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***


I was awakened by my own sobbing to find that I was lying with my face in my exercise book, its pages wet with my tears.

Just at that point, the wind outside my window began to howl as if it had gone mad, with such intensity that it seemed it would blow itself out. Sitting up straight, I tried to concentrate, but my mind was too confused. I could make no sense of what had just happened. In the end, I was so unsettled that I ran over to see Widow Ho.

There was no moon and it was very dark out, with only the dim light reflected from the snow on the ground. I made a wild dash from our courtyard through the raging blizzard to pound on her door.

When she opened the door, she looked as alert and cautious as a cat, but when she saw that it was me, she gave a sigh of relief and suddenly looked tired and sleepy. She lay down on her bed again, looking rather ill.

"What's wrong, Niuniu?" she asked me in a husky, tired voice, as she was lying down. It was as if the words came only with great effort, not from her lips but from somewhere deep within her body, because her lips did not seem to have moved at all.

"I just came to see if you were okay."

"Thank you, Niuniu, I'm fine."

Standing in the doorway, I was looking at her smooth, milk-white skin. She was wearing a long, white nightgown that was far too big for her thin frame. Lying there on her big, soft, fluffy bed, she looked like a pure white lily, as peaceful as still water, although she had suffered her share of the endless uncertainties of life.

I have always had a special kind of feeling about her. She was my neighbor and I was always able to catch a glimpse of her coming and going. She was a kind of light in my otherwise bland inner life. In her I had found a warm and close friend, a special kind of woman who could take the place of my mother. When she was near me, even if we were silent, a fragrant warm feeling of security and gentleness enclosed me. This feeling was a kind of intangible glow that bathed or illumined my skin. And unlike the energy of remote control devices that can be blocked by intervening objects, it was of such strength that nothing could stay it.

I think it is principally bonds like this that can develop between people that distinguish us from stones.

When I saw that there was nothing wrong, and how lovely she looked lying there on her bed, I went back home reassured and was soon asleep.

Early the next morning, I knew that I was sick when I awoke with the cold shivers and a terrible headache. I was definitely running a fever. Although my entire body was hot and my pajamas were soaked through with sweat, I felt like an open refrigerator spilling out its icy air.

Lying on my bed, I made an effort to call my mother, but my voice sounded like a bunch of fluttering feathers and my ears started to ring. I called a number of times, but for some reason the entire house remained silent, and there was no sign of my mother. I didn't have the strength to call anymore, so all I could do was wait.

It was only after I stopped calling that I heard a commotion in the courtyard outside. A confused scuffling of feet seemed to come from the courtyard facing ours. I was able to make out a few words, like "died" and "police."

Just then, my mother strode into my room in great agitation, saying, "Niuniu, Mrs. Ge has been murdered. Whatever you do, don't leave the house."

When she came close and saw that I was burning with a fever as fierce as glowing coals and curled up in a ball shivering uncontrollably, she cried out, "Oh my god!"

My father was busy with meetings in another province and hadn't been home for many days. This morning, my mother, alone and suddenly faced with crises both at home and at the neighbor's, couldn't avoid feeling flustered.

She made me open my mouth, and in the light from the window she checked my throat. "Look at that," she said, "your throat is swollen almost shut!"

She nattered on about a grown-up girl like me making a snowman as if I were still a child, while she was looking in the closet for our thickest padded cotton coat to bundle me up in. She was convinced that my fever was the result of my spending too much time playing in the snow.

I rode to the hospital on the back of Mother's bicycle. As we passed by the Ges' courtyard, I saw many people milling around their door with strange expressions on their faces, their chatter spilling out on the snow. Like a layer of deep shadow, this atmosphere wiped away the lifeless emptiness of winter in the courtyard. The police were also there, like so many green trees on little wheels. With little to say and showing no signs of being the least bit touched, they shunted about the snow-covered courtyard telling people to move, to stand back. From the irritation on their faces, I could see that they detested disorder. They were trying to provide a framework of stability for the disquieted crowd, to bring some order to the chaotic courtyard.

From childhood I have always suffered from a kind of unaccountable inner chaos, as if the cells within my body could exist only under a frightening state of total anarchy. So I have always instinctively stayed clear of the kind of order represented by the police. Now, when I saw that the police had arrived, my entire body suddenly became tense.

I heard some of the neighbors secretively discussing how Mr. Ge had fled without leaving a trace after strangling his wife with his belt.

These frightening details stabbed into my brain to explode like great rolls of thunder. I felt dizzy and had to gasp for breath. My fear turned the short path through their front courtyard that I was so familiar with into a black and endless corridor.

It seemed that the air was filled with the smell of rotting flesh, and the withered and bare wisteria in their courtyard suddenly reminded me of my dream.

I began to shake uncontrollably.


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