A schoolgirl's crush is interrupted by an unexpected tragedy in this excerpt from Li Kotomi’s novel Solo Dance.
Note: Li is bilingual and has written versions of Solo Dance in both Chinese and Japanese. This excerpt is translated from the Chinese; Solo Dance is forthcoming in English from World Editions, translated from the Japanese by Arthur Reiji Morris.
When had she first become aware of the enormous dark shadow hovering around her? And where had that dark shadow come from? No matter how she picked through the tangled vines of her memory, answers eluded her.
She had grown up in the Changhua countryside in western Taiwan. Her family was not poor, had not been violent; there had been no complicated issues like that. They were a perfectly ordinary nuclear family, with a father who sold scooters and a mother who worked in the neighborhood kindergarten. As a double-income household, they had been well-off enough that her father had always bought her books, ever since she was little. Fairy tales, biographies of notable greats. When she first started school, before she could read proper characters, she spent all the break times, and every afternoon after class, poring over the Bopomofo phonetics written alongside the lines. She didn’t talk much, and her classmates kept their distance, seeming to sense a certain gloominess about her.
“Yingmei is always so reserved,” she once overheard a teacher saying to her father. “We’re a little concerned.”
Yingmei had been her name back then. It meant “welcoming in the plum blossom”; her parents chose it because she was born in January.
For as long as she could remember, she had felt somehow different from everyone else. She had never cared about princes and princesses living happily ever after. Instead, she fantasized about becoming Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, setting off on an adventure with the Good Witch of the North.
When the class groupings were rearranged in her fourth year of primary school, she met Shi Danchen, and what had previously been a vague, creeping sensation turned into something more definite. Danchen had very pale skin and an inscrutable, far-off expression. There was a strange precariousness about her—her movements had an absent-minded, ethereal quality to them, as if she were just about to vanish into the air. Her black eyes glinted indigo, like moonlight skimming the surface of a dark lake. Over a decade later, Danchen still made appearances in her dreams, and although the details of her face had faded, her eyes were as clear as ever.
The moment she saw those eyes, there was no doubt that she was deeply attracted to Danchen. At that stage of her life, she hadn’t even learned the most basic meaning of the word “love,” but some kind of instinct kicked in, and she knew that the squirmy feeling in her stomach was the same thing that existed between the princes and princesses in her fairy tales.
She was constantly sneaking glances at Danchen but in the end never found a chance to talk to her.
The following year, during the first assembly of fifth grade, the form teacher broke the news of Danchen’s death. It had happened over the summer. Danchen was on the back of her mother’s scooter, on the way to a piano lesson, when they were hit by a dump truck. The teacher asked the class to close their eyes for three minutes of silence. For the whole three minutes, all she could think was: Where has Danchen gone? Was her body still there? In her head, she ran through a detailed description of poor, eternally sleeping Danchen, the girl with the pale, otherworldly face.
A few days later, the teacher brought the class to the hospital to pay their respects. A black-and-white photo of Danchen had been placed in a nook set into the corridor outside the morgue. The class lined up in two neat rows and solemnly followed the lead of the class captain, each lighting a stick of incense. She gazed at the photo. Danchen smiled a sweet, slightly mournful smile and looked straight back. So beautiful. She sighed, feeling the air rise from deep in her chest.
“I wish we could see Danchen again.”
After school, a few girls from her class were huddled together chatting. Hearing Danchen’s name, she went to join them.
“Yes, even her corpse would be something! I just want to see her one more time.”
The shock on their faces let her know this was the wrong thing to say. In hindsight, she could understand why. She had been a serious, conscientious child, but at that point in time she simply had not lived long enough to understand that, where death was concerned, there were words you couldn’t say out loud. It had not occurred to her what the corpse might look like after being hit by a dump truck, and her comment had nothing much to do with life or death; she thought Danchen was beautiful, that was all.
From that day on, her memories of Danchen were frozen. No new ones were made. Time had stopped for Danchen while for her it kept on flowing, whether she liked it or not.
She dreamed about it. In the dream, she was immediately aware that she was dreaming. Danchen was staring at her, smiling a steady but barely-there smile. Her eyes were sorrowful. Danchen’s sad, she thought. But was that true? Who was really sad? Was her dream self experiencing Danchen’s sadness, or was it just that she herself was sad? She became aware that Danchen was slowly drifting away. No: Danchen wasn’t drifting away, it was she who was drifting away from Danchen. The two of them were standing in the same stream, but she was the only one being carried away by the current. Danchen was standing still, watching silently as she thrashed and struggled.
She was woken up by a violent shudder and an enormous crash, to find the whole world shaking. Danchen had vanished. It was pitch-black outside the window. The only light in the room came from a dim night-light beside her bed, which battled vainly against the darkness. Picture frames fell off the wall and her wooden bookshelf keeled over, scattering biographies and collected works of world literature all over the floor. Glass smashed. In the distance, someone screamed. Shouting came from next door. An ambulance siren sounded. If this is the end of the world, so be it, she thought, her mind still blurry with sleep. Then the night-light went out. She closed her eyes again, noticing a dampness at their corners. Danchen floated back up through the darkness.
When she next opened her eyes, she was on her father’s back. Her mother had her two-year-old brother in her arms. They were outside and it still felt like the middle of the night. In the weak yellow of the streetlights, she saw that there were people everywhere. The racket from earlier went on and on. A baby was crying. A boy. A girl. News came through on a radio. She looked up at the sky. The moon glowed gently, but it was missing a tiny piece.
That was when it hit her: she would never see Danchen again.
The Chi-Chi earthquake shook the whole country. It also seemed to snatch away a piece of her soul.
Danchen’s face appeared every time she closed her eyes. Danchen’s smile occupied her dreams. One glimpse of the little white flowers blossoming at the side of the road and it was as if she could smell Danchen’s delicate scent. The fragrance was funereal. The visions were remembered. She had only her memory to rely on, but while the memories were still fresh the sky was still blue and the world was in sharp relief.
Then, as the winter monsoon intensified, so the memories began to dim. When Danchen’s face appeared it was a blurry outline. There were still those inky, sorrowful eyes, but the rest looked formed from a dull-colored dust, ready to scatter in the first breath of wind. After a while, even that small amount of color faded, leaving the face a lifeless gray wisp of smoke. The whole world lost its luster. The sky was monochrome.
At some point, she couldn’t say exactly when, crying became part of her daily routine, something as commonplace as eating. Something she often did while eating, even without the slightest provocation. She lost all motivation for schoolwork and her grades began to slide, from the top of the class all the way to the bottom. She got her first period. Danchen would sometimes appear in her dreams as a bloody corpse, causing her to wake up screaming. Left alone at home, she would act on sudden urges to scrawl all over the white walls with a red pen or to tie white Scout rope around her neck and pull it as tight as she could.
Her parents noticed that she was behaving erratically and tried their best to help. Assuming the shock of the earthquake must have dislodged her soul, they first took her to a temple to call it back, making her down large quantities of holy water. When this failed to have any effect, they turned to Western medicine instead and took her to see a child psychiatrist.
The consulting room reminded her of the deathly white morgue, and the fortnightly appointments only increased her suffering. None of them would ever understand, and she didn’t have the words to explain. She was in love with Danchen but Danchen wasn’t there anymore—how was she supposed to talk about that? The psychiatrist tried to pry open her tightly guarded emotions, searching for the cause of her behavior with questions that were almost comically off the mark. Her parents had explained that she’d been acting out since the earthquake, and this seemed to have led the psychiatrist to the same, misguided conclusion: the shock of the earthquake was the reason for it all.
Nobody made any connection to Danchen. Truth be told, not many people were worried enough to try and make connections anyway. She didn’t exactly seek out their attention. During class breaks, she sat by herself and read a book. She hardly ever played with her classmates. On the way to and from school, she was always alone. She kept herself to herself. Sometimes she wondered if the only reason she hadn’t been bullied was that even the bullies hadn’t noticed her existence.
The twenty-first century arrived and it was as if someone pressed a fast-forward button. Two years flashed past and she remembered nothing about them. She made it through elementary school despite her bottom-rung grades. She skipped the graduation ceremony, but a certificate and commemorative book were sent to her home afterward, as though to remind her: You can’t not graduate. One July afternoon, in a fit of boredom, when the weather was diabolically hot and the cicadas were screeching at full throttle, she began flipping through the book. Over a hundred pages of thick, matte-finished photo paper, with a mere six pages dedicated to her class. Excluding the class photo and the obligatory individual headshot, there was only one photo of her. In most of the other photos, she recognized faces but had no idea of their names. She struggled to believe that she had spent three whole years in a class with those people.
Then one shot in particular caught her attention. It was of Danchen and three other classmates. They were in a classroom, Danchen sitting on a music stool with the others clustered around, and the four of them were staring straight at Yingmei. Not just because they had been looking at the camera, but because at the moment the photo had been taken, she had been the one behind the lens.
It was from a music lesson sometime in fourth grade, when the music teacher had found out that Danchen could play the piano and asked her to play them a song. There being no piano in the classroom, Danchen had had to use a little organ instead, but her playing was no less impressive for it. At the end of the lesson, someone with a camera suggested taking a picture, and two other students rushed over to join. Hence this photo of the four of them, the photographer duty naturally having fallen to the person sitting closest by, which happened to be her.
Danchen had played Mozart’s Requiem. At least, that’s how she recalled it. She had once read in a Mozart biography that the Requiem was commissioned by a mysterious man just before Mozart’s death, upon which the piece was left unfinished. As a result, there were rumors that this man was in fact the Grim Reaper, aware of Mozart’s imminent demise and commissioning him to write a requiem for himself.
Why had Danchen chosen that piece? Was it possible that Danchen, too, on some deep, mystical level, had been aware of an inauspicious omen?
She stared at the photo for a long time. A tear rolled down her cheek, followed by another. While her thoughts whispered on, she raised a hand to wipe her face. Oh, this incurable affliction—no sooner had she thought it than she felt an unfamiliar urge, an irrepressible wave of emotion that welled up from the pit of her stomach and flooded her consciousness. She began to sob. Not her usual kind of weeping, but uncontrollable, gut-deep howls. She buried her face in her bedclothes and let them soak up the tears.
If the Requiem was Mozart’s farewell, his last wave as he set out on his journey to the underworld, then what had Danchen chosen for company on hers? Apparently Danchen had died at the scene of the accident; maybe she hadn’t even had time to choose. That being the case, it was up to her now. She would have to create something and then offer it up to Danchen. She couldn’t play any instruments, which ruled out anything musical. All she had was her writing.
After an hour, maybe two, she finally stopped crying. She got up and went to her desk, where she picked up a pen and laid out some paper, then started to write.
She wrote a short poem, laying out her feelings for Danchen and commemorating her death.
And one day I’ll remember, I’ll remember
A story over before it began
A cheek cold before it was touched
Blood dry before it could be stemmed
Rivers race to the ocean, birds return to the mountains
A light is extinguished,
And all that remains:
A thread of music to guard the soul.
Without her realizing, the sun had begun to set and the din of the cicadas had quietened. Silence enveloped the room. Bloody last rays of sun streaked through the window, stretching her shadow across the floor. Her shadow was ink-black, the same color as Danchen’s eyes and hair. Looking at it, she was struck by a thought: If I can just focus on this color, I’ll be OK.
© Li Kotomi. By arrangement with the author and World Editions. Solo Dance is forthcoming in English from World Editions, translated from the Japanese by Arthur Reiji Morris. This translation © 2021 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.