from Nine Buildings
Jeremy Tiang is the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his translation of Zou Jingzhi’s Nine Buildings. Read his essay on translating Zou’s work here.
Yao Nan removed the stuffing from his quilted jacket, which immediately looked thinner. He’d found a little sparrow, so young it hadn’t even sprouted any down or opened its eyes. The tiny thing was warmer than anyone’s palm. It opened its mouth, shaking its head back and forth, so we didn’t know what to do.
Springtime makes you feel at a loss, uncomfortable whether you keep your windows shut or have them open. We stood around in the courtyard waiting for the spring-chicken hawker.
The night before, I’d soaked my hands in warm water, then scrubbed them till they were white, rubbing clam oil into every crack and fold. Now they were firmly stuffed into my trouser pockets. Washing my hands seemed to make them lighter; a pair of clean hands has no energy in them.
Yao Nan said, every year we come to grave-sweeping time, and only then does it feel like spring. He could never understand why we’d wait for springtime, when flowers were blooming, to visit the dead and sing those mournful songs. Spring passed by so quickly, it felt over as soon as we were done tending to the tombs.
The flesh-bird slept in his hands.
Yao Nan said, why do we have grave-sweeping right next to spring-outing? A large part of his year was spent waiting for spring-outing time. He’d go anywhere. The night before, he’d often be unable to sleep, his schoolbag packed with bread and a water bottle placed at the head of his bed, always having those dreams about waking up late, missing the spring-outing bus and standing alone at the meeting place, crying. The conclusion of this dream always made him determined to leave this city and the people in it. He felt so put-upon.
The little flesh-bird had particularly old skin, greenish and wrinkled. If we nudged it over, we could see its belly rise and fall. It was breathing. Newly-hatched birds are old and ugly, growing slowly into the appearance of a bird, just as human babies look like old men when they’re just born. If you were to fling this bird into the air, it would fall and shatter like a clod of earth.
Why not throw it? When it really dies, it won’t shatter like that.
Yao Nan said, that year’s grave-sweeping was the most fun. So many tombs had been pushed over, some marked with a big black cross. They didn’t sing the usual songs. He saw someone’s gravestone scrawled over with the words: this person fiddled with women and died, serves him right. I said, I saw that too. He replied, it doesn’t matter what you write, he’s dead anyway, he doesn’t know, you could sing to him or scold him, he still wouldn’t know. If I died, I’d bury myself in a secret place, just like missing the spring-outing, dying alone, escaping far from here.
The flesh-bird opened its mouth wide again, thrusting its head about. I said, think of a way to feed it. Yao Nan brought it up to his mouth and put it inside, where it would be able to suck at his saliva.
Yao Nan said, if not for the spring-outing, there’d be no springtime at all. If ‘spring’ was no more than a word, no matter who gave it to me, I wouldn’t take it. Why would I want something I can’t see or touch? Think about it – a blind man’s sensation of spring might be no more than the clothes he takes off his body, the warmth he feels, but warmth won’t change his dead eyes, he cannot see the flowers, even if he really were to touch a pink peach blossom, its petals would feel no different to him than vegetable peelings. And if you gave you him some vegetable peel and told him it was a peach blossom, could he imagine the flower, and the springtime? Why not give him a lightbulb, one that’s still warm, and the heat might bring some light into the darkness of his heart – don’t you feel that when enduring a burn, your heart lightens? If I could, I’d give him a lightbulb, and tell him it was spring. That might give him a clearer image than the flowers.
I don’t like peach blossoms. When they fall and get wet with rain, they seem especially dirty. If not for these flowers, I wouldn’t feel the rain was dirty.
The flesh-bird still wanted to eat Yao Nan’s saliva. He fished out half a bun from his pocket, dry and black, pinched a piece off to chew, then held the bird’s beak in his mouth. It ate with enjoyment, its throat making swallowing motions. I thought, we may be able to raise this sparrow after all.
Yao Nan said, if our school went on the spring-outing and then stopped classes, I’d be so happy, but if there were no spring-outing I’d happily go on with lessons. Time moves faster in the spring. Didn’t you see the pagoda blossoms are already out? We bring springtime back with us from the graveyard. I want something different, I want to change it for the spring that comes off the lake, the green grass, the wet soil. I’d even write a whole essay about springtime – you all know how good my essays are, didn’t one get read out in your class? The trick is not to write the way the teacher says. The essays I write, make the teacher forget all his words. They say I have imagination, but I think everyone has that, they just don’t dare to use it. But if you didn’t give me springtime, I wouldn’t be willing to think either, I’d refuse to imagine anything. How dull a springtime without thought would be. Do you know that word, ‘dull’? Dull is this afternoon, me standing here, you watching me feed a little knob of flesh.
In the end we agreed that the next day we’d walk to Beihai Park for our spring-outing – we’d make our own spring-outing. Me, Yao Nan, Little Jianzi, Tunan, Dingzi, and that little flesh-bird.
The spring was the same as always. When you enter a new springtime, the first thing you think of is the ones from the past, never mind which year, just springtimes that have already gone.
Beihai was the same as always too, but as soon as we walked in, we felt our breath grow carefree.
We didn’t have enough money to rent a boat, not even for the deposit. We watched other people rowing across the lake, and felt as if their springtime had something more than ours. Everyone’s springtime is different.
We concentrated hard by Five Dragons Pavilion, trying to see ourselves clearly in the water. We didn’t look like we’d imagined – we weren’t wearing new clothes, hadn’t put on neckerchiefs, and some of us needed a haircut. This wasn’t a school-organised spring-outing, it was less tense. We could feel this freedom, and gazed freely at ourselves upside-down in the water.
Tunan ate pagoda flowers in handfuls. He cinched his belt around his waist, then climbed up and stuffed blossoms into his undershirt, swelling it full, and the rest of us ate from his chest too, even though they smelled of his sweat.
As we walked through the park and began to relax, I thought of what Yao Nan said the day before, the word ‘dull’. Speaking this word made me feel like a grown-up, and adult. In front of Nine Dragon Wall, I suddenly blurted out, ‘Boring!’ They – including two passers-by taking photographs – turned back to look at me, startled. I couldn’t resist laughing out loud, pointing at the dragons, shouting out ‘Boring!’ And then running in the spring wind, we all ran, all calling out, Boring! We climbed up the white tower to stare at the boats on the lake, which seemed motionless, then we looked down at the tiny cars and people, and felt we were giants, we pronounced all of them boring. How bright that word sounded, how far it spread, that spring day.
By the time we walked back to Ninth Building that day, that willow wreaths around our heads had withered, but no one could bear to get rid of theirs. We wanted to walk into the courtyard still wearing our wreaths, so everyone could see we’d returned from the spring, we’d been on our spring-outing – to Beihai. We were very tired, a springtime exhaustion.
We walked instead of taking the bus, and spent our fares on ice lollies, which gave off vapour in the hot air. Each of us dedicated himself to his treat, walking as we ate. As we passed Guangji Temple, through a crack in the door we could see several monks burning books. We watched for a while, but the flames didn’t look good by daylight.
In a hutong, we saw a child with convulsion sickness sit by the courtyard entrance, his left hand hooked towards his chest, trembling, dribbling out the right side of his mouth. The doorways in that courtyard were black holes, the sunlight particularly dazzling around them. The child was about the same age as us, yet blue veins stood out on his forehead and face. The five of us stood in a row to stare at him, his hand like a metal hook and the sticky oozing saliva. We watched with great concentration. After some time, he shouted something at us, using a lot of effort, but we still couldn’t make out what he was saying. He drooled more, faster, as he scolded us.
The five of us, wearing our willow wreaths, walked through many similar streets. We weren’t familiar with this area. Ninth Building was in the rural part of this city, our courtyard had vegetable gardens and farmers beside it. The farming folk eat whatever they gather. Now they had split open a big aubergine, chewing its flesh, their black faces bobbing against the white pith. Their breathing was noisy, especially when they cleared their noses and spat a big mouthful onto the green vegetables. When we stared at them, they flung aubergine skins at us. If it was time for watering, they’d rest their chins on the handles of their spades, and shout across the distance at each other. We felt their speech had a lot of meaningless passion.
It was evening by the time we arrived back at Ninth Building. Entering the courtyard, we saw Wang Dayi chasing Zhang Liang from the First Door’s granny up a cement ping pong table. He held willow branches, fresher than the ones around our heads, looking just-plucked, braided together. He was whipping the old lady with them. Several small children circled them, watching, shouting, “Defeat the landlord curs!” At the time no one noticed the willow wreaths we wore still had a green fragrance.
Wang Dayi made Granny Zhang crawl like a dog on the ping pong table. As she moved, her bound feet tumbled about, looking especially small and clumsy, comical. We all heard her wide cotton trousers chafing against the concrete table. Wang Dayi lashed her with the willow whip and shouted at her to go faster.
She turned over and sat on the table, saying, “Children, Granny’s tired.”
“Defeat the landlord curs!”
Her grey hair fluttered about, shaken by the shouting.
As she started to crawl again, I wondered if I could still call her Granny Zhang in the future. She once washed some tomatoes for me, three of them. As I ate them, her toothless mouth moved incessantly, and I felt she was asking me to taste a tomato on her behalf, an especially red one that begged to be eaten. Now her mouth was moving too, as she said, ‘You might as well just let me die.’
Wang Dayi used the springtime willow branches to beat her. Plumes of earth rose into the air.
The five of us separated. Little Jianzi – whose father was a revolutionary cadre – ripped the willow branch off his head and squeezed eagerly into the crowd. He felt that whipping Granny Zhang was a correct activity, or else a proof of his identity. As he raised his willow strand, I thought of the mouth we’d encountered on our way back, dribbling saliva as it scolded us. That mouth wasn’t mine.
Ninth Building had many windows. Each now contained a grown-up’s face. Some held two. They all looked like they didn’t quite dare to watch. All the windows remained shut.
Just as Little Jianzi had re-braided his willow whip and raised it high, a window opened: Block Two Second Door. It was his mother, a young and very pretty woman. She shouted, ‘Little Jianzi, come back in!’ He said, ‘I want to play a little longer.’ And she called, ‘Come home!’ in a calm voice, not too loud, but all the children turned to look at her. It was an ice-cold sound, not resonant, only determined. Little Jianzi threw aside his willow branch and wriggled out of the group. He was only in Year Three, and we were quite good friends. Earlier that day, he’d bought me an ice-cream.
Several windows opened now, and grown-ups called their children’s names. It was dinner time.
I went home too. From the entrance to Block Four, I saw Wang Dayi holding a pair of scissors cutting Granny Zhang’s hair. She sat on the dirty ping pong table, chunks of white hair tumbling down all around her. I plucked the willow wreath off my own head, and flung it to the ground.
As I walked up the stairs, I smelled what was being cooked in the various kitchens: onions and eggs.