17 A Fiery Dance Of Death…
I want to share your bed in heaven. The dead best understand the dead.
Even today, there is still no clear reason why that fire had to start. It was simply the will of heaven. When I look back on it now, it still seems totally unreal, like a dream within a dream that leaves you lost and uncertain. What this fire that shocked the whole neighborhood took away from me, or, I should say, the grief that it brought to me, left me unable for days to shed the tears that were choking me.
I usually go to bed very late, because I find the noise and confusion of the daytime very taxing. The days seem interminable, they exhaust me so; but from the moment supper is finished until late into the night I am filled with a carefree contentment. I often sit quietly by myself not doing anything, with countless images of people and events passing endlessly through my mind like scenes from a movie. I relax, viewing whatever scenes happen to suit my fancy. During this time I also have dreams, dreams that are exceedingly real. I don't as a rule turn on the light, imagining instead that I am in a cave or in some huge stone crevice, talking to a person very much like myself. She sits just in front of me, breathing and talking, but I can't see her face or even her outline, because I am enveloped in a thick, obscuring darkness. I immerse myself in it, a secret and safe world, where time and space no longer exist. I sit on my sofa or pace the carpet as quiet as a cat, very careful in my movements and my words, as if I were afraid of breaking something.
I see a great many people in my dreams; for example, I once saw Mrs. Ge among a group of ghosts. She was shouting herself hoarse, holding up a small flag bearing the word revenge. Although I couldn't hear what she was shouting, I could see her words on her lips, which were twisted with anger. Her lips were a flame the color of fresh blood, which took the shape of a pictograph as it leaped upward. It was through this pictograph that I could read what she was saying. On another occasion, I saw a huge open-air market. It had just rained, and I had muddied my trousers. The vegetables in the hawkers' stalls were so gorgeously colored they looked like beautiful still-life paintings. The place was crowded with familiar faces from my childhood. When the confusion and noise subsided, through the darkness I noticed a single eye sticking very closely behind me. I tried to get a better look at the person's face or body, but aside from the eye, I couldn't see anything. That is to say, the only thing left of this person was an eye, and it was following me.
At first I was afraid, but I very quickly realized that it was my nanny's eye. When I went to buy vegetables the hawkers would always cheat me, but this time the eye beside me would let out an ear-piercing shriek that sounded like it came from hell. The hawkers looked around in alarm for the source, but they could see that it wasn't coming from my lips. Then they looked at the eye beside me as if it were some weird and terrifying thing, and nervously weighed out my purchases in full measure. Pleased as punch, I swaggered about from stall to stall, buying all kinds of things.
At last, I addressed the darkness. "Nanny, let's go home."
The eye said, "I am already intertwined with the moonlight. Never again will a man be able to crush this eye of mine as if it were a flower petal. I live on the roof of the mortal world. I am the adversary of darkness. Never again will I allow women's eyes to be violently snuffed out one by one, like so many candles."
Her words were borne by the wind from some unknown season. Eventually her quiet voice and her footsteps drifted off toward the sounds of vicious struggle in the darkness. Amid this many-voiced, or, should I say, polyphonic "chorus," her voice became a strong and powerful solo…
In the past the people and events that I encountered in these real yet unreal visions were all old people and events from my own past. But on this particular evening, to my complete surprise, it was Widow Ho that I saw through the darkness.
She was poking her head around the door, a book in her hand, smiling at me. Like rings of ripples on a pond, her beautiful smile spread slowly across her face. What was strange was that she didn't have a stitch of clothing on. She stepped out of the room absolutely naked, her smooth skin flashing like a red fish under a dazzlingly rich red glow of light. But she didn't appear the least bit shy or hesitant as she casually passed people in the corridor. I watched her from a distance, and although her face looked a bit drawn and had that sleepy look of someone who has just been suddenly awakened, those big eyes of hers, glazed with sleep but as lovely as ever, were fixed confidently in front of her, showing absolutely no awareness that she was stark naked. Astonished, I anxiously waved my hand to get her attention, to get her to leave, because evil spirits often haunted this place. I shouted her name, only to discover that the sound of my voice faded into nothingness. It was no use, no matter how hard I tried. I wanted to go and push her away, but before I could reach her, she pulled back to be swallowed up in the shadows, and I lost sight of her.
Indistinct shadows kept shifting all around me, and with a dim and distant hope that I had been mistaken, I continued looking for her along that endless, silent, tortuous corridor where every face was masked in sorcery. It was very dark, and to find my way I closed my eyes. I went back and forth along the long, narrow corridor not daring to look behind me, for I had heard that in the countryside they say you should never look back when you are walking in the dark, because on your shoulders you have little flames – "shoulder flames" – that keep away ghosts and evil spirits when they are lit; if you look back in fear, the turning of your head and your heavy, fearful breathing may extinguish your shoulder flames and let the evil spirits ensnare you.
Then all around me, not very far away, I heard a voice that was more like a moan calling out softly. Because I was so desperate to find Ho, I was convinced that it was her.
The corridor suddenly became so hot that I had to take my jacket off. There was a door in front of me that I immediately recognized – it was the door to Ho's apartment. I pushed it open and went in. The faint moaning sounded closer and a fierce wave of heat slammed into me. On the edge of collapse, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, I desperately called her name.
The moaning was getting louder. I followed it till I came to a door I knew very well – the door to her bedroom. I knocked wildly, but there was no answer. I pushed with all my strength. The heat hurt my hands. It was so intense that it had twisted the door frame so the door couldn't be opened. I could hear very clearly that the moaning was coming from inside that inner room.
Peering through the keyhole, I saw the completely transparent corpse of a woman curled up on the bed, her legs strangely contorted, both arms clasped rigidly across her chest. She was lying motionless on her side, her hair and eyebrows totally burned away. Countless bright red tongues were darting up like flames beside her body. It was these fiery red tongues that had licked away all the hair on her body. I struggled to see her more clearly. It seemed like it wasn't Ho, it was somebody else, but when I listened to the moaning, there was no doubt that it was the magnetic sound of Ho's voice.
My heart thumped.
I shuddered as I returned to my senses.
I felt a bit frightened, aware that I had stayed too long in that dark world of my own making. I was afraid that I had sunk into some secret, irrational territory. Whether other people ever got to that place, I had no way of knowing. But when I think back on it, from when I was very small, that place had always been a constant companion in my thoughts. Like the wind, it followed my every footstep. Whether I was in the rain, on the streets, in a deserted square, or in a crowd, it would always appear in some form or other, some situation or other. It was a bottomless pit; if I didn't make an effort to control my thinking, it would lead me on endlessly.
Thoroughly frightened, I hurriedly jerked myself out of my thoughts. Then I turned on the light.
It was already late. I stared dumbly at the clock on the wall for a while; then I got up and wandered around the room, my mind at odds. I felt strangely unsettled but had no idea why.
I decided to go and visit my mother, then later on come back, have a bath, and relax a bit before going to bed.
Mother was in the middle of writing something when I entered her apartment.
I said, "Mama, what are you writing when it's so late?"
She hesitated a moment; then, smiling very awkwardly, she said, "Oh, I don't want to hide anything from you. I want… " She stopped again, uncertain.
"Tell me," I said, a bit impatiently.
"I want to find you a… father," she said; then she turned her eyes to me uncertainly as she waited for my response.
I was totally floored by this.
Then I started snorting. "Really? Good. That's good." When I stopped laughing I added, "But it has nothing to do with me. It's for yourself that you're looking for a man."
Mother said, "What do you mean it has nothing to do with you? I'm not going to be around that much longer. Whether I have a man or not really doesn't matter, but I have to find a father for you. One of these days will see the end of me. I can't just leave you as an orphan. We've got a house; what we need is someone to live in it."
I said, "Mama, you're really a laugh. I'm not a child anymore; and besides, what's this about your 'not being around that much longer'? Our best times together have only just started."
Mother said, "I read a story in the paper today about a terminally ill doctoral candidate who was looking for a wife. He was an only child, thirty-one years old and quite good-looking, but had never found a suitable match. This had become the chief worry in his parents' life, never affording them a moment's ease. It was about a month before this that he had found out he was terminally ill. The doctors had told him that he had two years at the most. This was truly a bolt out of the blue. His first thought was suicide, but when he got home and saw his aged parents, frail with worry, he felt that giving up like that would be tantamount to abandoning them. He turned it over in his mind for a long time and finally gave up the idea of killing himself, determining instead to fulfill his parents' chief wish and concern, and provide them with a descendant. Because he didn't want to bring worry to his family, he never told them about his illness. Secretly, he put an ad in the paper looking for a wife, including the details of his condition and his hopes. Many women wrote to him, and in the end he set his heart on a doctor, and she devoted her life to him totally. Not long after they were married they had a baby daughter. Although he couldn't in the end escape his dark fortune, he lived a fulfilling life, and left a daughter for posterity."
"But… but what about the woman?" I said. "Do you really want to praise that kind of deed? Only here in China does that kind of thing draw great choruses of praise."
"The woman did it because she wanted to. Forget about ethical judgment. All I'm saying is that stories like that are uplifting."
I said, "Well. If that's the way you feel, I guess you'll be submitting an uplifting ad for a husband."
She paused for a moment, then responded, "Well, anyway, we've just been chitchatting."
At this point, perhaps because she'd overstrained herself talking, her breathing became labored and she began struggling obviously for air.
Her exaggerated breathing seemed to influence me, because I too had unconsciously begun gasping for breath.
Then I noticed a burned smell in the air.
It is really very difficult to recall the events of that evening, because my instincts unremittingly block them out. They have become so distant and indistinct that they seem like a fabrication immersed beneath all the other disasters of that year.
In that year of death, it was only the power of my reason that kept the memory of those flames from being extinguished. For the longest time I have been looking for a way to lay aside the memories of that year, but it seems like the wind carries secret orders. One old house after another, the curtains tightly closed, the bars on the windows covered with rust, or dense forests of gnarled, old trees seem vaguely, like some kind of screen, to impede my way. It was as if I were pinioned in a crevice, with no way to get out into an open space, into some city square, no way to get rid of this crushing weight. There was no way out – all I could do was get by from day to day trying to stick to safe, familiar routine, my mind burdened with those killing memories. Through the silence, I purposely weighted my footfalls so that they might bother people, thinking that sooner or later there would have to be an echo that would come back to me.
The evil mists that enveloped that year were more than enough to distort many of its realities. But nature seemed to think they were not enough, and on that winter evening the choking black smoke obliterated my life. Like the prelude to a tragedy, this opened the curtain onto a more and more savage plot that within several months had engulfed the entire country.
That night, the clouds of smoke that filled the room brought Mother's and my conversation to a sudden end.
The first thing I noticed was Mother's face going fuzzy like an out-of-focus photograph, her features seemingly no longer where they had been originally. Her nose, eyes, and mouth looked like they had moved to a different place. I rubbed my eyes and stared hard at her. Her face was blurry, as if I were looking at her in a bathhouse through thick clouds of steam. In fact, she was still sitting in the easy chair in front of the desk. She hadn't moved at all. Now she was back where she had been sitting originally, but I still couldn't see her clearly, because she looked as if she were behind a mosquito net or a gauze curtain.
This frightened me, because all sorts of odd scenes had been appearing in my head around that time, filling me with a strange, unreal terror, so at first I was uncertain whether what I was seeing was real or not.
Then Mother asked, "I wonder what's making the smoke?"
As the smell of something burning grew stronger, Mother and I had at almost the same moment become aware that smoke was filling the room.
We looked at the door and saw smoke funneling in through the cracks.
I said, "Mama, is somebody lighting a barbecue in the corridor?" As I spoke, I went over and opened the door.
Thick, dense smoke rolled in around my legs, and I saw that it had completely blotted out the dim light in the hallway. It was obviously eating away at the oxygen as well, for I started to choke and cough. Immediately I shut the door.
In the hallway you could hear, over the clatter and clamor of people fleeing, a chorus of confused voices.
"Hurry up, run…"
Mother and I exchanged a quick glance. There was a fire in our building.
"Mama, we've got to get out of here." Because I was so scared, my voice sounded different, as if it were coming from someone else's throat.
Mother put her hands on her breast as she struggled to breathe. "Where can we go? The elevator's shut down. There's nothing but smoke out there. It'll be impossible to breathe." Gasping for breath, she said, "If the fire's downstairs, wouldn't we just be jumping into it? Smoke and flames always go up, so there's no way the problem is above us. For sure it's somewhere below us," she gasped.
My mother is not a woman to panic in a crisis. In such situations she remains calm and collected.
"But listen" – I wasn't thinking clearly – "everybody's running downstairs."
Now the racket and confusion of fleeing feet and the sounds of household goods and suitcases being kicked and dragged along in the hallway was even worse, and there was the sound of things being smashed.
Because she couldn't breathe, Mother shot over to the window and opened it.
I shot over behind her saying, "Mama, you can't open the window." I remembered reading about that in the newspaper.
As I listened to the wind outside, all of a sudden I heard her coarse, rasping cry blot out the clamor in the building. "The only way out is to jump."
Ignoring my mother's plea, I closed the window and pulled her out the door.
We were immediately swallowed up in the thick, rolling smoke, which stung my eyes until the tears flowed. I clung to my mother's hand like death. We were right next to each other, but I couldn't see her. All around me through the turbid air, I could hear the sound of fleeing feet and people bumping heavily into things blocking their way. Unable to see them clearly, all we could do was grope our way downward with them.
There was very little air to breathe and the smoky hallways were filled with the sound of coughing and frightened shouts. I felt like a vise was clamped on my throat, choking me so that it was impossible to speak. Afraid that Mother might collapse from asphyxiation, I gripped her arm tightly as we fled.
I say "fled," but in actuality we could do no more than fumble our way along slowly.
I could feel that the heat and smoke were spreading upward from downstairs. The thick, endless smoke seemed to foil us with the tremendous buoyant force of sea water. The faster we tried to go down, the more our feet were buoyed back, making it difficult for us to press forward. But we had no choice but to force our way down – the only route to life lay below us. The feeling was exactly like many other absurd contradictions we encounter in life.
Mother's arm began to weigh heavier in my hand, and I was afraid she was going to collapse.
"Jump… jump…" she blurted out with difficulty.
I knew right away what she meant, because we had just groped our way to a landing in the stairwell, where the moonlight was shining in through the window closed tightly against the winter winds. Normally, the moon was like a round, silver eye glittering against the indigo curtain of night. But now it was like the faded eye of a dying man, casting only a thin thread of light in the narrow landing.
I knew what Mother was thinking: if there was no other way, we could jump from the stairwell window. Obviously she wasn't thinking clearly. We lived on the eleventh floor. We'd only come down a floor and a half, so we were between the ninth and tenth floors. Jumping would be suicide.
Paying no attention to what she said, I desperately tugged her along behind me. We groped our way down, one foot after the other. My slippers long since lost, I moved along slowly in my bare feet with only one thought in my mind – getting out of there.
What was odd was that at this particular moment, for no apparent reason, I recalled an incident from my past.
Again, it was when I was in middle school. There was a period of time when I could see no point in living – all I could think of was ending my life. I was not at all like most people contemplating suicide, who go around talking about how they "want to die." I kept it to myself until eventually I decided the time was ripe.
When I got home that day, I very seriously said to my mother, "I've thought about it a lot. Life is stupid. I don't want to live anymore."
Mother gave me a very surprised look. She looked at me for the longest time, but she didn't seem to be in a hurry to answer me.
So I said it again, much more emphatically. "I really have thought about it a lot. It's pointless to continue living."
There was a long silence, then finally Mother said, "Really? So you've made up your mind?"
I nodded my head decisively and said, "Yes!" as great big tears tumbled from my eyes.
My mother was very well read and not your ordinary woman at all. When I said these things, she didn't get alarmed or flustered and try to dissuade or urge me in any way, or stop me, as most mothers do with difficult children. She was wise enough to know how to handle a "problem child." Again, she considered this for a while; then, with a look of having thought it through and made a decision that was a counterpart to my own, she said, "Mama loves you very much. You know that. But if you've decided you want to die, then nobody can stop you. China 's such a big place, and we can't put a lid on the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. But Mama would miss you terribly."
It was my turn to be surprised. Mother's words completely stymied me. How right she was. There was no need to mention the Yangtze or the Yellow River, even the little canal outside our front door had no lid. Death was as easy as that. I didn't say a word.
I never mentioned it to Mother again.
By this time, with me hanging on to Mother and pulling for dear life, afraid that she would collapse at any moment, we had made our way down one more floor.
I quickly saw that the smoke was already thinner and the heat no longer so intense. The farther down we got, the easier it was to breathe.
All of a sudden it came to me: we had passed the floor where the fire was. As if we had just been rescued, I exclaimed to Mother joyfully, "We're safe, we're going to make it. We're almost out of it."
Naturally, when we went down another floor, the air gradually cleared, and the stairwell's feeble lights flickered and gleamed. At last Mother stopped and took several deep breaths. Then she spoke.
"The ninth floor," she said, "or maybe the eighth."
My guess was the same, it was probably the eighth or ninth floor.
Finally, we were out of the building, and standing there in the rushing wind on that late winter night, I saw that there was already a dark press of people gathered around. Some who had fled from their beds with no time to dress were standing there shivering, wrapped in their quilts. Whole families huddled together, their teeth chattering. Because we always went to bed very late, Mother and I both had sweaters on, but each gust of wind left us feeling like we were wrapped in nothing but a thin sheet of paper. Like countless icy worms, the cold penetrated deeper and deeper into our bones.
I started looking for Ho in the crowd. One after another the frightened, unsettled dark faces passed across my field of vision. This crowd of people that had fled from the thick smoke of death now stood numbly looking up at our building, trying to see where the fire was.
When I couldn't find Ho, I started to get anxious, realizing that the fire might well have started on her floor. When I thought of her lying on her bed in those plain green pajamas, my mind erupted suddenly into flame.
Then, the wavering bleat of their sirens adding new confusion to the scene, the fire engines raced up. The crowd, the trees, and the building were now all bathed in a brilliant orange glow. The sky flashed with the uncommon blue of diamonds, like the eyes of so many corpses floating in the darkness of heaven, their cold lips caressing the earth.
We were immediately ordered to move back 200 meters to an empty place on the side of the street away from our building. I was in the middle of a group of men who wanted to go back into the building to look for family members, or particular things that they had left behind. They struggled to get to the building, but they were kept firmly back. We were so crowded together that we couldn't move.
I looked up, praying fervently, Let her be safe, let her be safe, all the while shaking uncontrollably.
By this time, two firemen were climbing up the wall with the aid of ropes to rescue whoever might be in the apartment where the fire had started. I focused all my attention on them. I watched those two small, flamelike, greenish shapes dart up the wall like a pair of salamanders. In no time at all, they were at the ninth floor. At last, at the place I was most afraid they might stop – Ho's balcony – half suspended in space, using metal hooks to secure themselves, they flipped over the railing into her apartment.
My heart contracted violently, as if I had suffered a blow from some sharp weapon, and the blood in my veins congealed into silence.
There was no denying it. The fire was in Ho's apartment.
I stood there transfixed, until an uncontrollable wailing burst from me.
Just as the valves on the fire hoses were opened, I gave way to a flood of tears.
Eventually, they got the fire under control. Water from the upper floors poured down the stairwell and flooded out of the main entrance. Then two firemen bearing a stretcher emerged.
That naked pink corpse, or better to say that vaguely human-shaped lump of flesh, moved slowly toward us.
The crowd stirred.
A fireman shouted, "Is there anyone here from apartment 905?"
My head and feet felt distorted, my eyes burned, my hands were like ice. I kept trying to bring myself back to my senses. I was hallucinating. None of this was real. But Mother was with me, holding me, her hands gripped tight around my shoulders.
All of it, everything before me, was real. I knew it.
When the stretcher moved across the street toward us, a great roaring filled my head and then began to die away, as the people around me, the street lamps, and our building began to sway.
Things started to blur; the noise around me faded. Then the world went black as I collapsed on the street.
The roar of the demented wind screaming Ho's name blotted out the clamor of that scene. The crowd of people had fled the roar; only Ho was there, floating in a dazzling circle of light…
Much later, long after that disastrous fire, I heard a silly but upsetting rumor that it was caused by Ho's faulty refrigerator…