Vertical Motion, page 1
“Can Xue is one of the most innovative and important contemporary writers in China, and in my opinion, in world literature.”
“Can Xue is the most original voice to arise in Chinese literature since the mid-century upheavals. . . . In short, there’s a new world master among us and her name is Can Xue.”
“If China has one possibility of a Nobel laureate, it is Can Xue.”
“Can Xue invites comparison to the century’s masters of decay made meaningful, to Kafka especially.”
—New York Times
“Can Xue’s writing is among the most innovative to have appeared in China in recent years.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“Kafka, Schulz, and Borges. These three are serious company for any author. . . . Can Xue’s work is a welcome continuation of their liberating literary projects.”
—Matthew Badura, Centre for Book Culture
ALSO BY CAN XUE
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories
Dialogues in Paradise
The Embroidered Shoes
Five Spice Street
Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas
Copyright © 2011 by Can Xue
Translation copyright © 2011 by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
First edition, 2011
All rights reserved
Several of the stories collected here have been previously published in the following magazines: “Hongye” [Red leaves], Shanhua [Mountain flowers], 2008, No. 5; “Yefang” [Night visitor], Xiaoshuo jie [Fiction world], 1997, No. 4; “Qinglu shouji” [An affectionate companion’s jottings], Jintian [Today], 2005, No. 6; “Dushili de cunzhuang” [A village in the big city], Furong [Lotus], 2008, No. 4; “Alinna” [Elena], Zuojia [Writers], 2009, No. 1; “Yueguang zhi wu” [Moonlight dance], Shanghai literature, 2007, No. 1; “Yiyuanli de meiguihua” [The roses at the hospital], Shanhua [Mountain flowers], 2007, No. 8; “Mianhua tang” [Cotton candy], Zuojia [Writers], 2002, No. 7; “Zijing yuejihua” [The brilliant purple China rose], Shanghai literature, 2009, No. 2; “Yujing” [Rainscape], Changjiang wenyi [Yangzi literature], 1997, No. 5; “Yong bu ningjing,” [Never at peace], Wenxue shijie [World of literature], 1998, No. 5.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Available.
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To my husband Lu Yong
We are little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert. The people on Mother Earth can’t imagine such a large expanse of fertile humus lying dozens of meters beneath the boundless desert. Our race has lived here for generations. We have neither eyes nor any olfactory sense. In this large nursery, such apparatus is useless. Our lives are simple, for we merely use our long beaks to dig the earth, eat the nutritious soil, and then excrete it. We live in happiness and harmony because we have abundant resources in our hometown. Thus, we can all eat our fill without a dispute arising. At any rate, I’ve never heard of one.
In our spare time, we congregate to recall anecdotes of our forebears. We begin by remembering the oldest of our ancestors and then run through the others. The remembrances are pleasurable, filled with outlandish salty and sweet flavors, as well as some crispy amber—the immemorial turpentine. In our recollections, there is a blank passage that is difficult to describe. Broadly speaking, as one of our elders (the one with the longest beak) was digging the earth, he suddenly crossed the dividing line and vanished in the desert above. He never returned to us. Whenever we remembered this, we fell silent. I sensed that everyone was afraid.
Even though people never descended to our underground, we actually gained all kinds of information about the mortals above us. I don’t know what sort of channel this information came from. It is said that it was very mysterious, and that it had something to do with our builds. I’m an average-sized, ordinary individual of my genus. Like everyone else, I dig the earth every day and excrete. Recalling our ancestors is the greatest pleasure in my life. But when I sleep, I have some odd dreams. I dream of seeing people; I dream of seeing the sky above. Human beings are good at movement. They feel bumpy to the touch. I’m extremely jealous of their well-developed limbs, because our limbs have atrophied underground. We all move about by wiggling and twisting our bodies. Our skin has become too smooth, easily injured.
We make these kinds of remarks about humankind:
“If you approach the border of the yellow sand, you can hear camel bells ringing: this is what our grandfather told me. But I don’t want to go to such a place.”
“Human beings reproduced too quickly: it is said that their numbers are immense. They’ve consumed all of earth’s food, and now they’re eating yellow sand. It’s dreadful.”
“If we don’t think about the sky and the people on earth, doesn’t that ultimately mean that those things don’t exist? We have enough memories and knowledge of this kind of thing. It’s pointless to go on exploring.”
“The yellow sand above us is more than ten meters deep. It’s just like the end of the world to those of us who live in the warm, moist, deep soil. I’ve been to the boundary and have felt the desire to thrust upward. Here and now, I’d like to recall that time.”
“Our kingdom of the black earth didn’t always exist. It came into being only later. Our oldest ancestors didn’t always exist, either. They, too, came into being only later. And so here we are. Sometimes I think that maybe one of us should take a risk. Since we came from nowhere, taking risks is part of our obligation.”
“I want to take a risk, too. I’ve begun fasting recently. I hate my sweaty, damp, and slippery body. I want a change. Whenever I think of yellow sand dozens of meters deep, I’m terrified. But the more terrified I am, the more I want to go to that place. There, I would certainly lose all sense of direction. Probably my only sense of direction would come from gravity. But would gravity change in such a place? I’m very worried.”
“We remember all of the history and all of the anecdotes. Why have we forgotten only our long-beaked grandpa? I always feel that he’s still alive, but I can recall nothing about him. Recollections concerning each of us are preserved only in our hometown. Once one leaves here, one is thoroughly invalidated by history.”
“When I grow quiet, whimsical ideas come into my mind. I would like our collective to ease me into oblivion. Yet, I know this can’t be done here. Here, my every word and action will be preserved in everyone’s memories, and will be passed on from generation to generation.”
“I think I can grow bumpy skin; I just have to make a point of exercising every day. Recently, I’ve been rubbing and scraping against the rigid clods in the earth. After my skin bleeds, scabs form. It seems this is working.”
It’s worth pointing out that we critters don’t congregate in a certain space for our meetings (as the human beings above us do), for our kingdom of the black earth has no spaces. Everything is packed together. When we do assemble for recreation or discussion, the earth still blocks us off from each other. The black earth is a very good medium for transmitting sound. Everyone can hear every single one of our utterances, even if it’s in the feeblest voice. Sometimes while we’re digging, we accidentally run into another body. At such times, both sides
When we stop digging, we don’t move. We’re like pupae as we dream in the black earth. We know that our dreams are similar, but our dreams have never been strung together. Each of us has his or her own dreams. During those long dreams, I can bore deep into the earth and then fuse into a single body with the earth. In the end, my dreams are about only the earth. Long dreams are great, for they are sheer relaxation. But if this goes on for a long time, I feel vaguely discontented, because a dream of earth can never give me the joy that I most want to experience.
Once, we gathered together and talked of our dreams. After I related one of mine, I began crying in despair. What kind of dream was it? It was blacker and blacker until finally it became the black earth. In my dream, I wanted to make a sound, but my mouth had vanished. One after another they consoled me, referring to our ancestors to prove nothing was wrong with our lives. I stopped crying, but something ice-cold settled into my body. I thought it would be difficult to hang onto my previous optimistic attitude toward life. Subsequently, even during working hours, I could feel the heavy black earth pushing down on my heart. Even my rigid beak was weakening, and it itched now and then. I wanted the relaxation that comes from dreaming, but I didn’t want the fatigue that comes after waking from a dream. I didn’t want to lose interest in life. I must have been possessed. Was I going to disappear in the boundless yellow sand just as our missing ancestor had?
I had recently lost weight, and I was sweating a lot—more than usual. Perhaps because of my mood, I was about to fall ill. When I dug the earth, I heard my companions encouraging me, but for some reason this didn’t cheer me up. Instead, I felt sorry for myself and was sloppily sentimental. At break time, an elder talked to me of my late father. He had a lovely buzzing voice, much like the sound sometimes made by the black earth. I called that sound a lullaby. The elder said my father had had a last wish, but he’d been unable to express it. Those beside him didn’t probe, either, and thus his last wish hadn’t been preserved in our memories. Near death, my father made an odd sound. This old man had been nearest to him, so he heard the sound the most distinctly. He understood immediately that my father wanted to fly like a bird in the sky.
“So did he want to become a bird?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. He had a higher purpose.”
I talked with the elder for a long time about what my father’s last wish might have been. We spoke of sandstorms, of giant lizards, of a certain oasis that had existed, and also of certain minor disturbances involving our ancestors in remote antiquity—because a qualitative change in the earth brought about a scarcity of food. Each time we broached a new topic, we felt we had almost reached my father’s last wish. But as we continued talking, it eluded us even more. It really made us uneasy.
Thanks to the elder’s information, I gradually calmed down. After all, there was a last wish! This made me feel less nihilistic.
“M! Are you digging?”
“Ah, I am!”
“That’s good. We’ve all been worried about you.”
These dear friends, associates, kin, and confidants! If I didn’t belong to them, who would I belong to? The hometown was so serene, the soil so soft and delicious! I felt that I became a better self. Although my chest still ached dully, the disease had left me. This didn’t mean, however, that I was unchanged. I had changed. Hidden in me now was an obscure plan that even I couldn’t explain.
I was still like everyone else—working, resting, working, resting . . . I heard subtle transformations taking place in our hometown. For example, the tribes decreased in number; the desire to procreate declined; unreasonable complaints spread among us; and so on. Recently, we had begun to amuse ourselves by measuring the lengths of our beaks with the width of our atrophied fingers. “Ha, ha! Mine is three fingers long!” “Mine is four!” “Mine is even longer—four and a half!” Even though our fingers weren’t the same width, this activity was still fun for everyone. I discovered that my beak was longer than those of all of my brethren. Was it possible that the elder who had disappeared was my great-grandfather?! Because of my discovery, I broke out in a cold sweat and kept this secret to myself.
“M, how many fingers is your beak?”
“Three and a half!”
I kept my body vertical and continued rushing upward. Everyone soon discovered this change in my motion. I felt the fear all around me. I heard them say: “Him!” “Scary, scary!” “I feel the land wobbling. Will there be an accident?” “M, you need to get hold of yourself.” “It isn’t in our nature to move straight up!”
I heard all of this. I was engaged in a dangerous activity and couldn’t stop this impulse. I ascended, ascended—until, worn out from this work, I slept a dreamless sleep. It was a sound sleep—like death. It was free of confusion and anguish. And I couldn’t estimate how long I had slept. After I awakened, my body once more rushed up. This had become a conditioned reflex.
Before long, I noticed a deathly silence all around me; they were probably deliberately staying away from me. Because I was far from the border, others must have been here, too. For the first time in my life, I was alone in an absolutely quiet place. Two large things—black, certainly blacker than the earth—settled over my head all the time. I thought those two things must be heavy and impenetrable. The bizarre thing was that as I kept digging upward, they kept backing off. I couldn’t touch them. If I touched them with my beak, would we be together for all eternity? Sometimes, they fused into one huge thing and sometimes they separated again. When they were fused together, they made a gege grinding sound; when they were separated, they moaned unhappily. I couldn’t think about so many things: I just continued darting ahead as though they weren’t there. I thought, I wasn’t supposed to die so soon. Was I perhaps implementing my father’s last wish?
More time passed, and I was working in the deathly quiet and sleeping soundly in the deathly quiet. Scrupulously controlling my feelings so as not to think too much, I knew I was approaching the boundary. Ah, I nearly forgot those two black things! Did I take them to be myself? It was obvious that one could become accustomed to anything. To be sure, I was also sometimes weak, and at such times, I would utter a heartfelt lament: “Father, ah, Father, your last wish is such a terrifying black hole!” This lament gave rise to a misconception: the layers of black earth were twisting me, as if they would twist off my body. I also felt that my ancestors’ corpses were hidden in the earth’s folds. The corpses emitted spots of phosphorescence. I never hallucinated for very long: I didn’t like sentimentality. Most of the time, I ascended step by step. Ascended!
Since beginning vertical motion, I felt that my life was more disciplined—work, sleep, work, sleep . . . Because of this regularization, my mind was also transformed. In the past, I loved to have rambling daydreams—about the layers of black earth, about the ancestors, about Father, about the world above, and so forth. Daydreaming was a way to relax, a kind of entertainment, a kind of tasty turpentine. Now everything had changed. My daydreams were no longer rambling; now they had an objective. As soon as I began resting, those two black things above me started suggesting a direction, and they towed my thoughts in that direction. What was above? Simply those two things. As I was musing, I heard them make the bizarre sound of a watchman’s wooden clapper: it was as if someone were striking clappers on an ancient mountain on the ground above and the sound actually reached us underground. Listening attentively, I was thinking of the huge black things. While I was enthralled in this, the sound of the clapper would suddenly stop and become the sound of us insects—
I realized tardily that the two black things above were not just totally black, but they contained infinite hues that were in constant flux. The closer I came to the boundary, the weaker and flimsier the core parts seemed to be, as if they would pass through light. Believe me, my body was close to sensing light, which was pink and a little hot. Once, when I overexerted myself, I felt I had torn one of the cores. I even heard a breaking sound—cha. I was both excited and afraid. But after a while, I realized that nothing had happened: they were still above me. All was well. I was being silly: How could there be light underground? Now these two things were so exquisite, so seductive. Wasn’t Father’s obscure voice echoing once again?
Before long, something happened: while I was digging upward, there was a sudden landslide. It was only afterward that I concluded it was a landslide. At the time, I realized only that I was falling and I didn’t know where I had fallen. I remember that at first I’d been excited and had faintly heard the noise that was told of in our ancient legends: the sound of people above congregating for singing and dancing. At the time, I thought, How can there be a congregation in the desert? Or perhaps it wasn’t a desert over us, after all? Now, the two black things above me really did let light through. I am speaking merely of my conclusion, because I wasn’t aware of it. This light wasn’t pink, nor was it yellow or orange. It was a thing that you couldn’t sense, wedged between the two black things. The sound of the musical accompaniment became increasingly intense, and I grew increasingly excited. I exerted all of my strength to thrust upward . . . and then there was the landslide.