Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
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Cruelty is the word Chi-wen will use to describe her life. “A life full of cruelties,” she imagines saying into the mike lowered to her by a long-haired interviewer, a shoulder-borne camera targeting her face, a crowd looking on muttering about her. She will neither blink nor twitch her mouth—she will speak as if she were being asked about the weather. She imagines the day to be a Sunday, and she will be walking down a street full of restaurants and parents with their children. She will just be another person in the crowd until the interviewer puts a hand on her shoulder, asking if she can briefly describe her life. It is then that her singleness stands out, like the little, red, heart-shaped badge on the white shirt she will wear that day: her presence in the adults’ world, stranded, dispensed with her parents’ company. “A life full of cruelties,” she will say again, left hand in pocket, right hand on chest, upon the interviewer’s request to repeat her answer. Then she will tell stories, stories about what cruelty means to her and her experiences with its variations. In reality, Chi-wen knows and wishes the interview would never take place, because a question about life is too big and vague to be asked in public, because she believes she will not be picked out in the first place, and because even if she were, facing a big crowd, she would stutter and immediately turn into a jittery, trembling joke.


They were sitting at the dining table—Chi-wen, her mother, and her father. It was early September of 2003 and they had moved into their new apartment half a year before. The lilac-patterned rice bowls and plain white plates that held their dinner—stir-fried beef and hot sour potato slices—still looked new. The tablecloth was checkerboard patterned and frilly on all sides, a rather European thing her mother had welcomed into their place when they moved in, along with a few doilies and a bunch of knife and fork sets in the kitchen cupboards, next to bags of star anise and peppercorn, and never used.

Her mother was transferring more dishes from the kitchen to the table, and Chi-wen was helping her lay out the chopsticks. Her father had already sat at the head of the table. When Chi-wen put a chopstick down, she used it to knock the edge of the table three times as a prelude to her speech. “Now, now,” she said, tucking her chin in to deepen her voice, jiggling her head as she looked to her father and mother, “the emperor is in his seat.” She waltzed to hold the back of her father’s chair.

“If I am the emperor,” her father said, turning around to pat her hand, “then your mother is the queen and you’re the princess.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Chi-wen said, stepping back and wriggling her finger. Her mother had just put a big tub of chicken soup down, and the steam rose in white zigzags toward her face.

“What are you doing, Hu Chi-wen?” she said loudly. Then, looking through the corner of her eye at Chi-wen’s father, she flipped her hand at Chi-wen and lowered her voice, “Quick, quick. Don’t dillydally.” Her nose flared up, as if she were about to suck in all the steam like Princess Iron Fan in Journey to the West.

Chi-wen raised her brows, squinting at her father. There was no sign of anger on his face. As the tips of his mouth swam upward, he leaned back with his arms spread on the table. “Which emperor are you talking about, Chi-wen?”

She crossed her arms and said, “I’m not talking about a specific emperor, Dad.”

“Oh?” he said, widening his eyes.

In return, Chi-wen widened her eyes and said, “And I don’t want to be a princess, and Mom doesn’t have to be a queen.” She craned forward and started pacing back and forth along the table, mimicking the old commentator on Chinese history his father loved to see on TV. “Queens and princesses are not necessary. But a eunuch is needed,” she said, glancing toward her mother. “An emperor doesn’t need a queen, but he needs a eunuch to serve him. And this eunuch—” she lunged a step forward and said, “Who is that eunuch for this deeply respected emperor before me?”

Her father burst into laughter, hammering the table’s edge and said, “Don’t say that, Chi-wen!” Almost coughing and choking. “Your mother—she is the queen!”

Chi-wen laughed as well, screwing up her left eye at her mother. Now her mother trembled, and her stomach stuck out a bit as if the steam she had just sucked in was churning into a gust that would blow out of her mouth and sweep Chi-wen away.

But Chi-wen’s father was already patting her mother’s hand, which stayed on her waist to push the gust out. “You’re the queen,” he said. “You’re the queen.”

Watching her mother’s stomach deflate, Chi-wen threw a triumphant smile at her.

“Let’s eat,” her father said.

Her mother sat down with her lips pursed, pushed Chi-wen’s favorite, Wuchang fish, toward her, and said through her teeth, “Eat your Wuchang fish and behave yourself!”

Chi-wen did not look at her mother. She tilted her head at her father and said, “Speaking of eunuchs, tell me more about them, Dad.” She sat down with the chair legs scuffing the floor and her mother frowned again.

“Sure!” her father said with a generous sweep of his hand. “Eunuchs and emperors for today!”

Now they were shoveling rice into their mouths, and between chewing and swallowing, her father reeled off stories of eunuchs: eunuchs falling asleep when fanning the emperors and getting beaten with a plank on their bare buttocks; eunuchs slapping their own faces before the emperors for saying something improper; eunuchs getting chased by wolfish dogs to amuse the emperors’ concubines. Chi-wen kicked her legs constantly under the table, laughing with her head bowed down. Her father shrugged, kept adjusting himself back and forth in his high-backed chair, and stiffened his face as if he were telling the most hidden secrets in the royal families. Chi-wen admired her father for not laughing, for keeping it as serious as if he were teaching a class. He was an associate professor of politics at Wuhan University, but he knew about the eunuchs and the emperors’ scandals as much as he knew about the chairmen and their personal lives. Hardcore facts, histories unearthed—this was her father’s attitude. Cruel but funny anecdotes—this was what Chi-wen called them. She loved the image of eunuchs slapping their own faces in a comedic way and begging the emperors to forgive them.

“Don’t choke, Chi-wen,” her father said, bringing a chopstick-load of rice to his mouth. “Some eunuchs were not simply eunuchs, but spies as well.” His voice dipped.

This was the moment Chi-wen had been waiting for: the dipping of his voice, the twist in the story that would make Chi-wen forget temporarily the beef still in her mouth and truly unite with him. Chi-wen looked at her mother—she was picking up a slice of potato, a bit of oil gleaming on her lips. Chi-wen savored her mother’s silence and exclusion when they three sat together. The stories related by her father gave Chi-wen pride, for she was the only other one at the table who could understand them. She glanced at her mother through the corner of her eye every time a “eunuch this” was told, and laughed with her mouth wide open, rice still on her teeth, when a “eunuch that” followed. Her mother chewed in silence and kept her legs together. Her brows hung like two slopes where rocks could speedily roll down.

What Chi-wen could have easily forgotten in moments like this, when she felt she had gotten the better of her mother, that she could rise from her seat and lean closer to her father to suggest their alliance, was that her mother, after all, was the one who had more control over her life than her father.

So, when her father lowered his voice, her mother put her chopsticks down by her emptied rice bowl, cleared her throat, and said, “Could you let Chi-wen finish eating and go back to studying? You know she has an English class tomorrow and she’ll have a dictation.”

“Oh, yes.” Her father suddenly sat straight up as if he had just woken from a dream. Shaking his head, he said, “Go finish eating now, Chi-wen. No more talking.”

Later, Chi-wen would go back to memorizing English words in her own room while her father sat in the living room watching Friday night shows. She would hear his laughs and all kinds of sound effects on TV through the closed door, knowing that he was lying back in their brown patent leather sofa, legs stretched, and arms flung over the top of the smooth seat, the chandelier hovering in full glory above his lone head. She would sit at her table, her mother sitting on a chair several inches away from her, watching her memorize. She would feel her mother’s breath on her nape, as well as the foolishness and impossibility of her alliance with her father. It was always her mother in charge of her studies.


Chi-wen was in Grade Three. She neither liked school nor the extracurricular English class that took place every Saturday. She could not finish compositions her Chinese teacher had instructed her to write, but she liked stories, dark stories about Egyptians using a hook to coax the brain out of a head, about ancient Chinese emperors letting horses run in different directions to tear apart a body, about aliens capturing humans and later returning them to earth with their memories wiped clean. She liked making up stories of her own accord, stories about dead girls found in basements with spiderwebs all over them and discoveries of lost golden cups in some foreign country whose name she had fabricated out of whole cloth.

Chi-wen needed the stories to stun her, to make her heart pound fast, and to pin her eyelids up so she could look at a textbook without falling asleep for several consecutive hours. At school, she sat at the very back of the classroom—her grades could not earn her a respectable seat in the front rows. But she had a few disciples, the back row sitters who were just like her and who would listen to her stories at recess. In the back haven, the home of brooms and dustpans and mops, where mop water in a red bucket—always left over from a few days ago—assaulted her nose and kept her awake. Her disciples huddled around her and widened their eyes at her stories.

She raised a finger and here came the story of a Chinese adventurer lost on a foreign continent. She brought her hand down and then came the tale of three happy forest dwellers observing the Chinese man. In her disciples’ desk drawers rested their most cherished story books about myths and worldly wonders, but their coffers of knowledge usually ended up being confiscated by teachers if they were not careful enough. They watched Discovery as Chi-wen did, and they were the only few people who applauded for Chi-wen’s solo story show.

In the extracurricular English class Chi-wen went to, things did not get better.

Her mother put her in the English class primarily because all the other mothers had done so. In Wuhan, English was still not a required subject in elementary schools, but it would appear in the entrance exams of famous local middle schools. There was a mothers’ group at Chi-wen’s school that held meetings every once in a while. Her mother went and brought back stories of other kids: those who had passed the piano exam at the highest level, those who had earned first prize in the provincial math competition, and those who had been interviewed by major local newspapers for writing poems at such a young age. But Chi-wen would not be one of them—in her heart, she knew it well—despite the effort her mother had expended.

The English class Chi-wen went to took place from six to eight p.m. on Saturdays at Golden Sun English School. There was a golden sun, in fact, on the banner above the entrance of the main building that housed teachers’ offices. It smiled and had many spokes of squiggly sunlight that made Chi-wen feel cheesy. There were three other buildings behind the main one, gray and squat, each with three floors, and Chi-wen’s classroom was in one of them.

The podium was wooden and cracked; the whiteboard Chi-wen had seen on TV that blue-eyed people used was not there, nor the Sharpies, only a blackboard that felt like stone and a glass jar of white chalks. There was no AC, the fluorescent lights were flickering and the windows big and wire-meshed. Like Chi-wen, the nine other elementary schoolers sat with their arms folded on wooden tables, reading out loud apple and pear from their textbooks. Sweaty faces and hot breath and the smell of warmed rubber shoes made her dizzy. Chi-wen felt she was still in the elementary school she went to—no tinge of difference or internalization; all she got was a harsh teacher and the ugly traditions she had in her Chinese and math classes at school.

“Four-Eyed-Big-Butt”—Chi-wen savored the savagery her age could best offer her as she murmured the name, tightening her fist and watching the English teacher turn around. She wobbled in her baggy, yellow muumuu, each step thunderous on the cement.

Dictation took place every week; name reading and score revealing, what Chi-wen had back at school, made her blush and squirm. She spelled many words wrong—candy became candi, and chocolate, chokolit (the two diagonal legs of k were fuzzy and shaky as Chi-wen always felt the need to elongate them)—and was the youngest in this class. When Four-Eyed-Big-Butt read her name and score aloud, Chi-wen had to put on a show to disguise her embarrassment, to attract attention to something else that she tried to make-believe was more important. Her funny disposition. She pulled her skeletal legs out from beneath the desk, one by one, and cocked her head high, knowing what would come her way—some brow twitching and slapping of her dictation sheet on the podium. She had to feign shock (or she really felt it for a moment) by narrowing her shoulders and wincing when the slapping took place, and then scanning the entire classroom with an unwavering smile. “Thick skin,” Four-Eyed-Big-Butt would say. “Tell your mother to come talk to me next time.”

Then Chi-wen would hear chuckles from older girls in plaid skirts and with high ponytails and see boys give her lopsided mocking smiles—they never treated her as a girl, what with her short hair and funny looks. They stretched their legs out, but Chi-wen always dodged and never got tripped up.

Hearing Four-Eyed-Big-Butt’s demand, Chi-wen would respond, shrugging, “Yes, even if my mom comes over, I’ll still make mistakes.”

“Shut up and go back to your seat.”

But Chi-wen had already turned around; had already, as well, taken her dictation sheet in a dash and flapped it back and forth as if it were a eunuch’s handkerchief.


Chi-wen’s mother had met her English teacher, had knocked Chi-wen on the head with her knuckles and hit her on the back with the storybooks after they got home. She had said things such as You cannot read these books anymore and If you don’t work your grade up, I’ll throw them out of the window. But she had never thrown them. Because of this, Chi-wen thought her mother still loved her, and she went on to convince herself that her mother did love her because she never hit her hard. The good moments—her mother cleaning her ear with a cotton swab, her head resting on her mother’s lap; her mother knitting winter gloves for her and looping a scarf around her neck—then surfaced and made her believe that her mother only wanted the best for her, that her mother was not at all dangerous. Dangerous was a word Chi-wen knew her mother would never associate with herself in the first place—warm and considerate and circumspect were the most likely notions she would heap upon herself. But she would readily use dangerous on people outside the comfort of their home, in the world beneath them.

Their apartment was in a newly developed area in Wuhan and the road they lived on was called Prosperous Road, where many people from the countryside gathered. There was no tree or ornamental shrub or grassland—save for occasional blades of grass that shot through the cement—but stores and restaurants opened by the countryside people. Chi-wen had seen mothers in ragged clothes dragging burlap sacks and their kids in equally shabby clothes; had seen on several occasions small yellow rickshaws overburdened with families of four or five, had heard and smelled the farts of these vehicles. In the beginning, she winced every time she heard an accent, saw a sallow face that suggested malnutrition—it startled her outside the cozy protection of her home.

Their home was on the fifth floor of a drab gray building. Big clean windows, herringbone wooden floors in the living room and white tiled floors in the bathroom. Everything brand new and sui generis to Chi-wen: the four light bulbs that gave off heat above the built-in tub, the patent leather sofa that had come in freshly from a furniture store, and the AC that stood like a closet in her parents’ bedroom. In the kitchen, the faucet had a little filter, which meant that boiling water in a kettle was not always required, and her mother did not have to pour water into various thermoses and pitchers afterwards. Chi-wen would sometimes drink directly from the tap, her mouth and tongue touching the metal and sometimes making a loud smack. When her mother saw her doing this, she would feign anger, pretend to chastise her (her backside still in the warm embrace of their sofa, her hand clutching a yarn of wool, her right index finger in a thimble), and then let Chi-wen run back to her room.

Chi-wen knew her mother had enjoyed their move as well, although it was her father who had ultimately made the decision. The price per square foot was way lower here so they ended up getting a lot of space. But as much as she liked the place, her mother also looked wary, sometimes squeezing Chi-wen’s hand tightly in hers when they walked past the stores and restaurants.

The restaurants had everything in plastic: plastic chairs with one rung missing, plastic tablecloths that got easily ripped when you moved your elbows on them just a little bit hard, and plastic cups that shrank like sloughed snakeskin the moment hot water touched them. Sometimes, without enough space for kitchen extensions, the owners cooked outside, setting up stands with big red awnings. Their saltcellars were grimy, their oil bilious yellow. Smoke rose from their sizzling pans and swamped whoever walked by. Chi-wen’s mother had cautioned against eating at these stands, but Chi-wen once bought a plate of scrambled rice at a stand with the few coins her mother had given her for notebooks and pencils.

She crouched in a small alleyway behind the stand to eat, for fear that her mother would suddenly show up. The rice smelled good, and the second Chi-wen closed her mouth around the chopsticks, she decided to forgive the owner for his accent, because his hands were generous with pepper and salt and oil, much more so than her mother’s, and the unhealthy sausage cubes atop the rice made Chi-wen drool more than anything her mother had cooked at home.

Like the restaurants, the stores sold all kinds of snacks her mother forbade—beef jerky that was not beef but synthetic meat coated in red food coloring and fruit-flavored candy bars that tasted like nothing but sugar. It was not the snacks that attracted Chi-wen in this case; it was the atmosphere and the gossip. At the front of the building where Chi-wen’s family lived, there was a store called Old Daddy’s Retail Store. The middle-aged, beer-gutted owner never said thanks to his customers. He (sometimes it was his wife) sat behind a glass counter that contained flimsy packages of cigarettes and counted change to people with his eyes glued to a shoebox-sized black-and-white television—Jin Yong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes was on—and spewed sunflower seeds into an ashtray.

When he was not watching TV, he invited people over—usually store and restaurant owners who spoke his dialect—and transformed the glass counter into a conference table. Their talks were marvelous and horrendous, ranging from their country relatives’ cross-eyed boys and hare-lipped girls to a recent fight between a wife and a mistress in an apartment building nearby. “That woman, yes, that piano teacher’s wife, she dug her heel into the mistress’s hand.” “Yes, and that young fox bled! Did you know that?” “You know what, in my village, we beat our kids with bullwhips. No chopsticks, no slippers, no soft city ways. You really want the lesson to sink in.” The juicy tidbits of these cruel stories made Chi-wen dawdle. She leaned into shelves, pretending to finger through snacks. Her whole body trembled at the country people’s light-hearted tone and thigh-slapping, head-throwing nonchalance. These were private pleasures Chi-wen never confided in her parents—her father would not care; her mother would get shocked and berate her.


Sometimes, Chi-wen admired the country kids. In their parents’ stores, when gossip took place, they sat on stools and listened and chimed in. Their accent strong as their parents’, their arms flailing around like tree branches, their bones rustling. Their parents and other country people laughed at their words and commented, “I don’t know you little kid knows so much!” in such a loving tone. The country kids did not have to learn English, did not have to go to school in the first place.

Chi-wen thought there might have been a period in her father’s life when he participated as the talking kid in all manner of gossips as well as the beaten kid in all manner of countryside cruelties; after all, he was born in a small village. (Her mother was city bred.) But Chi-wen was unsure, for it was always her mother who forced her to study and beat her, though not hard.

Her father had already soared into the sky, way above any form of boorishness. The only traces of cruelty left in him were in the historical anecdotes he told—pharaohs and mummies, death penalties in ancient Europe and China, and political criminals in the Second World War—glossed over by the objectivity and seriousness of history and imparted as knowledge to Chi-wen. His face was held steady all the time, his bass voice appealing to the ear, his smiles and laughs kept at bay.

Funny and knowledgeable as he was, her father was also a bit elusive and mysterious and standoffish—this was how Chi-wen perceived him. He had talked to Chi-wen many times about topics that interested her, but once her mother sounded the first alarm of dissatisfaction, he—even at the peak of his happiness, when utmost pleasure washed over him—would become alert, withdraw immediately, and willingly let Chi-wen’s mother take over, not bothering to argue with her.

Two months earlier, when Chi-wen’s mother enrolled her in the extracurricular English class, her father did not object. At the dining table, when her mother broached the enrollment, he simply said, “You do what is best for Chi-wen and I have no objection.” Not even looking up at Chi-wen or her mother, he undid the top button of his light blue shirt, loosened the cuffs, and picked up his chopsticks.

He had his own den in one corner of their new apartment, right next to his and her mother’s bedroom. In the den, his giant, dumb computer squatted on a lacquered mahogany desk, and shelves that spanned from ceiling to floor showcased books ranging from serious domestic and international politics to the calligraphic style of the Song emperor.

At times outside his den, before going to bed, Chi-wen could hear him typing away inside, sometimes humming a tune that seemed to be his improvisation: the pitch flat, all the notes jumbled together as if a bee were in his nose. Chi-wen could not picture the world inside that den, a place Chi-wen could only peek at, where her father thrived on his own, rid of her and her mother.

Outside it, more often than not, Chi-wen wrestled with her mother, drifting further and further from his high existence: her mother urging her not to sit with her legs crossed; her mother warning her to come home directly after school; her mother warning her not to watch TV or read storybooks; her mother hitting her knuckles, though not too hard, with a ruler when she got lazy.

Did Chi-wen’s father beat her? He did. But he was not like her mother, would not go out of his way to find fault with her. When he beat her, it was usually out of her mother’s urge to discipline her thoroughly—her mother knocked on the door of his den, sobbing and accusing, making focus impossible—because Chi-wen had learned to hit and kick back, to scratch her mother’s face, to cause trouble and question authority. At other times, it was because things became unbearable—say, when Chi-wen screamed and cried her throat coarse, bumping her head against the floor, and her mother shouted back at her. But in either situation, his beating was quick and formal. Chi-wen would notice the opening of the door, him coming out. Initially, it was tiredness on his face, which then morphed into anger with a series of quick fist clenches. Bulged eyes and breath huffed through nostrils and several crisp slaps on Chi-wen’s backside—nothing like slaps on the cheek or bangs over the ear. Straight to the buttocks. Chi-wen would let out the hardest cries, then quiet down, sitting on the floor, still sniffling and hiccupping. Her father had gone back into the den; her mother softened and started cooing, willing her to get up and be good again.


Besides the interview in which she will announce the cruelties in her life, Chi-wen has also imagined being asked about her parents and to describe them. She will use funny but standoffish to describe her father, because her father would stop telling jokes and stories and shift gears at the first sign of trouble, would stay forever above them, would come down only upon her mother’s urge or when big decisions had to be made. He came down when they purchased the new apartment, when an official beating had to be dealt out.

But what is the word, or a series of words, for her mother? Chi-wen will probably use preoccupied. Preoccupied with what? Chi-wen’s studies and grades? Providing for the comfort of their home? Her role as a successful mother and wife, whom other mothers and wives looked up to as a model? Then she jumped to vain, to contradictory. Difficult, difficult as my father, she thinks to herself, but in a different sense of the word. Elusive. Complicated. Cruel. Both of them. No. Yes.


Cruel. It was on Chi-wen’s mind every Saturday.

She and her mother walked down Prosperous Road and hailed a cab when they reached the main road. Chi-wen dreaded walking by her mother’s side, for her mother seized the opportunity to interrogate and preach. Did you memorize all the words? Have you previewed the lesson thoroughly? Raise your hand more in class and the teacher will like you. Her mother strode, eyes focused on the cement, not turning to look at Chi-wen; her voice strong and clear, raised several pitches whenever they passed a food stand, behind which the owner pleaded and hollered, “Come eat! Come eat!” Later in the cab, her mother would urge her to take out her textbook and look over the words one more time.

Now, on the road again, blocking out her mother’s words, Chi-wen stared at her straight nose, her receding hairline, and a few moles above her jaw. She thought it would just be another Saturday, on which she nodded at her mother’s words to avoid arguments and breezed through the class with her thick-skin smiles and shrugs. They had just passed a few stores and restaurants before they saw a crowd on the other side of the road. Chi-wen held her breath: not far from the crowd was a police car, its red light throbbing harshly in the twilight. The horseshoe of people had expanded to the middle of the road and three policemen were waving their truncheons. “Move,” Chi-wen heard them shout in a raspy voice. “Move,” they shouted again, flapping their peaked caps at the heads that bobbed up and down. Chi-wen had seen several restaurant owners in the outer circle: one of them still had his apron on; the other was holding a dish mop, a long white towel flung over his shoulder.

Chi-wen jumped and craned her neck, still could not see through the black-headed rope that was stretching toward her side of the road. Their chatter had drowned out the siren made by a police car that was coming their way. Her mother had been mincing forward but now stopped, arms over chest, head slightly cocked up. Chi-wen stood a bit far from her, eyes on the bumping legs, hoping to discern a clue through the web of limbs. Then she turned to her mother, a bit dazed by her stillness.

Chi-wen had seen street skirmishes before: a wrangle kitty-cornered from their building, between a middle-aged woman in a flower print dress and a fruit seller, the woman shoving the scrawny man aside and stepping on a persimmon that had hopped out of his basket; drunken men smashing bottles and elbowing one another outside the restaurants on July evenings, when heat made rational thinking impossible. She also remembered—not long ago, in late August, when she and her mother left for the class—seeing a mother lecturing her child, an upended ice cream cone and a small puddle by the child’s feet. Her mother had barely given a look at the scene, as she hurried Chi-wen onwards.

But now, she was looking on, which surprised Chi-wen. Chi-wen walked up to her mother and saw her pursed lips. She got even more surprised when her mother stopped a young man, asking what had happened when he ran away from the crowd toward them with a phone in his hand.

“A man had jumped off the building,” his words rang clear and sharp, like glass shards. He even lowered his body to point Chi-wen to the window with a white curtain behind it on the fifth floor of the building behind the crowd. “That was where he jumped,” he continued. “But the body was removed like twenty minutes ago.” He started down the road again.

With the arrival of the other police car, two more policemen came out. As the crowd stirred and shifted, some space opened up. Through cracks between the moving legs, Chi-wen saw barricades, a dark smear that might have passed for dried blood, and no more. Her heart was still beating fast in her chest. A moment ago, when the man said someone had jumped off the building, her excitement and fear peaked. Eager to look for splashed pulp and fresh redness, she clutched the edge of her shirt, her mind a reverberating bell. All the stories about death and suffering would not hold a candle to a real dead man. But when she learned that the body had been removed, her excitement dropped several notches. Now, somehow, it revived with her imagination, with her eyes on the open window and the curtain billowing in the wind. She wondered who the man was and why he jumped, her mind working all the way to murder and winding back to suicide, making the man her own subject—a story was to be made up for him, who also reminded her of O. Henry’s Last Leaf, a must-read in her Chinese class about some uncured disease, some unfulfilled promise. She wondered what her mother would say.

Her mother had already put her hands back into her pants pockets. Her facial muscles did not move, her right foot lifted off the ground. “Let’s hurry now, Chi-wen.” She started onwards, not giving the scene one more look. “Hurry up, or you’re going to be late.”

“But aren’t you supposed to say something?” Chi-wen reached out her hand to stall her.

“What’s there to say?” Her mother squinted. “If you keep dillydallying, you’re going to be late. You have to know what matters the most.” Her mother removed her hand from her arm, where Chi-wen had left three red nail marks.

Cruel. The word came to Chi-wen again as she followed her mother. She did not accuse her mother of being unsympathetic toward the dead man—after all, she was not sympathetic herself—but of her mother ignoring her feelings. The story she had formed in her head receded like a tide leaving a shore. Would a normal mother not at least comfort her child? Would she not call it a day and bring her child to a KFC for a hearty sundae and some chicken wings?

“It’s horrible. I want to take the day off. I don’t want to go to class.” Chi-wen stopped, looking in the direction of the crowd. The restaurant and store owners were still there, their kids trailing around: one of them tucking his head under his dad’s arms; another two chasing, trying to step on each other’s toes.

“What are you looking at?” Her mother turned around with her arms folded. “You just have all kinds of excuses, don’t you? OK, someone jumped off the building, but what does it have to do with you?” Tilting her head to one side, she laid out her hands and shook them to emphasize her point. “Answer me now,” her mother continued, half of her face eclipsed by the sinking sun.

Right there, not far from the crowd which proudly doled out its firsthand knowledge to passers-by—Yes, someone jumped off the building. No, I didn’t see the body, but I saw the ambulance leaving—countryside kids turned a mishap into an opportunity for a run and chase game. As sourness rushed to her nose, Chi-wen asked, “Why do I have to go after something horrible happened?”

She flailed her arms and stomped. Then jumped around.

Her mother looked down at the watch on her wrist and walked up to Chi-wen. She gently pinched Chi-wen on the right thigh. “Enough. Stop now.” Chi-wen’s eyes reddened. “Now, stop.” Another pinch on the waist, much harder, that drove a few tears out. “Enough now. Go.” Her mother patted the side of her right arm and started dragging her forward.

It was settled. They reached the main road and got a cab.

Eventually, Chi-wen arrived late. 6:10 p.m. Her eyes still sore from the tears, her nostrils rimmed with dried mucus. Before she stepped inside to face Four-Eyed-Big-Butt, she thought of what her mother had said in the car. “You have to know what is important,” her voice had softened, verging on cooing. She placed a hand on Chi-wen’s thigh, massaging the area she had pinched moments ago and demanding the driver to speed up. But what was important? Going to a class that made her unhappy? Chi-wen was confused by her mother’s sudden mellowing, a show her mother put on to placate her.

Stepping into the classroom, Chi-wen saw Four-Eyed-Big-Butt standing on the podium, ticking names off a roster. She was wearing a red halter and green skirt that flared out wide even without a crinoline. Seeing Chi-wen, she said, “You’re late again.” As she moved closer, Chi-wen smelled the hot sweat on her chest. “Helen,” she said, using Chi-wen’s English name, “you remember the dictation starts at six fifteen?”

Standing in the doorway, looking around the classroom, Chi-wen said, “Yes I do.” Taking a few mini steps back and readjusting her schoolbag, she inhaled quickly and balled up her fists. “But I was detained by a dead man.” Lips curled up, she scanned the faces of her other nine classmates, satisfied with the effects created by her words, as her peers craned forward, opening their mouths mildly.

“A dead man?” Now, it was Four-Eyed-Big-Butt craning her neck. She thumped back to the podium in her heavy wedge sandals. “A dead man?” She steadied her weight with both hands on the wooden edges. Her eyes enlarged.

“Yes, a dead man.” Chi-wen shoved her hand into her shorts pocket.


Chi-wen will not forget what she said that day after Four-Eyed-Big-Butt urged her to tell the full story (Four-Eyed-Big-Butt stood by an empty chair next to Sam, and Chi-wen took up the center of the room). She remembers making up the story of seeing the man sitting on his windowsill crying. He looked thirty, his face younger than her father’s, wearing a flannel shirt that had many threads poking out and a pair of oversized brown sandals, his hair—unwashed for many days—reflected the sun. He leaned partially back into his room, wrapping the white curtain around his left arm. People started gathering under his window, reeking of underarm sweat, their heads blocking Chi-wen’s view. The man’s feet seemed disproportionately big by the contrast between his chicken legs and gigantic sandals. Chi-wen did not know why he would wear those sandals; in her opinion (she scratched her head to show hesitation, to suggest this was just her personal assumption), he wore them because they would help him slip, lose his purchase easily, so there would be a lesser chance for him to climb back in.

As more and more people flocked under his window (Chi-wen took a little digression, introducing the restaurant and store owners and her past encounters with the; Four-Eyed-Big-Butt had taken a seat among the students, who had squeezed their eyes into curious triangles), they started booing, razzing him, daring him to jump. Some had thrown their arms forward and some pointed at the ground with their index fingers. Chi-wen and her mother stood in the outer circle of the crowd, and as they looked around, many people were shouting out, “Jump, jump, jump!” as if they were anticipating a professional diver to perform some acrobatic dives.

Chi-wen said the remaining summer heat had become unbearable in the human forest. She kept wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. The man had stopped sobbing; he just sat there, stupefied, half of his body turned toward the curtain, his legs dangling languidly in the air. There were police sirens in the distance, but soon they petered out. It was probably just patrol cars. As Chi-wen felt being pushed forward, she saw two more circles of people behind her. The adult bodies towered over her, enveloping her in their vehement saliva-sending yells. She heard children giggle as well, and shriek in the way of wild animals.

Chi-wen did not calculate how long the man had sat (she realized her story had bewitched them; glancing at the clock through the corner of her eye, she saw it was half past six). She bowed her head for a while, and when she heard a woman pipe at the top of her lung, she almost bit her tongue in shock. She looked up immediately and saw a sandal swooping through the air. The man had scrambled up, left sandal on, holding onto the jamb. He quivered, thin as a lightning rod. (Chi-wen realized two sixth-grade girls leaned forward on tiptoes.)

It was then that her mother suggested they turn around. She grabbed Chi-wen’s arm and said they better run. Chi-wen felt her heartbeat accelerate as they nudged their way through. They fled as if a bomb were to be dropped. They did not look back, did not see anything. After a while, they suddenly heard the crowd scream. They sped up, never looked back. Chi-wen remembered hearing a faint, dull sound, the kind of sound a baseball bat would leave on a metal pipe.

They kept running and running until they reached the main road. Taking deep breaths, pacing around. In denial. Then, they told themselves it was good they did not see anything, that they had stood near the outside of the crowd and left early. Then they hailed a cab.

When Chi-wen finished the story, utter astonishment was written on the faces before her. She observed their transformation through the cooldown. Slowly, astonishment dissolved and coalesced into mysterious smiles, head shakes, and hums through the nose.

“So, you didn’t really see him jump?” Sam, who sat next to Four-Eyed-Big-Butt, a fifth grader from a prestigious elementary school, asked, pushing his glasses up. His father was the top journalist at Wuhan Daily.

“No, I didn’t,” Chi-wen said, rubbing her hands together.

“So, you aren’t really sure if he died or not?”

“I’m not sure, but from that height . . . ” Chi-wen realized there was no turning back, that she had left a big hole when she waltzed into the fabrication, that she had, somehow, involuntarily stayed away from the decisive jumping so she had lost all the authority. She had ruined it. But quickly, she comforted and reassured herself that it was fine, that she had managed to describe the man and make him sound real, make her excuse for lateness real, and skip the dictation.

“OK, if you did not see it, you could not say he was a dead man. Accuracy, factuality—these are the tenets my father keeps telling me.” Sam jutted his chin out, a triumphant smile on his face. “You believe what your eyes see. I have seen an old man lowered into a coffin in the countryside of Linyi. My father was reporting on the funeral traditions there and he took me with him.” Sam started twirling a pen between his index and middle fingers.

“Well, well,” Four-Eyed-Big-Butt clapped her hands, cleared her throat, and said, “There was a girl in my college who was hit by a car and had to be carried by four strong men to the hospital.” Her face was red with excitement. She leaned closer to her students. “It’s horrible! I still cannot forget that!”

Chi-wen dashed to her usual seat in front of Sue and Candice, two fourth graders who constantly queened it over Chi-wen for being older. Now, they looked up at Chi-wen and begged her to tell more.

The classroom burst into a lively discussion. Four-Eyed-Big-Butt completely forgot their dictation; instead, she turned to Kevin, who was stammering, saliva flying, about his experience with an old man on the bus who suddenly had a heart attack. She kept raising her voice, forming a trumpet around her mouth with her hands, and blowing hard so everyone had to stop and listen to her. Her brown eyes bulged out like two copper bells.

Although after the recess, she remembered the dictation again; she said she would be lenient this time and gave them one more week to prepare.


Years later, whenever Chi-wen harks back to the rest of that night, feelings of wonder always come over her, as if a special switch were flipped on or a button pressed.

They were idling the night away, reviewing some passages, listening to simple English songs. This old man, he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb. This was all Chi-wen could commit to memory. Near the end of the class, when Four-Eyed-Big-Butt handed back their dictation sheets from a week ago, she put it gently in Chi-wen’s hands. She said some encouraging words; she said she would help Chi-wen along the way. Her face was still wine red; a few strands of hairs fell over her eyes.

When her mother came to pick her up that night, Chi-wen detected some change in her as well. As she told her mother what her teacher had said, her mother pecked her on both cheeks. Lighthearted, Chi-wen went on to say that she had begun to like her teacher, that she felt English was, after all, not so hard. Upon hearing her words, her mother gave her another two pecks.


Chi-wen has been interviewed in different places: a carpeted room where she sat in a sofa, water and fruit served, lighting perfect on her face; a café nook, a rather new thing, where the interviewer asked questions and wrote in a hard-covered notebook with a lock on it; and at other times, meeting rooms and personal offices in tall buildings that resemble the one she works in.

Now, twenty-five, Chi-wen is the chief editor for a local magazine called Story Hub. She reads submissions for the horror section. In the interviews, she was asked what had helped her develop a taste for horror stories, if reading and judging stories of this kind was the thing she had been wanting to do. Chi-wen said reading a lot and comparing genres helped; she said she was unsure in the beginning, as she was just looking forward to working in the writing field, but then she ended up here. She never mentioned the specificities of her elementary school years—her parents, her eavesdropping on the country people, her going to school and the English class, her close shave with the dead man.

Then there was the question about what kind of story she hopes to encounter in submissions. She said she preferred stories that are subtler, that keep horror at arm’s length and gussy it up as an alluring trap, so when you get really close, true horror suddenly reveals itself and swallows you, and then you realize how tricky the measurement of distance is and how with one further step, things will gain a new shade. Chi-wen did not blink, did not duck and cover in her response. Her answer to this question is honest and the longest in all the answers she has given.

This is the furthest she allows herself to go, the most to reveal. She believes what she has gone through is private and particular only to herself, like the stones formed in her kidney and the little extra growth of tissue in her breasts; obstinacy abounds in her decision to conceal, to circumvent the danger that lurks behind a chunk of past. But at other times, she feels intensely that what happened to her was not special and ought to be given out generously, that every Chinese kid that age would suffer, stay on tenterhooks with their parents and teachers, and enjoy being secretly cruel one way or another. She has made too much of what remains inside her head, she thinks, so much that she has created mirages of uniqueness.

But looking back on those moments, the moments when she stood in front of the classroom making up a story to save herself from scolding and punishments, the moments when her mother pecked her on both cheeks (and bought her a sundae on their way home), Chi-wen wonders what would have happened if she had seen the body either in reality or in imagination. Maybe then, she would not have mustered the courage to tell the story—after all, cruelty is the kind of privilege you abuse when you have wiggle room, not bound to or tied down by anything, not truly threatened or paralyzed, floating about freely. She is rather taken aback by her seemingly innocuous dodging of the actual body in her storytelling, the subconscious need to protect herself from something that would otherwise have been overwhelming, horrendous, traumatizing.

She dwells on various sorts of cruelties meted out to her, thinking of her parents and their love for her, of the scandalous talks by countryside people in their stores. There is always a safe distance between them and some legendary horror that sanctions the use of cruelty—if Chi-wen had been reduced to a wreck, with tears on her face and pee in her pants all the time, would her parents have treated her the same way? If the hare-lipped and cross-eyed boys and girls had been the store owners’ unfortunate fruits, would they have laughed wholeheartedly, throwing their heads back and slapping their thighs?


The last time Chi-wen drove down Prosperous Road was in 2017, after she put her mother in the hospital for a second round of brain tumor chemotherapy. Their old building and nearby apartment buildings were still there, but the stores and restaurants had been torn down. (In fact, they had been torn down not long after Chi-wen went to college, after her family moved into their new place in a downtown area—her parents still live there—where steak and seafood and exotic barbecue have since then become their frequent options.) There was not a whiff of crudeness anymore, as unnecessarily high and fancy glass buildings were erected to live up to the name of Prosperous Road. Ornamental shrubs were planted at even intervals (greening was a countrywide notion!) and streetlights with grillwork stood elegantly behind them. Everything was marching toward internationalization: the buildings had their names in English letters under the Chinese characters, so did the signposts. Men walked out of high-rises in perfectly ironed black suits and women in pointy-toed black high heels.

Chi-wen wondered what her mother would say, seeing these changes. She had never talked with her about them. In the hospital room where she stayed, her mother would look out of the window by herself, watching thoroughfares and overpasses, swarms of cars beeping and cutting in one another’s way, and later in the day, children coming out of school. They can still go to extracurricular English classes, but they do not have to, because English has become a required subject in all schools where grades and seats do not necessarily correspond.  

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