Through the Woods by Jiang Yitan, translated by R. Orion Martin
On the night she finished the defense of her doctoral thesis, she dreamed of the ocean. She didn’t fall into the water; she purposefully walked in one step at a time. There was a strange smell to it, like the bodies of old men. She stayed on the surface, feeling the small waves break against her.
Gray light spread in all directions. As she swam forward, she saw something floating in the water. A row of human heads was bobbing there with their eyes shut tight. They were swaying before her, pushed by the currents. She recognized the dead historians at once. Sima Qian, Ban Gu, Sima Guang, Chen Yuan, Chen Yinke, Guo Moruo, Fan Wenlan, Bai Shouyi… Heavy with history, the heads began to sink into the ocean. When she reached out for them, all she got was a mess of seaweed.
The stench of the seaweed dragged her out of the dream. Sitting in the darkness, she thought to herself, You’ve completed a PhD in ancient history, but what have you really learned? What new insight have you gained?
She didn’t want to think about it.