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After walking a while, I suddenly noticed that the bodies of all the people on the street seemed to have turned into biological specimens. They looked like people, but all you had to do was reach out a hand and push them and they would fall to the ground like leaves off cornstalks. These fallen life forms were lying on the thick, rich earth dappled with golden light, gasping their last broken breaths and stretching unceasingly as they emitted streams of bubblelike yawns from the tops of their heads. Then their heads fell to one side and they turned into broken skeletons with only testicles or breasts, like the ones I had seen in Mr. Ti's office, as huge as winter melons. Aside from that, they retained nothing, absolutely nothing.

Or else I noticed that the people around me gradually crouched down, becoming shorter and shorter, their coloring seemingly getting darker and their originally upright bodies assuming crawling positions as they became completely gray. When I took a closer look, I discovered that these people were not people at all but wolves in human form, and that I, totally unaware of it, had been walking in the midst of a pack of wolves. I was frightened because I had discovered that I could neither exist as an independent individual nor change myself into a female wolf

For a very long time these two visions continued to return to me as I walked among the crowds on the streets.

Over the years since that time, right up to the present day, I have continued to enjoy wandering the streets alone. To avoid a recurrence of the scenes described above, I force myself to avoid major roads and large crowds and walk on uneven, irregular side streets. It seems that my dislike of smooth, solid main roads has become one of my lifelong idiosyncracies. And I've also found that the only roads I enjoy walking on are those that are free of people and illuminated by the first rays of morning sunlight, or suffused with the waning tints of twilight.

Walking along that Sunday, I suddenly thought of someone. I knew that when my mother couldn't find me, she would go to her. Mama always did. She would be waiting under the date tree in our courtyard, sitting there in the cold, damp mist or evening breeze trying to connect with me through mystical Daoist spells. There would be several empty tin cans in front of her, filled with curses or blessings. The can for me would always be filled with blessings; the one for the people I hated, with curses.

She was always sitting in the courtyard waiting for me when school was out. She was, of course, our neighbor across the way, Widow Ho, with her wonderful, enchanting voice. I made a quick about turn and headed for her house.

Ridden with anxiety, I hesitated at the entrance to her courtyard, glanced back at my own home opposite, then went in.

She was playing her old records, and when I entered the room I noted an almost imperceptible flicker in the deep pools of her eyes. Putting down the record she was holding as if it were a fragile wafer, she lifted the needle from the old-fashioned phonograph and the music stopped abruptly.

The languid, graceful beauty of her features and her bearing was accentuated by the silence that filled the room. The pupils of her long and ample eyes sparkled like black porcelain pots; her serene forehead was smooth and wide; her legs, long as a deer's, were as lustrous as slender bolts of silk spilling from her waist.

She calmly extended her arms to receive me.

As I moved toward her, my agitation amazingly began to subside.

From nowhere, a feeling that she understood me seemed to be flooding upward through the soles of my feet.

This young widow, well over ten years my senior, always generated in me this strange feeling of understanding, no matter what it was I had done. Just as her voice did, her presence generated in people a fragile feeling of hope.

Taking my hands firmly in her own, she said with great concern, "Niuniu, what's happened?"

It seemed that after blindly walking the streets for hours, I had at last found a place where I could jettison my "garbage."

I said, "Papa's trousers, I cut the legs off."

She said, "So what? Don't be afraid, don't be afraid." She drew me to her bosom. "Those scissors must have taken your hand. They did it themselves, didn't they."

I said, "Yes, they did really. I had no intention of cutting Papa's trousers. Before I knew what was going on, the legs were cut off. I didn't do it on purpose."

"There, there, it's all right, it's okay," said Ho, gently patting and caressing my back. Her hands moved with such a wondrous dexterity that I began to feel like a leaf floating in the wind.

Then she got up and brought a clean, damp cloth to wipe my face and my feet. After that she had me lie down on her bed with her jade pillow under my head.

The pillow was made with real jade beads of a creamy green so rich that they almost seemed to exude moisture. The oval-shaped beads, stitched to a maroon flannelette backing, felt as cool as snow. As soon as she put it under my head, I felt their coolness moving along the strands of my hair to penetrate my scalp and melt away my confusion.

Mother once told me that the old emperors used to sleep on jade pillows.

Long before that I had heard Nanny say that Ho's family were descendants of a high Manchu official in the Qing dynasty who was born in the area around the Fragrant Hills. One of her early forebears was the Yinyang Overseer in charge of fengshui at the Imperial Board of Astrology at the time of Emperor Qianlong, and was also associated with Cao Xueqin for a time. In the fourteenth year of his reign, Qianlong had a special Flying Tiger crack assault battalion of 3,000 officers and enlisted men established in the Fragrant Hills, in accordance with the territorial divisions of the eight-banner system. Qianlong sent this Yinyang Overseer, accompanied by the deputy commander of the Fragrant Hills defense force, to investigate the fengshui characteristics of the area. When the Imperial Astrologer looked eastward from the buildings cresting the hills, he noted a mountain ridge running from east to west covered with verdant green forests and fields of wildflowers, like a phoenix with outspread wings. This, of course, is famous Phoenix Mountain. Instantly delighted, the overseer declared that the ridge to the north would be called Turtle Mountain since it looked like the back of a divine turtle; that a peak in the distance, the turtle's head, would be called Red Head Mountain; and that the small hill immediately before him was the turtle's tail. Since the divine turtle was a kind of dragon, he said, the area possessed the energy of both the phoenix and the dragon and was surely a precious fengshui site. He immediately dispatched a report to the emperor and had a map drawn demarcating the area. Then the emperor ordered the eviction of people of Han nationality from the Fragrant Hills.

Following this, Cao Xueqin sought audience with the overseer and told him that although the Fragrant Hills were indeed a precious feng-shui site, they were lacking in water, one of the five elements, and that since forests could not thrive on mountains without water and birds could not survive without forests, it would be impossible for the phoenix to fly. But since the written characters for "Han," or Chinese people, and for "Man," or Manchu people, both contained the three dots symbolizing water, if they were to allow the Hans to be scattered throughout all the villages in the area on the pattern of one Han for every two Manchus, that would mean a total of nine water dots; since nine symbolized plenty, a sufficiency of water on the Fragrant Hills would be assured, the dragon would be able to coil and the phoenix fly, and good fengshui would be certain.

The overseer deeply appreciated Cao's reasoning and agreed that this be carried out, and so informed the emperor. So it is that the Han and Manchu peoples have lived in harmony in the Fragrant Hills, generation after generation, ever since.

Ho's forebears had been very well off. Cultured and refined, they had lived in unusual splendor. Although, generation by generation, through the fickle turns of history, the family had gradually descended into abject poverty, an element of their aristocratic and scholarly demeanor still shone through in her.

Widow Ho graduated from university in her early twenties and was assigned a teaching position in a middle school. Her husband, also a descendant of Manchu aristocracy, possessed a casual elegance and was talented and free-thinking. Skilled in music, chess, calligraphy, and painting, he looked very much like Vasily in the film Lenin in October. Fair-skinned, tall, and slim, with a high Russian nose, he cut a dashing figure in his peaked cap. He worked as a music teacher in a cultural center. Although his mundane career had nothing in common with the life of his ancestors, he carried on the indulgent excesses in eating, drinking, womanizing, and gambling that were the trademark of aristocratic sons.

In their early marriage he was thoughtful and loving, and they spent every night billing and cooing in each other's arms as the Voice of America rattled on incomprehensibly on the radio. But it wasn't long before he found a new pleasure, having become infatuated with a Miss Xu, a middle-aged accordion player who had been assigned to the cultural center after her release from a song-and-dance troupe. The two of them sang and played together, small talk turning to sweet talk, until he began spending nights with her, using the excuse that he was performing with the center's propaganda team. Eventually he came down with a mysterious fever and died very suddenly, making his wife a widow before she had time to get pregnant or even reveal his tawdry behavior.

Not long after the death of her husband, she came down with diabetes, and in less than a year she was so weakened that she had to give up her job and live on a disability allowance.

All these things I had picked up from listening to our one-eyed Nanny on those long summer evenings when she would fan me as she whiled away the time chatting with Mother.

In those days I thought that Ho was very aloof, a mysterious and eccentric woman. I felt that she was different from other people, but in what way, I couldn't say. Even though I liked to be with her, I was also a bit afraid of her.

It was only after I had grown up that I understood that loneliness is a kind of power.

I remember that after Ho's husband died, every time Nanny cooked something good, Mother would have me take some over to her. Nanny said that life was hard for her on her own like that.

Ho's husband, however, had made very little impression on me. I only vaguely remember that there used to be a man always coming and going, and that he was so tall he had to duck when he went through the door. If he wasn't chewing something, he would have either a straw from a whisk broom or a toothpick between his teeth, and when he saw my mother he would smile and say hello. I also dimly recall that sometimes, if I happened to be near him, he would take several huge puffs on his cigarette and bend down to blow the smoke slowly into my face, and then chuckle to himself. The smoke was thick, with a strong aroma. Afterward, I heard that he became severely ill with shingles, which later developed into some strange kind of fever. When he died, it was said that his internal organs were covered with herpes blisters.

I remember considerably more of the events that followed. I often watched Ho jab needles into her own body. She explained that they were insulin injections. I remember her always leaning against the door frame, shielding her eyes with her hand to block out the pallid evening sun. She gazed into the distance as if she were waiting for someone to return home. She would stand there for a while, then go back inside, but the sense of loss on her face would persist. Maybe she was tired.

By this time, I was feeling a lot calmer, and lying there on Ho's bed, I became aware of a delicate feminine fragrance that gradually enveloped me. A clear scent of lavender and mint floated on the room's increasing shade. I lifted my head and looked around at the oppressive greenish light reflected from the pale, bare walls. The gloomy atmosphere of the room made the light slanting in through the window particularly noticeable.

In my memory, Widow Ho's place has always had the air of a changing room, with invisible mirrors on all sides. As soon as you enter a room like this, you feel like you are lost in a labyrinth endlessly beckoning you left and right. This room is for women only. Here, without break, one or two women try on clothes and take them off. They do not talk. They use code to communicate. It seems there are male eyes hidden behind the room's invisible mirrors, furtively watching, using their sight to touch the secrets in the women's gestures. The women here deeply fear that others will reveal their secrets, deeply fear the passage of time, deeply fear contact with the world outside. They deeply fear, too, that the world will abandon them when they reach menopause. The light here always leads people to misconceptions; the image of woman is at once genuine and false. Women feel like they are suffocating, like the supply of oxygen is uncertain. They are uneasy. From the distant horizon on all sides, rumors of every sort press in upon them. They have a vague feeling that they are forever in danger.

Most of Ho's furniture was old-fashioned, in yellow rosewood. The traditional depictions of dragons and phoenixes that had been carved into the chairs and tall and short cabinets created an overall feeling of age and decay, without the least hint of freshness.

Ho enjoyed smoking her long, thin-stemmed pipe. Looking for something to do to fill the time after her husband died, she perhaps dug his pipe out from among their old things and started smoking to dispel her emptiness. The pipe stem had a sparkling emerald-green jade mouthpiece. The silent jade flowers on it intrigued me, for it seemed that they had been coaxed into blossom by her constant kisses. She didn't smoke like those old grandpas and grannies you see. Taking tobacco leaves of the finest quality, she would work them carefully between her long, slender fingers to the consistency she wanted. Anyone watching her do it could not possibly think that this was simply a matter of getting the tobacco crushed and into the bowl of the pipe. The leisurely, lingering way she went about it made you feel that her fingertips were savoring the pure fragrance of the tobacco. Only after this would she fill the pipe and light it. After she had inhaled deeply a few times, a pink glow would suffuse her face, as if the smoke were turning into blood and gradually mounting to her cheeks.

Her long, slender arm crooked to support the long-stemmed pipe created a pleasing geometrical figure. When she smoked, her eyes would partly close as a hazy bluish nebula slowly swirled and grew above her face. She seemed to be entangled in some shattered, irrelevant past occurrence, waiting interminably for some sweetheart, or for someone like herself who never came.

I remember that at that time she was twenty-five or twenty-six years old. It was only after many, many years that I realized that for all those years she had been waiting for me to grow up all the way from the 1960s when I was born. Waiting so long that the distant mountains grew taller, covered with withered vines like white hair; waiting so long that her house was totally covered with ivy that hung down in green curtains from the eaves; waiting until I had become a grown woman capable of independent thought and action like herself. The time separating us was like an intervening mountain or desert, a dividing wall, a dense fog, an inviolable taboo. These cruel obstacles obscured her vision and frustrated her desires.

All these things, of course, I became aware of only many years later.

At that time, I felt that watching her smoke was a kind of pleasure. Several years before that, in my children's books, I had seen pictures of drug addicts smoking opium. Haggard in feature with sallow complexions, those men and women had been reduced to little more than skin and bone. A breath of wind would blow them away like dried leaves. Their open mouths revealed yellowed teeth, and their breath must have been foul. It made me think that muck rather than blood must have flowed through their veins.

But watching Ho smoke was a totally different kind of experience. The delicate scent, her graceful manner, reflected an aristocratic decadence. When she exhaled, the fragrant smoke, like the soft warmth of sunlight breaking through clouds, brushed delicately across my skin, curling upward, its bluish tint set off against the room's pale walls. Still today, that delicate, resinous fragrance remains fixed in the depths of my being.

Holding her pipe, she cuddled up next to me. Whispering some comforting words, she cushioned my head on her breast. Her bosom was soft and cool, and I felt very secure with my head there. With her free hand she began caressing my back, just as I used to pet our little Sophia Loren.

"Aren't you hot?" she asked.

"No," I said.

Then she pulled my short-sleeved shirt out of my trousers, and pushing her hand up inside, she fluttered it gently. My back tickled under the repeated touch of her delicate fingertips, and when I squirmed with laughter, she stopped this and softly caressed my back.

Finishing her pipe, she slid down from the headboard until she was lying beside me, my head still cushioned on her breast. Her eyelids trembled with drowsiness. After a while she began kissing my hair, then lifting my head with her hand, she began kissing my eyes and my cheeks.

Softly she murmured, "Niuniu, your eyes are beautiful, do you know?"

I said, "I didn't know."

She said, "You're going to be very beautiful when you grow up."

I said, "I'm not beautiful like you. Nobody likes me."

"How could anyone not like you? I like you very, very much," she said.

Her words rather amazed me. Aside from my mother, no one in the world had ever said anything like that to me so openly. My heart filled with joy and love.

I said, "Mr. Ti, my father, and many of my classmates don't like me. I know."

"But I like you," she said.

"And I like you, too," I replied.

Closing her eyes, Ho smiled a moment. "What do you like about me?"

"Oh I like to look at you."

"What else?"

"Well, I like to be close to you."

Ho opened her eyes, and putting her arm around my neck, began to kiss me feelingly.

"Do you like me to kiss you?"

"Yes," I said.

Kissing me on the forehead, cheek, and neck, she slid her hand under my shirt again and began softly caressing my back. I understood why Sophia Loren had lain so quietly, with his eyes closed, when I petted him. It is wonderful to have someone caress you.

I pressed myself quietly against her, letting her do whatever she wanted, because I trusted her totally.

We stayed like that for a while, until I saw a tear roll from under a partly closed eyelid, cross her delicate cheek, and slowly re-form on her earlobe.

I said, "What's wrong?"

She didn't answer.

After a while she said, "Niuniu, would you like to kiss me?"

Not knowing what to say, I just stared at that glinting crystal teardrop as it grew, then fell to her jade pillow. It was quiet for a moment. Then I haltingly queried, "Well I kiss where?"

She pulled me to her breast as she began to cry.

I said, "Don't cry. I'll kiss you."

Then I started kissing her here and there on her chest. I said, "I think your chest is a lot like my mother's, not at all like mine."

"Niuniu, when you grow up yours will be the same."

Her breath heavy, she said, "Would you like to kiss them?"

I didn't say anything. I was a little bit afraid. Mr. Ti had gotten very angry over those drawings of private parts. Maybe it was wrong to look at them.

Ho had already opened her blouse and unfastened her brassiere. Her creamy white, translucent breasts tumbled out like a pair of peaches. Cool and as swollen as spring silkworms about to spin their cocoons, they looked like they would burst if you touched them.

"Kiss them, Niuniu."

I took her nipples into my mouth and began to suck them just as I had done when I took my mother's milk as a baby.

After a while, her breathing became agitated. I looked up and saw that her eyes were tightly closed and one of her hands was pressed tremblingly between her legs.

Frightened, I said, "Are you all right?"

Silent, she drew me down to her again.

We continued as before. Every now and then it seemed like she was about to say something, or she moaned in a peculiar way. I left only when Mother called me home for supper.

My memory of past events is like a sieve that retains only those things I want to remember those old-fashioned, melancholy songs that seemed to float from afar through the dusky evenings of the rainy season, and dim images of Ho in the fading light of her room. These things are imprinted in my mind forever.

5 The Widow Ho And Her "Changing Room" | A Private Life | 6 A Stranger To Myself