Fiction / April 2018 (Issue 39)


by Zou Jingzh, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

Of all the strange dreams I've had, none of them involved death. Dying, tasting death, then waking up. Nothing like that. Perhaps death is too serious a matter to bring into a dream. I've asked around, and other people tell me the same thing. Death never enters their dreams.

I've seen death—pale and cold, bloodless. Like the words suddenly vanishing from a book, leaving blank paper, page after page of it. Such a death would make even the sunniest day blink, exhausted. Right in front of you. A wind rises, as if blowing from your heart.



They got on the truck at Third Division, Tenth Brigade. The woman clutched a bundle to her chest, a baby, crying softly. The man was grubby, well-built, a cigarette butt drooping from his lips. It was freezing, so we passed a small jar of sorghum liquor around the truck. Spirits in icy weather chill the teeth, only warming up in your belly. I thought of passing the jar to the man, then noticed his cold-stiffened hands were busy rolling a fresh cigarette.

The four of us had been sent to the depot for more noodles—our brigade had run out, so breakfast that day consisted of potatoes and soy beans, mashed together with strips of salted vegetables. Everyone in the canteen complained this was no better than pig swill.

By the time the jar came round a second time, there were only a few drops left. This is when alcohol is most fragrant, barely dribbling into your mouth, the faint aroma melting, dispersing before you can even swallow it, your mouth yearning for more, but all you can do is shake the empty container. The taste lingers a long time on your tongue.

The man finished rolling his cigarette. He twisted round, then back—an expert move, turning away from the wind to light up, facing it to smoke. He was enjoying the flavour, holding it in his mouth a long time before expelling a plume of smoke, his eyes squinting shut.

It was so cold we were unwilling to pee, afraid losing that tiny amount of heat would leave us frozen through. Old Ta'er said people who freeze to death don't have any piss left in them. You feel as if your body's on fire, blazing with pain. Old Ta'er had the right to tell us things like that, he'd lost both legs to frostbite.

The bundle that was the baby had been quiet a long time.

Instead, the woman was sobbing silently, head lowered. Tears dripped onto the front of her jacket, instantly freezing into little crystals. But what was there to cry about?

The man's cigarette went out, another long butt dangling from his lips, as if he hadn't noticed anything at all.

As we went over Eastern Hill, a few roe deer ran out, frolicking like it was springtime.

The woman was sobbing audibly now, her shoulders heaving. The man spat out his cigarette.

"Why bother crying? If it's dead, we'll make another one."

She kept weeping. He rolled another cigarette.

"Stop it, hey, you'll get wrinkles."

What's dead? The child? Surely not, it was howling just a short while ago. Why not open the bundle? Maybe it's only sleeping.

A tiny face, skin pale and translucent as paper, eyes screwed up, not a single sound. I touched a cheek and found it cold, a jade pebble in the snow. Lion Snout put his hand to its mouth.

Dead. Just two months old. Why bring it outside, on a day like this?

The baby had been sick. Fever all night. The man rolled another cigarette.

Maybe it had just fainted. The brigade hospital might be able to—No. Just another child. What could they do with it, even alive?

The woman stopped crying and wrapped the bundle loosely. A mother holding her own child's body has such sorrow on her face, she seems more distant than the stars.

Death comes so quickly. A few mouthfuls of spirits, one cigarette and a child is gone, like a bright flash of light. The jade pebble I'd just felt was death. A snowflake landed on my fingertip and melted.

It had been living, now it was dead. No different to the blanket it was wrapped in. No crying, not a sound, neither cold nor hot any more.

The four of us tucked our heads in, and the cold between us was greater than a piece of ice. We were just seventeen, and had never seen death. I felt we should do something for the child in the bundle. Weep, or take turns to keep it warm, until it woke.

At the depot, the couple walked away, and we went to get our noodles.

They'd had a blackout. There wasn't a single bag of noodles for us.

We browsed the shops instead, and watched them from a distance. The woman wasn't holding her bundle any longer. She was at the counter, choosing a piece of patterned fabric, like the other ladies around her. Picking up a length of cloth, she studied it intently, then held it up against her chest where her child had been earlier, where her tears had frozen solid.

How dazzling that pattern was.

We retreated. So quickly. The wind was still howling, but where was the child? It might as well never have existed.



There was one time Sharpie had an allergic reaction to sulfur, and needed to be admitted to the brigade hospital. It was summer, and he was covered in a rash. Looking like a piece of coarse sandpaper spread out across the bed, he whispered to me that it was worst in his private parts. He said if he wasn't afraid of death, he'd never have come here. There were plenty of bedbugs at night, biting him so he swelled on top of his rash, leaving him covered in different varieties of itches. When he touched his skin, it felt like his, but also like someone else's. And there's—Sharpie's eyes darted at the patient in the next bed—he's about to die, his stomach's all rotten, it's his intestines, he hasn't eaten anything for a long time. You smell that, like a pickling vat? Sometimes I wake up and I don't know where I am, it's frightening, goddammit I'm so scared.

The other patient's head poked out from under a filthy blanket. I'd never seen anyone so thin, just hair and skin. His eyes were shut. He was so still he could have been a shadow.

An educated youth?

No, he's just sixteen.

No family?

Didn't you see those guys gambling in the corridor as you came in? His brothers and uncles.

Don't they care about him?

They do, they look in on him every now and again, then they go back out.

Last night, I woke up and saw him staring out the window, his eyes as still as water. The way he looked could break your heart. I went outside to fetch his brother. Asked what he wanted, but he said nothing, just shut his eyes. Only sixteen, busy working for his family, until the illness stopped that.

The other person woke up, and looked around. I walked over and watched as his mouth opened, but his voice was thin as silk thread. I bent over to hear him say: Open the door. That's what I think he said. Sharpie asked me and I said, he told me to open the door. Sharpie said, go fetch his brothers and uncles. The other guy opened his mouth again, a bit louder this time. He said: Is Chrysanthemum here? Something like that. I couldn't answer, but went out into the corridor to find the four farmers.

They'd just finished playing a hand. One of them was shuffling, the others rolling cigarettes. He's awake, I said. They kept rolling their cigarettes, but otherwise didn't budge. I said he asked: Is Chrysanthemum here? One of the younger men muttered something, stood and went into the room. The others started smoking, sorting out the piles of matchsticks in front of them—probably gambling chips.

I guess he's pretty seriously ill.

He's bad, but he's not dying.

You mean he might live?

He's not dying.

I wanted to ask who Chrysanthemum was, but didn't. My eyes and ears were still full of that young man, the wisps of his words, the desolation of them.

The next morning, I went to see Sharpie again. The four farmers were standing in the corridor, and the other bed was empty. Sharpie said he'd died at four in the morning, or maybe three. He went easily, like a piece of ice that melts when you're not paying attention. No different to when he was alive. Death found no obstacles in his body, and in a moment, or perhaps not even that, walked across like it was level ground. His last words were: It's still dark. He'd hoped to make it till daybreak, thinking if he could see the dawn, he'd last another day. He hadn't wanted to go, but couldn't hang on. When his uncle came in and touched him, his skin was already cool.

These last few days felt like years. Watching someone die next to me. My whole goddamn world view changed. Living feels like those ice packs the nurses bring, so cold they make you shriek.

I see many things differently now. Death is so terrifying because it destroys the living. But the living aren't so weak. You saw the four men outside? They're waiting to get paid. They sold the body.

You have to get me out of here today, no matter what. I don't dare look at that empty bed. It feels like a gateway to another place, opening up right next to me. I'm so scared.

But the hospital refused to discharge Sharpie. He burst into tears, right there in front of the doctor.



I went with Li Shuan to Field Number Four to gather wheat straw. Wheat straw wasn't much use, too lightweight for fuel, not worth carrying back and forth. Besides, what the combine harvester spat out was all chopped up. It was too much effort to pick up such little bits, so we set them on fire instead. After the fall, nothing but scorched earth. Field Number Four was close to our division, so we left that alone, using the straw there to line the pig pens or, mixed with mud, to insulate our huts.

Li Shuan yoked a black horse to our cart, and we headed off at eight in the morning.

As he urged our horse along, Li Shuan told dirty stories. When he got excited, he'd lash out with his whip for emphasis. Twice he hit the horse's ears—I saw the hairs on its rump twitch with pain.

At Field Number Four, I started baling the hay, while Li Shuan undid his flies and pissed next to the horse. He looked towards the east, where the sun was glowing red, so warm it felt like you could press your face to it. Li Shuan, peeing away, was gilded by the dawn light. There's a technique to scooping up straw with a pitchfork—get the angle wrong, and you end up without a single piece. I couldn't do it, and kept coming up empty. Li Shuan fastened his trousers and said, goddammit, you have a gun but don't know how to shoot. He came over and took the pitchfork, first stacking the straw in little heaps, then sweeping them together and onto the cart in a big bundle. I tried to do the same while he stood in the sunlight rolling a cigarette. The black horse chewed on the straw that fell by its hooves.

Thinking back, this would have made a good rustic painting—the straw field, the horse cart, the simple labour, the morning light. The field was wide and open, but not a sound came from the distant villages.

The blind pestle (only later did I learn its proper name: a mole) emerged from the ground, when the straw was half gathered. It popped up right next to the horse's mouth as it chewed, startling the creature so it flung back its head and galloped away. The straw on my pitchfork scattered to the ground.

Li Shuan ran after it, shouting, while straw fell off the cart in clumps. He grabbed the horse's head, but was shaken off. A wheel rolled right over his belly. When I caught up, he seemed fine, though he was crying, his face pale, saying his stomach hurt and he needed to pee.

I brushed the straw off him and helped him up, but he couldn't stand. He said it hurt too much, told me to go back to the division and find his mother, then come back with another cart.

When I got back with the mother and cart, Li Shuan looked like another person. He was trembling, in so much pain his features had shifted. There was no energy in him. His clothes were disheveled.

He wouldn't let anyone touch him. Even the air around him hurt. His mother pulled out a black substance and crumbled a bit into a clay bowl. Sitting on the ground, she cradled his head to her chest.

Drink this, it'll take the pain away.

He opened his lips and, like an infant, sipped the black broth. (Afterwards, I discovered this was opium.) After he'd finished the bowl, he was quiet.

His mother said: Shut your eyes and have a rest.

He said: It's so dark when I shut my eyes.

We lifted him onto our donkey cart. The sun was directly overhead. The brigade hospital was six miles away. The driver and a health worker went with him.

I picked up the pitchfork and broken whip handle, and walked back to our division. The fields looked exactly the same as that morning. When I thought of Li Shuan, it felt like a story. The black horse made the story feel unrealistic. It had found its way back, and was in its paddock chewing some grain. I lashed out at its body with the broken whip and its hairs quivered, floating in the sunlight.

Li Shuan was brought home that night. They said he died on the way to the hospital, his liver and spleen completely crushed. There was no pain—the opium took that away. His mother held him all the way. The health worker said Li Shuan's mother didn't cry at all. She had a glass eye, but her real eye didn't shed any tears either. All she said was: You go on, wait for me up ahead.

Many years later, I saw Repin's Ivan the Terrible in a gallery. Looking at this overblown painting, I thought the father and son ought to swap facial expressions, to be more like Li Shuan and his mother. Though one of Ivan the Terrible's eyes did look like it could be fake.

I think of these three incidents when faced with excessive grief, trying to understand why the people on the land I laboured on were detached from death. They saw only a hazy line around life, as if just going from here to another place, so death was only temporary, and life could be treated lightly, because we only happened to be alive right now by chance. Their hearts held a different type of eternity. For me, life was the only thing, all I had to cling to, and I worried it would snap someday, like the dictionary defines death: the loss of life. I was responsible to life alone, and time outside of this didn't exist. For a while, I lost the word eternity, because everything was now, today was today, but tomorrow hadn't agreed that it would definitely come, and the tomorrow in my mind wasn't real anyway. I was afraid of death, and never took my ending into account. Not the way religious people mean, thinking death is when our lives get inspected. What I feared was death itself. I thought everything would be over, and the life I'd experienced would be insignificant when weighed against death. Before that moment came, I'd never think about whether I was worthy, so nothing I did took any responsibility for the end. I could leave when I wanted to. Unlike rural folk, I didn't believe in reincarnation, nor that anyone could wait up ahead for me. Had someone like me ever really lived? Would he be worth mourning?

A person has the right to death because he's lived. If you can prove you've lived, then you've earned the right to die. Death is a high honour. We talk about seeing through life and death. But that word, "through"—not many people can unravel it.


Left: Zou Jingzh
Right: Photograph of Jeremy Tiang © Oliver Rockwell
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
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