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from the December 2012 issue

The Shades who Periscope Through Flowers to the Sky

1. Heavenly Body

Rocky Wang was sitting in Tianxiang Park. The flagstones were cool, and pale in the moonlight. The couple starting kissing. (This was before it happened.) Rocky put his hand in the front of his jacket, his mind empty. He wasn’t waiting for anyone in particular—though he felt something was going to happen. The dog that hung around every night turned up and barked at him. Rocky got angry and bared his teeth, and it went off into another frenzy of barking. Then Rocky jumped up and set off toward them. The grass soaked his feet.

Afterward, Rocky cut through the bamboo thicket, through the ribbons of moonlight, and away.

He took the No.13 bus. When he got off, he was some distance from home. He didn’t quite know where he was till he turned the corner and saw the abandoned Hong Yun Building compound.

In the center of the county town on Stone Toad Street was a patch of land. Ten years previously, the developers had fallen foul of the law, and plans to complete the buildings were shelved. The odd thing was that a succession of local officials had all failed to get this lame-duck project back on its feet. Once, a Feng Shui master from many miles away had been invited in, but had beaten a hasty retreat leaving behind just the cryptic words, “Blood will flow.” Moss covered the walls of all the buildings and the site seemed gloomy even under the summer sun. The place was littered with dead birds, their blood–blackened feathers sticking up like rushes. A bone-chilling wind whistled through the site and no sunlight ever penetrated.

With the aid of some distant streetlights, Rocky made his way along the potholed street, his head down. Sometimes he heard sounds, stopped and looked around, and nocturnal cats shot past him. He got over the perimeter fence and brushed the rust off his hands. He felt the grass around his ankles and the sudden chill struck him. He took a piss against a wall, then wondered why the normally noisy streets outside were quiet as the grave. He walked on, the gravel crunching loudly under his feet. Suddenly, he was surrounded by flashlight beams slanting up and down. People rushed at him and, before Rocky could count how many there were, he was thrown to the ground. Damp earth stuck to his face and dust filled his nostrils. He twisted but could not move. He was being held down and savagely beaten and kicked by countless hands and feet. The scuffling drowned out the noise of barking dogs and screeching cats. Vehicle headlights swept along the road, shining at him between a forest of legs. He closed his eyes to shut out the racket.

A volley of firecrackers made the room shake. It was pitch–dark. The window had been bricked up and there was not a glimmer of light. Rocky struggled unsuccessfully to get to his feet. That damned dog must have taken a chunk out of his thigh—it hurt like hell. He tried to pull himself upright with his arms but couldn’t move. Dammit, they’d tied his whole body to the chair! The lights came on, turning the walls ochre. Something black loomed over him, then moved away. It lowered itself into the chair on the other side of the table. It was that fucker Liu, with his gloomy, pockmarked face. To his right sat Yan scribbling away furiously, his mop of hair obscuring his features.

Liu: “Spit it out.”

Rocky: “Spit what out?”

Name, surname, place and date of birth, address. Then:

Liu: “Where were you this afternoon? What were you doing?”

Rocky: “Nothing.”

Liu: “You’d better confess. You know the policy?”

Rocky: “What policy?”

He knew: Treat confession with leniency, treat resistance with severity. And he knew what severity meant. No one spoke.

Liu: “Did you hear me?”

Rocky: “I really didn’t do anything.”

Liu: “You just tell me everything. I don’t want to find you missed anything out.”

Rocky: “I didn’t do anything. What do you want me to say?”

Liu got to his feet, and his shadow wavered over the wall behind him.

Rocky: “OK, OK, I’ll confess everything!”

He began:

We hadn’t made any arrangements. I was standing on Jade Dragon Bridge waiting for a bit of sunshine. A mob came running past, as if there had been a murder, but I didn’t pay any attention. The trees hung over the surface of the river, which was thick with filth. Then, just as the sun began to go down behind the treetops, I got a text. It said: Come over. Just two words, not even a period. It took me ten minutes. I was in a hurry, but I still looked at my reflection in the window of a passing car so I could tidy my hair. When I got to the second floor, the door opened and I ducked inside.

E had been washing her hair and there was still shampoo in it. “Sit down a moment,” she said and went back to the bathroom. I could hear running water. I tiptoed over to the sofa, trying not to make a sound, but it was in such a mess, I didn’t dare sit down.

E came out, rubbing her hair with a towel. “What are you poking around there for?”

“No reason.”

I took half a step back and bumped into the chair. The noise made me jump away and I banged against the wall clock.

E smiled. She opened her bath towel and folded it round me. Her hands worked their way up my body, inside my clothes, and then got hold of my dick. There were still drops of water on the back of her neck. I slid down the wall and we fell on the sofa, our feet resting on the coffee table, making the teacups jump.

I tried to get on top of her but she kept wriggling. We were panting and groaning. She laughed and jerked away from me. I wasn’t scared any more. I pulled her back to me, I wanted to ride her.

“No,” she said, “I like being on top.”

. . . Afterward, we sat stark naked on the sofa, not feeling the cold, our feet resting on the table among the upturned cups. The clock ticked away. We heard a noise from downstairs.

“You better go,” she said. “He’ll be home soon.”

Me: “We’ve still got time.”

Her: “Best to go a bit early.”

Me: “I don’t want to go.”

Her: “Be good and do as I say. Don’t act like a little boy.”

Me: “Can’t we go somewhere else next time and have a bit longer?”

Her: “What’s wrong with here?”

Me: “Nothing’s wrong. It’s just that I’m on tenterhooks all the time. It’s really scary.”

Her: “Doesn’t that make it more fun?”

Me: “You think that’s fun?”

Her: “Don’t you?”

Me: “But I’ve got real feelings for you . . .”

Her: “We’re both grown-ups. Don’t be such a child.”

Me: “But . . .”

Her: “Are you going to bang on about the same old thing and spoil everything?”

Me: “That’s not what I want.”

Her: “Well, that’s what you’ve done. Why do you keep on with all that stupid thinking?”

Me: “But I really like you.”

Her: “Don’t make me sick.” Then she yelled: “Just get out of here now!” She leaped at me, her breasts jiggling. “Get out! Fuck off back home!”

There was a scratching sound as Yan wrote it all down. Liu sat solid as a black locust tree. A door, which Rocky hadn’t known was there, suddenly opened, and Police Chief Zhang came silently in, looking serious. He put his hand on Liu’s shoulder to stop him from getting up and disappeared into a corner.

Liu: “Is that all?”

Rocky: “That’s all.”

Liu: “What happened next?”

Rocky: “After that I went home.”

Liu pulled the notebook toward him, shook his head, then gave it back. “Why did you kill them?”

Rocky: “How did you find out?”

Liu: “Why do you think we picked you up?”

Rocky: “Framed me, didn’t you?”

Liu: “Tell me the truth. And hurry up.”

Rocky: “Tell you what?”

Liu: “What the hell do you think? Why did you kill them?”

Rocky: “I dunno.”

Liu: “You piece of shit.”

Officer Zhang’s shadow moved and he gave a couple of coughs. Liu tilted his chair back. Then the chair legs came to rest again and Liu seemed to have calmed down. He leaned forward.

“Don’t jerk us around. What did you do then?”

I went home . . . The door to the back room was half-open, the air hazy with smoke and I could hear the clack of chess pieces. My father was playing Chinese chess again. I saw him lean forward, make a move, and win a point. His friend Li, who was playing the red pieces, crossed the river with his chariot. With his right hand, he piled the five pieces on top of each other. With each move, he raised the front of one shoe then lowered it down again.

I went to my room for a nap. I pushed the bedroom door open, didn’t even bother to have a drink, just went to sleep with my clothes on. And dreamed: I pulled on the string and sent up a kite-cloud, then fired two shots, and the cloud came tumbling down and fell into the water, making pools of blood.

I don’t know what time it was, but I was woken by shouting. I came out of my room. My mother was hurling the broom at my father’s head, and it caught the tea mug in my hand as it flew past and smashed it. The window frames rattled. It was raining.

I shouted at them: You never stop fighting! Knock it off, will you!

The two of them paused and looked at me. My mother’s hand hung empty and I could see it trembling. My father was standing, hunched over the chess table, rubbing his hands on his trousers. They started arguing again. I went to the wall and gave it a thump. The rain thudded harder against the windowpanes.

“Just shut up!” my father was shouting. “You’re never satisfied with me, you just want to kick me out.” 

“It’s not true,” said my mother. “That’s just what you think.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” I shouted at them, but they ignored me.

“You just can’t bear to see me happy,” said my father.

“You’re so good at it, you just carry on then!” my mother yelled.

“Hey, hey, hey!” I shouted at them, and smacked my head against the wall this time.

My father stood there, even more bent over, I could see his coat quivering. My mother turned and looked at me. I stuck my hands in my trouser pockets. “Have you stopped fighting now?”

They said nothing.

“That’s better,” I said.

I started to leave, then glanced at my mother, and crooked my fingers at her. “Gimme some cash.”

My mother picked up something and threw it. “I’ll give you some cash. I’ll give you the whole damned lot,” she said.

“Not like that,” I said.

My mother flung her arms in the air and yelled: “You’re useless. You just spend every cent we have.”

My father half-turned and took two steps back into the room. Then we heard the chessboard being overturned and the rhino-horn pieces clattering and rolling over the floor. And rolling again.


The police chief took a step out of the shadows, the light catching first half his face, then half his torso.

Liu: “You’re telling me there was only your mother and father left at home then?”

Rocky: “Uh-huh.”

Liu: “Your dad’s friend Li had gone by then?”

Rocky: “He must have.”

Liu turned to Yan and whispered a few words in his ear, then turned back: “Go on.”

I went on:

I left the house in a hurry. I saw someone smashing a windowpane with a stone, and more people rushing past. I didn’t know where I was going. All the streetlamps were on, each lamppost planted in its hole like a tree pushing upward. I turned down Brickyard Lane and stumbled over the broken bricks. On one side, there was a squat building with a rusty roof and ceramic tigers hanging from the eaves. Its windows were dark.

The place was deserted except for a dog, which dashed past like a dark shadow. I sneaked into an alley. It was unlit but the light from the main street showed me two people kissing. I hid behind a tree and pressed myself against its trunk till my legs went numb Then I jumped at them, pulling out my knife, and poked the young man in the back: “Get out all your money!” The girl was terrified, but she didn’t try to run away or shriek. I yelled frantically: “Fucking hurry up!”  The man reached for his wallet. The girl started to sob. I grabbed the wallet and told them: “Get going!” They stumbled away together but they hadn’t gone far when they turned and looked—at me or at something behind me. I wanted to shout again: “Get going!” But before I did, they’d gone.

Just a minute later, someone rushed at me. I didn’t have time to pull my knife, just felt an ice-cold pain in my back. “Give me the money,” the man growled. He stank. I wanted to shout but when I opened my mouth, I couldn’t get a sound out.

“Here, take it, but don’t hurt me,” I said eventually.

“Don’t give me that bullshit.”

I looked at him. I could see the side of his face and one eye.

“Turn your head away,” he said.

Before I had time to do that, a hand shot out and wrenched my head away. Still cursing, he grabbed the wallet in my hand. Then he aimed a kick at me and I shot forward.

He rushed out of the alley into the road. The lamp light fell on him for a second, he disappeared into the shadows, then I saw him cross a patch of grass, and jump into the trees down the middle of the road. As he turned, his knife glinted in the moonlight.

Liu: “Don’t give me that bullshit.”

Rocky: “OK, I admit it, I made the last bit up. But everything before that was absolutely true.”

Liu: “Just be straight with me, and fucking around.”

Rocky: “OK, I’ll be straight from now on.”

I left the house in a hurry. I didn’t know where I was going. I slowed down and went down Rice Flower Alley. It had high, bare, brick walls on each side and locust trees which made deep shadows.  If I went much further in, bits of brick might drop off the walls. The whitewash had gone yellow and crumbly—if you tried climbing, you’d get dust all over you. The wall was covered in giant propaganda slogans, each character a meter wide. I came out again, there was no pedestrian crossing so I walked straight across the road into a square. It was crowded and noisy, full of people flying balloons and kites. I went to the opposite corner, found a convenience store and knocked on the door. The shopkeeper peered through a hole in the mesh and asked what I wanted. A packet of cigs, I said. He rolled the shutter up and let me in. Three fifty. But then he just stood there, holding my money.

“What’s up?” I asked.

The shopkeeper pursed his lips. I turned and saw a small girl staring at me, clutching a steamed bun in her hand.

Me: “I don’t know her.”

Shopkeeper: “I saw her come in with you.”

Me: “Shit, I don’t know her.”

The girl was still staring at me. “Dammit, don’t stare at me like that.” I waved her away. The corners of her lips turned down as if she was going to cry, but she didn’t, and I let out a breath, turned back to the shopkeeper, and got my cigs.

I left the shop and hurried away. The girl was still following me, with the same expression on her grubby, sunburnt face.

I bent down: “Where are your mom and dad?” I asked.

Tears had made pink tracks through the dirt on her face.

I glanced quickly around. “Where’s your home?”

She stared at me, pouting. Her lips were purplish and covered in flakes of white skin.

“I’ve given you some money. What else do you want?”

The girl stuck out the tip of her tongue and gave her lips a quick lick.

“Don’t keep following me. Go home right now,” I said.

I walked alongside South Lake. It was cold. After a bit, I looked back. She was trotting after me. I sped up and the wind whistled in my ears. At the next crossroads, I stopped and looked back. There was no one. I looked up at the crumbling, red-brick walls then, after a moment, retraced my steps. Just as I got back to the square, I caught sight of the girl. People were pushing against her as they passed by, nearly knocking her over. I went back and tried to give her a pat on the head, but as I reached out, a big guy shouted at me and hit me. As soon as the girl saw him, she looked panic-stricken and burst into tears. I was trying to explain when he kicked me down. Then I saw him being pulled away by some of the passersby. I bent my legs under me and tried to get up but my back hurt like hell. A hand reached out to help me up—I looked at it, then up the arm to the shoulder and the neck and a bony face. Then the big guy came back, straightening his clothes. He shoved me out of the way, picked up the little girl, and carried her away, still crying. The man who’d helped me up let go of me and sat back down on the steps. I squatted down and read the wooden sign on the ground between his feet. On it was written: “Fortune-Telling.”

“Get home straightaway,” said the fortune-teller.

Me: “No, I’m not going home.”

Fortune-teller: “If you don’t go home, there’ll be bloodshed.”

Me: “You’re kidding me?”

Fortune-teller: “If you don’t go home, there really will be bloodshed.”

I was about to leave when the fortune-teller grabbed my arm: “You better do as I say.”

Someone in the crowd said: “He always says there’ll be bloodshed, whoever it is.”

I looked around but I couldn’t tell who had spoken. Soon, people began to leave.

“No, I’m not going home,” I said.

Half an hour later, I left the square. In front of me I saw the gates to Tianxiang Park.

Liu: “I’m waiting for you to tell me how you killed them, and you still haven’t got to the point.”

Rocky: “I’m coming to it right now!”

I was sitting in Tianxiang Park. The flagstones were cool, and pale in the moonlight. The couple started kissing. (This was before it happened.) I wasn’t waiting for anyone in particularthough something was going to happen, I was sure. The dog that hung around every night turned up and barked at me. I got angry and bared my teeth at it, and it went off into another frenzy of barking. Then I jumped up and set off toward them. The grass soaked my feet.

The street lights had been turned down and it was very dark. There was a gust of wind from the bamboo grove which blew on my face. I felt something like a bamboo leaf go down the back of my jacket but when I reached up, there was nothing. It felt cold and I got one arm down the back of my jacket and scratched, but it was no good. I bent over and shook hard, stood up again and the cold thing, whatever it was, went but still I cursed myself furiously. Any other time, if I got something stuck inside my jacket, I could take it off and shake it out. But not today. I turned up my collar against the wind, and breathed more quietly. I couldn’t see a lot, only enough to go in a straight line. The rooftops, walls, and trees had all faded into the darkness. I mustn’t make a mistake, I warned myself. I thought the man and the woman must surely have seen me, but at least they didn’t know who I was. The man had a bright red tie on, tied so tight that as I got closer, I could almost see the blue veins standing out on his neck.

I slowed down so I could reconnoitre and the man and woman looked up and saw me. I took my hand out of my jacket. I brandished the kitchen knife and ran toward them.

Liu: “Hang on, hang on. What are you talking about? You say you had a kitchen knife in your hand?”

Rocky: “That’s right.”

Liu: “Wrong. It was an axe.”

Rocky: “It wasn’t an axe, it was a kitchen knife.”

Liu: “Axe.”

Rocky: “Kitchen knife.”

Liu: “Asshole!”

Rocky: “Axe.”

He went on:

The couple stood there, and the man stuck his hand in his pocket. He turned to look at me. He had a black mole on his face. He looked surprised then, after a minute, he turned back and whispered something to her. The girl didn’t turn around, she was facing him so I could only see her profile. There was a tremor at the corner of her mouth. She slowly dropped her gaze, then looked up and opened her mouth but no sound came out.

I stood still and watched her. Then the man looked at me, and I looked right back at him. Neither of us said anything. A long time passed. Suddenly I heard a cough and I jumped. I should make a dash for it.

“Hey!” the man called abruptly. His voice was low and abrupt.

“Hey!” I answered back.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Me?” I acted surprised. “Nothing. Just going for a stroll.”

“Don’t mess with me.”

“I’m not kidding you. I really am just going for a stroll.” The man grabbed my arm. “What are you doing?” I yelled.

“Don’t kid me. Tell me why you followed us here!”

“What’s up with you? You’re nuts!” I yanked my arm away, so my jacket came half off.

“Quick, or I’ll start getting nasty,” he said.

“What’s up with you?” I was starting to panic, worried that I’d never get home.

The woman tugged at the man. “That’s enough, let him go. He was only going for a stroll.” The man took no notice except to ward her off with his other arm. “You saw him! He followed us all the way here. He was definitely up to something.”

“I wasn’t following you, honest, I was going my own way,” I said. I was getting even more frantic and my voice came out as a squeak.

“That’s enough now! Just let him go! I’m scared,” the girl said with a sob in her voice.

“I saw you sneaking along like a ghost!”

“When was I sneaking along like a ghost?” I protested, still trying to pull my arm free. “Let me go! Let me go right now! If you don’t let me know, I’ll start getting nasty!”

“Nasty? I’d like to see you getting nasty. Come on, tell me what you were up to.”

“This fucking knife in my hand will tell you what I was up to.”

“Knife? What knife?”

The girl really burst into tears now.

“This knife.” I stopped pulling away from him, and leaned in so close I could feel his body warmth and see the blood pumping in his veins. I got on tiptoe and sliced hard across his neck with the knife, which was blunt, and then hacked downward. The man fell on his back, a great gash across his neck, his face covered in blood. Before the woman had realized what was happening, I grabbed her round the shoulders, digging the fingers of one hand into her flesh, and with the other hand slashed her neck too, just like that. Her eyes closed, I let her go, her body jerked a couple of times and the blood spurted out, a lot of it spraying over me. I raced away through the bamboo thicket, through the ribbons of moonlight.

Liu: “Finished?”

Rocky: “Uh-huh.”

Liu: “You didn’t go back home?”

Rocky: “What would I go back home for?”

Liu: “What happened then?”

Rocky: “Nothing. I’ve told you everything.”

Liu: “No you didn’t.”

Rocky: “What do you mean?”

Liu: “You really didn’t go home?”

Rocky: “I really didn’t.”

Liu: “You’re saying you killed a couple in Tianxiang Park?”

Rocky: “Yes, I just told you.”

Liu: “With an axe.”

Rocky: “You said to say it was an axe.”

“Wrong,” said the police chief, emerging from the shadows. Liu got up too, and walked over to the door, leaned again the frame and echoed the police chief: “Wrong.” He went out. Yan looked after him, startled, then he pushed the stool back, picked up the pen and notebook and went over to Rocky. Rocky signed his name, then wrote on the next line: “July 2009,” stopped and looked at Yan. “It’s the twenty-first,” said Yan.

There was a clatter of footsteps, and a whole lot of people squeezed in, filling the room to bursting. The police chief pushed his way through, leaned over and seized Rocky by the scruff of the neck. “Did you kill them?” he yelled, and pulled Rocky away from the table. The chief’s face was so close, he could see the hairs, all covered in dust.

“I just told you I killed them.”

“You didn’t kill your mum and dad?”

“What have my mum and dad got to do with it?” said Rocky, his feet back on the ground now. After a minute he asked: “What did you just say? What’s happened to my mum and dad?”

“Your mum and dad had their heads cut off with an axe,” said the chief, “and the strangest thing is that the corpse of your dad’s friend Li was stuffed under your bed.”


2. Eclipsed

The next day, Liu opened the cell door and took Rocky out. They went to another room, and Liu handcuffed Rocky to the window frame, then left him. An empty chair, its paint peeling, stood opposite the TV, which was turned off. Rocky felt a draft on his face. The sunlight was pleasant and bright. The row of buildings on the opposite side of the street had regular blocks of shadow in front of them, which spread into the road. A woman came from somewhere Rocky couldn’t see, stepped into the sunlight, and crossed the road. Then she stepped into the shadows, and went in through a door in one of the buildings. Rocky nudged his left hand to one side and picked a large shard of glass from the windowsill. He held it so the sunlight reflected from it out into the street. He moved it from side to side and a circular ray of light with a dark splotch on it appeared on the wall of the building opposite. It wavered again, then homed in on its target, slipping into the house and shining on the woman’s body. She had her back to the street, and began to take her clothes off, beginning with her coat and her top. He could see her bra underneath. Rocky tried his best to keep his hand steady, but the ray jiggled like crazy. The woman felt around her back and began to undo the bra hooks. Rocky breathed out hard, raising dust from the windowsill. The ray of light slid off her back but he repositioned it again. She was stripping completely. Then suddenly the light ray was gone and it wouldn’t come back no matter how much Rocky moved his shard of glass. The sky gradually grew dark. He could only see the outlines of the trees and the buildings. Rocky swore and looked up. He thought it must have clouded over but soon there was no light at all. It was as dark as night, and stars had come out. This was a solar eclipse. Rocky was terrified, he put both hands through the window frame with its bits of glass sticking to it, and gripped the bars. “Let me out!” he yelled. He hauled himself up so his feet left the ground and pressed himself to the wall. The street lights began to come on, and by their feeble glow, Rocky saw people coming out of the buildings. They massed in the road, in every corner and on the roofs. They didn’t talk, just quietly looked up into the sky. They looked like the rebels in the film V for Vendetta. Every face wore a rigid plastic mask with a severe and mournful expression on it.


《而将通望天空》© Sun Yisheng. Shortened by arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Nicky Harman. All rights reserved.

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