13 Yinyang Grotto…
He made the events of their past die quickly in her body. Working like a bolt of lightning, he frightened her, hurt her, made her aware that her body had another mouth she didn't know about that also breathed and moaned. Slowly developed commitments were his enemy; the quick heat of friction was his friend. Penetrating the void within her, terminating her deep, obscuring sleep, he conquered time, driving it deep into the channel of her being…
Friction let him see the light of the sun. Friction made her smell the odor of death.
With some experiences, it is only afterward that I become aware of the extent of their effect upon me.
On that occasion, however, all that I could think of was getting out of this city, getting away from the chaos of my feelings…
The day after Ti's unexpected appearance, I hurriedly packed some things to go away.
I hardly slept at all the night before I left. The pressure of Ti's body against my skin and in my thoughts was with me constantly. I was enmeshed in a contradiction of denied desire and rejected yearning and at a loss to explain my needs or my actions.
By early morning, I had decided that I would get rid of my confusion by thoroughly distancing myself from its source.
Making use of the then current notion of "getting back to nature" (nothing more than an excuse), I told my mother that for the past several years I had been almost suffocating under the weight of books, living like a lifeless wooden puppet absurdly manipulated on the sticks of the university entrance exams and my future. Living in a city far away from nature had left me exhausted beyond measure. I needed to go somewhere to unwind, to clear my head.
When out of the blue I mentioned that I was going on a trip, Mother, quite taken aback, said, "You want to closet yourself away in some country village?"
"I'm going with Yi Qiu and some of our classmates. It's just for a few days, for a change of scenery," I lied.
Exceedingly anxious, and dubious about my travel plans, Mother trotted out something from her reading to dissuade me.
She said, "Those people who see nature find it wherever they are; those who cannot see it can never find it, no matter where they might be. Even if genuine nature were all around you, it doesn't necessarily mean that you would enjoy it. Your surroundings are not the source of your problem."
"But all I want to do is get some fresh air and sun," I said. Not about to let anything dissuade me, as I was speaking, I stubbornly continued stuffing my clothes into a canvas backpack.
Looking at my pale face and the dark circles under my eyes with an aching heart, my mother heaved a sigh and gave up trying to stop me.
I wasn't at all interested in looking at scenery or in having company. I liked traveling by myself because being with someone else or with a group interfered with my private thoughts.
Sitting by the window on the bus, looking at the hazy green mountains in the distance, the loess hills, the low-lying scattered villages, the quiet streams in the brown mountains, and the bare valleys, I began to feel an unexpected tranquility.
I took a room in a small, out-of-the-way inn outside the city. It was dim, gloomy, and simply appointed, but clean and quiet. A long path through lush grass and bright wildflowers connected it with the bus station. A few mournful steam whistles echoing melodiously in the evening mist provided a musical backdrop, and the evening breeze brushing my shoulders induced in me an expansive, relaxed happiness. The air carried a rich scent of lavender; and roses, strawberries, and a variety of flowering shrubs enclosed this otherwise rather bleak country inn in a confusion of color.
Several low green hedges willy-nilly formed an enclosure for a tiny park. I sat down on a secluded stone bench, a jacket around my shoulders, looking as if I were waiting for someone. In truth, there was no one for me to be waiting for, but I didn't feel the least bit lonely, because I was enjoying a moment of happiness that I myself had created.
Sitting there, I for some reason felt an urge to write someone a letter.
So I went back to the inn, where I sat cross-legged on the clean enough bed, placing the writing pad I had brought with me on my knees, with a book underneath for support.
But who was I going to write to? The first person to come to mind was Ho. Since we had never written to each other before, I thought that it would be perfect to write to her now that we were separated, using my imagination to draw a scene for her. She would no doubt find the most beautiful and the warmest landscapes of my spirit in the letter. I imagined her propped up in her big bed, her slender, delicate figure draped casually on it, like a piece of lustrous, soft silk. When she got my letter she would be surprised and overjoyed. She would touch every word as carefully as if she were touching my eyes.
I realized at that moment that I missed her very much.
After that, I wrote a letter to Ti, fiercely denouncing him for all the ways he had mistreated me over the years, telling him how much I hated him, how I couldn't stand living under the same sky, that I didn't want to see him again, that I never wanted to see him again, ever! But in the close of the letter I contradicted myself, saying that should the opportunity arise, perhaps I might see him again. But I knew that I would see him only to make him suffer out of his desire for my body. I would take great delight in seeing his torment.
Writing letters gives me extreme pleasure. There is no more effective way of experiencing the pleasure of getting away from people and living by yourself. All those faraway moments of sorrow and joy are so close you can reach out and touch them, while when you are actually among the people you know, such feelings can often elude you.
My letters written, I heaved a sigh of relief, as if the sole purpose of my journey had been to write them.
The next day, after I had dropped them off at the local post office, I found myself in a vacant mood. After a few days idly enjoying some of the scenic spots, I found myself thinking of going home.
In the morning, just as I was thinking of packing up to leave and paying my bill, there was a knock on the door.
I knew that it wasn't the chambermaid, because the knock seemed somehow hesitant, exploratory, and eager. It sounded like a familiar heartbeat. Though separated from it by the door, I knew that it was the same heartbeat that had lingered against my breast a few days earlier.
I rushed over to the door and swung it open.
And, sure enough, there was Ti, looking absolutely forlorn.
I don't know why, but seeing him there didn't surprise me in the least. It seemed as if I had been expecting him, even though this made no sense, since nobody knew where I was. Yet I had no idea how he had been able to find me.
When he saw me, he stared at my face, and after a few moments of hesitation, he heaved a sigh and came into the room.
He said, "Niuniu, is there anything wrong?"
"I'm fine," I said.
After staring at me again for a while, he shifted his gaze from my face and took in the rest of the room, his brows furrowed slightly.
"Niuniu, going off by yourself like this is dangerous. There are a lot of bad people out there."
The way he spoke made it sound like he was the kind of person there was no need to worry about.
"It's none of your concern," I answered coldly.
Apparently taking no note of what I had said, he continued, "Next time you want to go away for a holiday, I'll go with you. You mustn't go alone."
I continued my cold rejection of his concern. "What I do is none of your business."
"Niuniu, don't be like that. I set out this morning before dawn to look for you. I figured out where you were from the postmark on your letter. This is the second hotel I've come to. Do you have any idea how worried I've been?"
I made no answer, leaving him to do the talking. But his appearance and his sincerity were slowly weakening my resistance.
He was silent for a while, then said, "Niuniu, I miss you."
Feigning total indifference, I looked away from him, still not saying anything.
Standing there without having moved, without any encouragement, he continued, "I long for you every hour, every minute of the day. I don't know what to do…"
His words came slowly and heavily, as if they were great stones blocking the space between us, impeding him; not his usual crafted sentences.
"Niuniu, I don't want to hurt you in any way. I'm out of control. All I want to do is see you, be with you."
I noticed that he had picked up again on the key issue of our last conversation, which I had cut short. I also noticed that when he uttered my name, his voice shook.
The room fell silent as death.
He didn't come over and touch me. Some nameless force seemed to hold his feet frozen to the floor. I still didn't look at him directly, but I could glimpse his face and figure at the edge of my field of vision. He looked totally despondent. The gloom in his heart had completely sucked away the former brightness of his face. Even in the stillness and stifling heat of midday his cheeks looked as colorless and hopeless as a frozen wasteland. He was wearing a pair of military shorts, and his long, brown legs looked as powerful as those of a straining workhorse. Those silent legs had a strange power that drew my eyes.
I forced myself to turn my head away.
Then I turned my back on him and fixed my gaze on a huge spider-web on the wall. Like a delicate wing, the silk web trembled in a slight draft. Pointlessly, I continued to stare at it, as if it were some fascinating thing.
Then I heard movement behind me. I could hear each step as he drew nearer; I could even hear the sound of his breathing.
But the sounds stopped when he was still about a footstep away from me.
He took a breath and then said, "Niuniu, I want to take you somewhere to eat. You must have been terribly hungry over these last few days." As he spoke, he squeezed my arms. "Look, pretty soon you won't weigh any more than your photograph."
No sooner had he said this than my stomach began to growl with hunger.
And at last, I turned around to face him, and nodded my head in agreement.
Crowing with joy, Ti lifted me off the ground and swung me around with my feet in the air.
He shouldered my pack, paid my bill, called a taxi, and we were on our way.
It was the same road that I had arrived on, but now it seemed totally different. When I came, we bounced along depressingly, the pencil-straight road looming out of and disappearing into the encroaching gloom. The interminable road with its indistinctive background, like my own train of thought weighted down with cares, thought only of pushing onward.
But now the road was altogether different. Bordered with a rose haze, under the midday sun it glittered like undulating black silk. The depth and richness of the dark green of growing crops, the black of freshly turned loam, the mottled brown-and-white cows, the trailing shadows of sinuous trees captured the eyes. The roadside stone walls, the granaries, and the lush wild grasses embroidered the borders of this otherwise uninteresting road.
After a drive of two hours or so, we were back in the city center.
Ti said, "I'm going to take you to a new-style grotto restaurant for dinner. It's operated by a friend of mine from my army days. It has a style all its own."
Our taxi pulled up in front of a restaurant called Banpo Village on a main downtown street.
After we had wound our way downstairs and entered the reception room, I gave the place a cursory survey. The lighting was muted, and each of the grottoes had its own natural setting, with winding paths leading to sequestered nooks. Each one was thoughtfully decorated to fit a particular theme, with every detail accounted for, so that they were independent of one another, each with its own distinct flavor. It goes without saying that the place had its own special charm and appeal.
The owner came out to welcome us. After a spirited exchange of greetings with his old army buddy, Ti turned to me and said, "This is the village head, Mr. Zhao."
"Village head?" I queried.
Mr. Zhao said, "We've taken our ideas from the archaeological remains of the Banpo tribal village, and used Banpo culture as the theme of our restaurant. That's why we call it a village. So I'm the present village head, and you, my dear, are now one of our citizens."
Mr. Zhao then gave us a guided tour of the restaurant's six separate grottoes. We went into the bar first. A group of Qin dynasty terra-cotta warriors stood guard in one corner, and a number of niches for the display of a variety of bottled liquors had been cut into the walls. The bar itself was decorated with lengths of ancient, crude hempen rope, and in the cupboards behind it was a display of pottery bowls with the "face-and-fish" motifs, well buckets, colored ceramic jars, and records kept on knotted strings and wooden slips used by the original citizens of Banpo.
Zhao said, "We'll show you around first, and then you can decide where you'd like to eat."
We looked at the "Tribal Chieftain's Grotto" first. Ti said he was sure that the drawings on the walls depicted the story of Hou Yi, the monarch of the Xia dynasty state of Youqiong, shooting the sun with his bow, and agricultural and hunting scenes of the people of Banpo. There were already a number of diners enjoying a noisy meal there, so we looked into the "Fish Room." The walls were covered with ancient pictographic inscriptions. This "fish and worm" writing bespoke the incomparable satisfaction that goes with sipping fine wine as one softly hums a beautiful tune. Next, we went into the "Han Room," which was richly decorated with black dragon and white tiger designs taken from the ends of eaves tiles. A sculpture of a Han dynasty raconteur sat commandingly in the center of the grotto as if he were still telling tales of past and present glories.
Then, the "village head" solemnly recommended the "Yinyang Grotto" to us. When Ti and I entered the room, we were immediately struck by its muted, candlelit ambience and the walls covered with paintings of Han dancing beauties and a series of romantic images of lovemaking.
Ti immediately said, "Here – we'll eat here."