me he already knew. His gaze roamed around, resting on a spot in the distance. He didn’t emanate the certain warmth of someone who just got up early in the morning. His face was completely sober, cheeks pale, and lips white.

I told him it was freezing outside, and that I wanted to go in. He didn’t budge. When I asked again, he told me to get the hell out and shut the door.

Following my instinct, I ran around to the back window which was covered with newspaper. I leaned in to examine them. They were all yesterday’s papers! There was a slither of light coming through the top of the window, so I stood on tiptoes and squinted through the slit.

Wei Zhiyuan sat in the middle of the room, tearing books page by page, feeding them into a small stove. Books were stacked messily around him, all coverless and bare. My eyes combed every corner of the room, but I could only see him. Still, I had a gnawing feeling that someone else was there.

That was when I saw his bed. In its center lay a string of shadowy pearls. I recognized them immediately. At the hospital, the pearls always nestled so sweetly, cuddling up to Aunt Zhu’s flesh. It must have been the only outfit she could think of before she took the pills.

Wei Zhiyuan never looked up or saw me. He just kept stuffing the books into the stove, burning page after page. I jumped off into a pile of waste paper and walked back along the forest, listening to the dead bamboo leaves crunch beneath my feet. When I was almost outside the bamboo grove, I turned back.

I couldn’t see his house since the untrimmed bamboo was taller than my eyes, but I saw gray paper ash flying out from the iron chimney. Some chunks were big and some were small, and they kept turning over in the windy sky.

When Wei Zhiyuan resigned and went back to the countryside, I took up his place on the bench. Gradually, I also learnt to recognize people by their feet as they passed by.

I was nineteen when I stopped reacting to the sound of Suizi. I’d lost half my hearing trying to blast down the abandoned cowshed where they‘d once tortured Dad. Like with Aunt Zhu’s hair cutting, I did it early, so that no one else would have to; for in a few years, they would have abolished it themselves. Now, Dad actually talks to himself. And when I think no one can hear me, I find myself a spot in the bamboo grove and sing Aunt Zhu’s songs. I sing them loud, but the wind always carries them away.

About the Author

Yuhan Tang is an burgeoning writer based in Sydney, Australia. She writes to preserve the stories of others and to revisit the past. Her fiction has previously appeared in Fterota Logia and is set to appear in the next issue of TeenWritersProject.

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