This is a story about a lonely little boy. It is 1966, and he is eight years old.
It’s autumn, and the boy is walking along the railroad tracks on the thick black railroad ties. He’s lonely and travel-weary, his feet hurt from the crushed stones that poke through his worn-out shoes. He knows he must keep walking. He doesn't know that someone is looking for him, a man in a hat with a red armband on his sleeve.
The man in the hat leans his bicycle against a wooden railing, and a bunch of idlers gather around. This year, there are too many people in the city with nothing to do, and the alleys fill with the dust kicked up in their sudden gathering. They don’t look at the man in front of them, but crane their necks to peer down the alley he came from. This year, whenever someone with a red armband appears, an enormous army always follows.
But this man in the hat is alone in the rain, shouting at a house framed by a pair of pillars.
The idlers ask him: Who are you yelling for? That official was taken away a while ago, wasn’t he?
The man in the hat says: I’m looking for his children.
The little group of idlers breaks up, and they sit down beside the road seeming slightly miffed. They say: Huh, those children....The older one went off somewhere and the younger one’s no good. He hides all day in the train station and steals things, that little pickpocket.
There’s no one in the house. The man in the hat sees a few oval loaves of bread on a long bench, each in a paper bag stamped with the railroad station seal. The air is filled with a yeasty smell.
The man in the hat takes out five one-yuan notes and sticks them under a loaf. The bread is hard as wood.
He sees that the largest wall in the house is hung with carefully arranged portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. The four of them sit securely in glass picture frames, stately and grave. The man in the hat had been a guest in the house before, he’d sat beneath these four portraits drinking tea with his host. There had once been green velvet curtains, two couches, and a tea table. Now it was empty, with only the four portraits left. The people who’d come to turn the house over had sat on the couches: these foreign things are pretty nice! And the couches were taken off in a truck, to be enjoyed by their ringleader.
The man in the hat says to the idlers by the road: Tell his children that each month they'll be given a stipend of five yuan for living expenses. The alley is dazzlingly sunny as the idlers gather together again, discussing the question of the five yuan: The Party is so noble and beneficent, it even gives out stipends to people like that? but does it also give out stipends?
The man in the hat rides off on his bicycle and they all hear the whistle of a train. This is just as the boy is walking down the railroad ties.
Somewhere a train lets out a rough breath. The boy stops walking and crouches down like a skinny locust to lean against a sack of grain. Behind his back, he presses with his fingers until they break through the sack. Soybeans begin to pour out like water from a tap, and soon the boy’s pockets are bulging. The last good days of the locusts are in autumn; as the boy straightens his legs, he feels heaviness, his pants drag toward the ground with the weight of the beans. He chews on bean after bean. Yuck, he mutters.
Four locomotives take off in different directions at the same moment, one going off at an angle at the railroad switch. The boy walks on with his pockets full of beans. The diagonally-running train whistles, and he feels as though the sound has come from the deep recesses of his own ears. Solid black steel, a colossus, it’s heroic, its pistons and axles and wheels pulling it forward across the earth. He looks up to watch the train pass, and yellowish dark smoke surrounds the excited child.
The trains are all traveling long distances. The boy sits down again, but his whole body itches so badly that he can’t sit still. He has to get up and walk on. A cool breeze ruffles his clothing as though, aside from the two pocketsful of soybeans, his little body has no weight to it at all.
This autumn, the boy’s target is the train station. The tracks and switches are like enormous long black noodles. Each day, a train from Beijing comes into the station, switches locomotives, and heads straight back.
The sky darkens, replacing its blue face with a strained dark one. The boy walks along the tracks.
Hey, boy, you little bastard!
People are yelling at him from behind. The boy starts running, but the beans prevent him from gathering speed. He hears himself panting like a train starting up.
He runs for quite some time before he realizes that no one is following him. He slows down and hides behind a few canvas mail sacks, and realizes that the ones who yelled at him are porters just getting off work. A few of them are laughing, and they wear the strange hats with neck flaps that the invading Japanese forces in movies wear.
If those men had caught up to him and pounced on him and said: Boy, what are you doing, stealing the country’s grain?
The boy would have said: I’m looking for my brother.
The workers would say: Liar. Who’s your brother? Is he a porter? Is he a train engineer?
The boy would say: My brother went to Beijing.
The workers would say: Millions of people went to Beijing on the train, how are you going to find your brother? Get lost.
But no one speaks to him and no one follows him. No one even gives him a second glance. He wanders back toward the train station, ready to go home.
The day his older brother had gone to Beijing, the train station was full of people. When they got into the station, he couldn’t keep up with his brother. All he could do was keep hurrying on, searching for that tall figure that appeared and disappeared in front of him. After a bit, his brother stopped to wait and said: Don’t come crying after me. Who wants to be followed by a snotty kid? The boy tried to wipe away his tears, but the tears and mucus kept flowing. He wiped his snot on a cement pillar, where it immediately smeared onto someone’s back brushing past, glittering there as the man pressed forward. Some people had started singing.
His brother said loudly: Only middle school students can go to Beijing. I can’t take you along. Now go home!
The boy said: I don’t want to be there alone.
His brother said: Maybe Dad will come home soon, they could even send him back tomorrow. Go on home.
The boy had always been afraid of his father. They’d never spent much time together, and his father was as stern and rigid as a washing board. The people around them who were singing and calling out slogans suddenly rushed forward. A train was coming. The boy watched the train roll majestically into the station and when he tried to find his brother again, he had disappeared. The boy winnowed his way through the crowd, as the hundreds of shoulders and bags wiped the snot and tears from his face.
From between the narrow gaps of people’s legs, the boy saw a train up close for the first time. It stood very tall and let off a roar as it spit out hot breath in cottony puffs. Its power mesmerized the boy. The steam rolled over the people on the platform. Then, when people were leaning out of every window, the train started off, and the ones who hadn’t made it on began to leave. His brother was taken away by that mesmerizing train, he had seen it himself. After that, the boy started to go to the train station every single day, believing that his brother would someday come back on that enormous creature. Now, with his thin legs burdened with soybeans, he is just a slip of a boy in the autumn wind.
His mother and father had been taken away in the summer. It was hot, and the boy had followed them out barefoot. The asphalt road had softened in the sun like feverish skin, and it burnt the bottoms of his feet. The car that took his parents away left tracks on the asphalt. The boy hadn’t followed the car, nor had he cried. To him, his parents were just two people who went off to work every day. The one he really cared about and could rely upon was his brother.
The boy crawls out of the train station through a breach in a wall and catches sight of a bread cart being wheeled past. He doesn’t want to steal more bread; he’s eaten so much of it he can’t eat anymore. He wishes he had an oven so he could roast the soybeans, waiting for their creamy skins to burst open and the insides to cook until they swelled and let off a delicious aroma.
Another locomotive whistles, and yet another whistles in response as it slows and stops. Rail meets rail, locomotive meets locomotive, engineer meets engineer—they all have to greet each other to display their friendship. The boy uses his hands to support his soybean-filled pockets. They get heavier with each step as he walks back toward the gloomy city.
The man wheeling the bread cart stares at him with narrowed eyes. He isn’t thinking that the boy is a thief—no one actually counts the loaves on the cart, and anyway, he’s just the one charged with wheeling it around. He pities the boy for being so thin. It’s clear that no one is taking care of him. Who are his parents anyway? The man’s heart softens in the aroma of yeast. The boy feels someone watching him and feels afraid. He starts to run. In the square outside the railway station people have gathered to beat on drums, and boys his age are waving flags. The flagpoles are short and the flags large, and the flapping nearly knocks them over. In the tumult, they leap about fencing each other with the poles.
The streetlamps come on. When the boy reaches home, he sees the five one-yuan notes stuck under the loaf of bread, and he doesn’t know where the money could have come from.
The soybeans that have been weighing him down get dumped into a washbasin. It’s just too bad the house has no oven. The boy knows that the dark houses across the alley all have ovens, and those children use little iron shovels to scoop the red coals. On moonless nights, they use the coal as lamps, and just before they get home, they’ll piss on them to put them out. But he doesn’t know those children well. Those who use gas to heat their homes don’t generally associate with those who use coal. And especially after his parents were taken away, none of the children have paid him any mind.
The four portraits on the wall are especially eye-catching, and the boy looks at them one by one. They stare back down at him. No matter where he hides, their gazes follow him closely.
He goes into his brother’s room, lies down on the spring bed, and rifles though one of his brother’s books. The book is called Physics. He doesn’t know what physics is, he just looks at the pictures, like one of a round stone placed underneath a wooden rod. It’s the kind of book that makes him sleepy.
The streetlamps illuminate the large, empty room now that the curtains have been torn off. The four old men behind the picture frames never sleep. They sit with their eyes open, waiting for the night to slowly pass.
The trees are suddenly bare, and the trees reach their claws toward the sky. The boy’s brother still hasn’t come back, although all the neighborhood middle school students have. One of them brings home a large speckled clamshell, and another brings a commemorative badge from the south. The boy sleeps on his brother’s bed, day or night, whenever he wants. Now he gets up and puts on his pants. If he steals soybeans again, they’ll drop out of his torn pockets as he walks.
The northern wind has grown vicious, cutting straight through his clothing to his bones.
He walks again to the railroad station, since that’s the only place he’ll be able to find his brother when he returns from Beijing. He sticks out nine fingers to represent a hundred million people, and even if that many people stood on the platform, he’d still be able to hear his brother’s voice in the din, the voice of a middle school band horn player.
Thin coal dust in the air turns the sky over the station dusky. A train comes in as the lights turn on, casting itself over the boy and the grit beneath his feet before quickly disappearing.
He walks for a long time along the tracks, passing the red lights between rails. He pauses for a long time to examine a small tile-roofed house. He’s like a scout now as he checks it out. One minute earlier, a man carrying a red and green flag came out of the house, bareheaded, with purple lips puffing tobacco smoke out toward the sky. He went to meet the train, standing there like a marionette waving the flag.
Inside the house is an oven, and the whole place is filled with the aroma of roasting soybeans. On top of the oven, an aluminum dinner pail is heating, and food and rice boil inside it like an alarm clock running too fast. The boy had forgotten how good cooked food smells. A quilted jacket and hat are lying on the bed, but they’re not ordinary clothes. The wide-brimmed hat is part of a railway worker’s uniform, and over the jacket is a railway signaler’s vest. But the weather is getting cold, and he needs warm clothing.
Using a train as cover, the boy steals the jacket and the hat and sneaks back out of the little house. This time he isn’t carrying beans, and he runs as fast as a gust of wind. He leaves the door open and the aroma of roasting beans diffuses into the air. With the jacket on, the boy isn’t cold anymore.
He climbs up onto a pile of sacks and lies there panting. He’s so little that he seems no bigger than an empty sack. After the railway porters have done a spell of work, they rest on top of the bags just as he does. The railway jacket is nice and warm.
The railway signaler who has lost his jacket stands on the tracks cursing the porters: Assholes! You wouldn't blink an eye if I froze to death, you pickpockets! Only after he had shouted for a while did he realize that his wide-brimmed hat was gone as well.
A locomotive with a dozen train cars pulls into the station, and the boy does what he always does and runs after it. Heads stick out of every window to watch the dark station as it nears. He’s scored a jacket, but his brother isn’t on the train, and he’s already lost the hat.
After a few days, the bare-necked round-headed boy watches three trains race each other side-by-side, and the earth comes along to encourage them.
Suddenly a voice cries: My jacket! Don’t move, you little bastard! That’s my jacket!
He doesn’t know where the voice is coming from, so he starts running wildly, bounding across tracks and railroad switches like a monkey, and the rails lie before him like long swords flashing. He runs across sword after sword, the pit of his stomach heavy like a bag of soybeans, you’re going to get caught, you’re going to get caught, you’re going to get caught.
Finally, he sits down on a bare stump at the entrance to an alley. He pants for a long time before his chest releases. His whole body burns as though countless hot insects were crawling inside the jacket. He sticks his hand out of the sleeve and scratches himself with effort. A girl comes by with a large flowered porcelain bowl. She holds it tight to her chest as though afraid to break it.
She stands on top of a thick sewer cover. She says: Are you here to beg?
He snarls: Go away!
She jumps off of the sewer cover, hugs her bowl to her chest and runs.
A student finds the boy’s house. Her hair is slicked back against her head so it seems she doesn’t really have any hair. After she asks him his name, she says: Come here.
He walks behind her through the doorway to a corner of the courtyard.
She says: I’m your brother’s classmate. While we were still in Beijing, he asked me to come and tell you that he probably won’t be coming back. Some people say he went to Xinjiang, some say it was the Soviet Union.
The boy feels like everything around him is fading, the trees and roads and railings, and then the birdlike red fire hydrant the Japanese left behind changes before his eyes. The world is just a gray mass, including himself.
The girl pulls out two pears and puts them in his hands, and as he feels their coolness, he returns to the human world.
She says: Have some pears, I brought them back from Beijing. Then she plays with a stray lock of hair and says: I heard that the reason your brother didn’t come back was because of your parents. I’m telling you that, but you can’t tell anyone. If he really was sent to the Soviet Union, it’s because he did something wrong. You’re so young… do you even understand what I’m saying?
The boy understands that he needn’t go back to the train station, since his brother won’t be coming back on the train. He walks blindly through the alleys. His brother had told him that there were no dead-end alleys in the city. At nightfall there’s an unexpected bit of golden hue in the clear bright sky. Before, he had walked many unfamiliar alleys with his brother, and his brother would pull off his gloves finger by finger, the kind of gloves one wears to play French horn. He always asked: Are we lost? Can we find our way home? And his brother always said: There are no dead-end alleys. Everything connects to everything else. Now, the boy heads back in the direction of home, walking faster and faster because the instant he slows down he feels insects crawling on his body.
The boy stands slippery and naked in the house like a white locust.
God, he can see thousands of insects, crawling out of the underwear he just took off.
Brother, I have lice! The boy speaks to himself.
If his brother were there, he would stick his head out of his room and say: I’ll take a look. You’re kidding right? I’m coming.
Really, it’s lice! The boy spoke again.
His brother says: I’ll help you.
He says: Do they drink blood? Have they been drinking my blood?
His brother says nothing, because he isn’t there.
At that moment, the door opens and a cold wind and a man in a hat come in. The man is quite tall and large.
The boy says: Who are you?
The man in the hat says: It’s cold in here. Why on earth are you naked?
The naked boy is afraid and he hides behind a high-backed chair and asks: Who are you?
The voices reverberate in the empty house. The man in the hat says: I’m from your father’s work unit. I’ve known your father for ten years. Last month I came here to give you five yuan, in one-yuan notes.
The boy pulls his clothing and shoes toward him and says: Why did you leave five yuan?
The man in the hat says: It isn’t my money. It’s a stipend from your father’s work unit. Where’s your brother?
He says: He went to Beijing to meet people. He even saw Mao Zedong.
The man takes off his hat, revealing a thick head of hair. He wears a pair of thick-soled wool-lined boots like a man who feared the cold. He says: What are you doing here without any clothes on? You think with that skinny body you’re going to be invincible against the cold?
The boy answers in a small voice: Lice. He really wants to cry, but he can’t cry in front of a stranger, and he especially can’t stand there crying without a stitch on. He’ll just have to pretend to be strong.
The man goes into the kitchen to boil water, but the gas lighter is blocked up with ash, so he blows on the fire and makes a surprising amount of noise. Then he stuffs the boy’s undergarments into a pot full of boiling water and the room fills with steam.
He asks: Why do you go to the train station every day?
The boy says: To meet my brother.
He asks: How did you get that railroad jacket?
The boy says: I took it when no one was looking.
The man’s loud voice suddenly bursts from the kitchen: What do you mean, took it? If you take it without anyone seeing, that’s called stealing!
The boy sees that the man is about the same age as his father, with a long face and a moustache.
Soon the man has found some underwear and clothing for the boy to wear. He puts on his hat and gets ready to leave. Winter dusk in the north means the sky is filled with purple and gray, like rose stamens rising between petals. The man in the hat seems very tall, and he feels for the knob as he says: It’s cold out, you shouldn’t go out unless you have to. And don’t touch things that aren’t yours.
He suddenly walks over to the boy and says: Son, you have to remember, and I’m not going to say more, but you need to be very good.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin still hide behind glass on the wall, staring down at this boy with a yellow blanket draped over his shoulder. They’re so close to each other, but they don’t look at each other and they never communicate. And they have no relationship with the boy at all.
Before daybreak, the sky is so cold it sings—train whistles enter the dreams of the people in the city. The exhausted, hardworking, anxious, frightened people can still sleep deeply for a while, perhaps only for ten minutes, completely forgetting who they are, not knowing in which corner of the world their bodies with their individual names are curled up. The sound of the train startles the boy, and he goes outside wearing his brother’s rough wool skating hat. Their old nanny knitted it for him. Their mother didn’t know how to do such things, sewing and mending and cooking. Their parents believe that their lives should be given over to their work, not to food and clothing. The hat makes the boy’s head look small and round, about the size of a locust’s. He walks along the road, crushing the thin ice step by step, and when it breaks, dirty water oozes out and starts to form a new layer of ice.
The boy carries the stolen railway signaler’s jacket. He puts it in the doorway of the tile-roofed house by the tracks. He thinks for a moment, and then stacks a small pile of kindling beside the house. It is the winter of 1966, and it is snowing.
A train calls out. It’s in a bad mood, and making the sound is a struggle. The boy sees a snowflake land on his body. Its shape is very clear, a petal with six ridges. He worries that the signaler with his flag will suddenly come back.
The signaler would say: Why did you take my jacket? You’re so little, and you’ve already learned to be bad. You deserve a beating, you little pickpocket.
The boy wouldn’t dare defend himself. Maybe he’d just say: I didn’t want to steal it. I was just cold.
The signaler would probably be fierce: Why did you come to the train station and down onto the tracks? Were you trying to sabotage the tracks?
The blue jacket is there in the snow and soon it will be white, the whole train station is swaying there in the whiteness. The boy hasn’t seen the signaler, and it is as though the station has frozen. Most of the trains aren’t moving. After the students who had gone out to do their part had come back, there were no more plans to dispatch more trains. There are still a few people in uniform on the platform, competing to see who can break apart coal with their bare hands, standing on top of what seems like a small mountain of coal. The boy had heard his brother say that good coal was light and shiny and porous. The men can break a piece with their hands. Then they realize that a child is watching them and suddenly become angry, waving their black hands, shouting: What are you looking at? Get out of here! The men had once worn red armbands. The boy starts to run.
The snow gets heavier. It wants to turn the city into a white silent white holy place as quickly as possible.
On snowy days the people all burrow in their houses. Only the high-pitched speakers that don’t know the cold remain outside, their large mouths singing, chanting slogans, reading social editorials, quoting Mao. The speakers’ big mouths are half-filled with snow.
The snow does not stop. Someone takes a large ruler and starts to make a checkered pattern on the wall across from the boy’s house. He uses brown chalk to sketch out the profile of a person with a raised fist. Gradually it’s clear that the person is a soldier, and his arm is thicker than a normal person’s, partly dignified, partly looking like he wants to beat someone. Before the man can draw a face on the soldier, he stamps his feet and blows on his hands, and then hurries off, likely because he can’t stand the cold any longer. The boy wants to go out and write a very rude epithet under the faceless soldier, in large letters running from ear to ear. He does run outside, but he realizes the unfinished painting is too tall and he can’t reach the face. The boy sees a full box of colored chalk by the wall and he hurriedly clasps it to his chest.
The snow continues into evening, and the boy has begun a big project inside the house. Beneath the portraits of the four great foreign men, he has sketched an outline. Before, this wall belonged to the adults, and he and his brother were not allowed to come close. As soon as one of them thought to touch the smooth cool flannel of the couch, their father would realize and say: Go back to your room. That’s where adults talk business. When their father wasn’t there, their nanny would drive them away. But why was the place so sacred? The boy dumps the chalk out on the floor and breaks each piece into two. He plans to use every inch up tonight, all of the red, green, yellow, blue, white. He starts as low as he can and draws rifles, sand dunes, tanks, bleeding soldiers, forts, bunkers, flames, and land mines. As snow covers the city flake by flake, the boy can’t think of what else he might put on the wall.
Suddenly he gets an idea. He wants to draw a mighty locomotive.
He doesn’t have any black chalk. How can there not be black chalk? Do the people who make chalk not realize black exists? The boy pulls over a table and sets a chair on top of it, and now he’s quite tall and can draw a colorful locomotive. Blue piston rods, white-rimmed blue axles, big red wheels, a green body. The train spurts out multicolored layers of smoke. He wants to cover the whole wall with a train that is even more splendid than a real one. There’s too much smoke, and it covers over the four picture frames and run up to the ceiling. Now look, the four foreign men have become part of the enormous train.
At noon the next day, the house is unusually cold. The radiator is making noise, but it isn’t warm. The boy climbs from his bed and goes out into the living room. He’s taken aback by the enormous picture he spent the whole night drawing. He drew it—how extraordinary, how mighty! The train is more beautiful than any night of fireworks he’s seen.
The boy puts on the skating hat. The door is blocked by snow, and he has to push on it for a long time before he can slip out. There is a tremendous amount of snow, whiter than white. The boy walks quickly, though he has no goal in mind. The snow creeps into his shoes and freezes his toes. He stops at the entrance to an alley, wanting to invite people back to see his train. But not a single person is around.
Some kids rolling snowballs see the boy. They stop, and one of them stands in place while the others pass by him closely to form a line across the alley. Clumps of snow from the coal pile fall into their collars, but they don’t move. They hold the line like soldiers, staring at the boy.
The boy recognizes them, they’re all from the same school, and one of them is even in his class. But they’d stopped talking to each other long ago. One of them says: Stare him to death. Stare until he goes away. Anyone who talks to him isn’t one of us.
The children don’t make a move, showing their unity, showing the solidarity of their little gang. At that moment, a bicycle comes too quickly around the corner and smashes into two of their snowballs, breaking them apart. The children scatter and run after the bicycle.
The boy crosses the alley. As soon as the snow passes, the sky brightens, bluer than glass, as though it can’t stand its own gloominess. There are several large snowdrifts beside the road, covering different families’ vegetable cellars filled with cabbages, green turnips, carrots. The boy thinks, it would be so good to eat one of those green-skinned red turnips. It would be easy, in fact, to shovel away the snow, and remove the brick and wood cover from a cellar. If he did it after dark, no one would know if he emptied the entire thing. But then he remembered the man in the hat telling him that he had to be good.
When the boy gets home, he sees the door is open.
A few strangers stand with brooms and feather dusters in the middle of his house, and the air is filled with chalk dust.
His locomotive has disappeared and the wall is smeared. A whole night of drawing has turned into dust that flies through the air. The strangers are middle school students, and their right arms all have a red armband. One holding a broom approaches the boy: You have a lot of nerve! Drawing a whole stupid train underneath our great proletariat revolutionary leaders. Do you want to send our great proletariat revolutionary leaders away, is that it? Stand up straight! What you’ve done is counterrevolutionary! That thing you drew is counterrevolutionary! Hang your head and admit your guilt!
The boy’s eyelashes are covered in colored chalk dust. He thinks, you can’t cry. If his brother were there, he would argue with the students. His brother is a tall French horn player. But he already doesn’t have a brother.
The middle school students look at the emaciated boy and lose interest. They brush off their clothing, and valiantly exit through the door. They cross the alley with their brooms and dusters, whacking at trees, snow piles, bicycles, anything they catch sight of. The snow is remarkable. A whole city of people walk across it, and the ground is still as white as before.
The night of the snowstorm, the boy’s father dies. The whole world gradually turns white as he lies in an underground room. The man in the hat guards the room overnight, so he doesn’t know it’s snowing. He hears an announcement. He picks up his hat and goes into the provisional cell set up next door. He unhurriedly unlocks the door, and unhurriedly approaches the boy’s father. He puts out his right hand and his hat falls to the cool ground. As he withdraws his hand, it carries with it a bit of cold hardened air. There isn’t much of it, but the back of his hand refuses to warm up again. He calls to several people who are in a late-night meeting, and they rush in. The man in the hat leaves the room, wiping the back of his cold hand against his quilted pants as he walks. He climbs many flights of stairs before he sees the sky. But it’s nighttime, how can the sky be so bright? He’s afraid, and his head feels cold. He has forgotten his hat. That hat is in the underground room being trampled on by all those people. They’re furious, they’re saying: He’s separating himself from us!
The man without his hat returns home, and the following morning, he wakes his son and tells him: Go to such and such a house in such and such an alley, the house with the pillars on either side of the door. There’s a child there, see if he’s at home. Check to make sure he has heat, and see if he’s eaten. We should take care of him.
The man’s son is a middle school student and a troop leader. He’s often so busy he can’t make it home. He says: It’s still snowing out. After a while, he says: I have to go to school, a lot of people are waiting for me.
The man suddenly loses his temper, and says: Don’t talk back to me! Get over there and see if the kid is at home.
The middle school student doesn’t want to do what his father tells him. First he goes to school, has a meeting, sings some songs. He delays until noon before he finally brings along a few others to the alley. The whole way he says: What’s so important about a stupid little kid? We’ll teach the son of a bitch a lesson, and leave the whole thing to my old man. And one of the others says that they should kick the kid’s ass, another says they should punch him in the face.
The house is completely deserted when they get there. The students see the train drawn on the wall.
One of them says: It really looks like a train.
Another says: It must’ve taken a long time.
Someone else says: It’s wonderful.
Then the middle school student who brought them there says: Find something to wipe it off with. It’s a reactionary cartoon.
Getting rid of chalk just takes a few minutes and very little effort. Finally, the student says to the boy: From this day on, you little bastard, you have to stay at home. You’re not allowed to leave this house. And so the student had carried out his father’s orders.
The train has lost its blinking eyes, and the four old foreign men in the picture frames continue to stare down at the boy with their blue-gray eyes. They watch him sleep for twenty hours. When he wakes, it is noon on the day following the snowstorm. The boy gets up and finds he has a bit of energy. He finds the five yuan that the man in the hat left. He goes out without his skating hat and his ears freeze like two wings of ice sprouting from his painfully cold face. He buys five boxes of colored chalk and runs back home as his pants turn white from the knees down.
The morning after another big snowfall, people come out into the alley where there is a tall wall where people go left or right. This time, they stop in front of the wall and cry out in shock. There on the dark bricks is an enormous, brightly-colored locomotive. Even by jumping, they can’t reach the top of the train where a boy has been drawn on the wall. He’s riding the train with a clenched raised fist. He’s wearing summer clothes and laughing, arrogant. Every detail of the train is draw carefully, precisely, and even those who have worked in train factories can’t point out a flaw.
Good lord, who drew this? How did he get that high? When did he do it?
And everyone repeats: Good lord!
His brother says: Why do you have me here riding this train? Let me down.
The boy says: Please, brother, I want to see you there every day. Stay up there for a while, so they can see you too.
His brother laughs, sitting up straight, not letting the wind blow him about.
And the boy says to everything around his brother: That’s my brother. Isn’t he magnificent.
Eleanor Goodman was interviewed this month about her translation of Wang Xiaoni's poetry - see "New Books in East Asian Studies" - intro and podcast here: dated 11 Jan 2016.
Intro: Eleanor Goodman has written a masterful translation of the work of Chinese poet Xiaoni Wang. In Something Crosses My Mind (Zephyr Press and The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, 2014), Goodman offers a fascinating introduction to the work of this "poet of place." Wang's poetry evokes a sense of dislocation and distances traveled, a sense of isolation while being embedded in a community of everyday material and nonhuman beings – corn and pigs, peanuts and windows, potatoes and blades, dust and mountains, farmers and colors. In the course of our conversation we talked about the challenges and opportunities of the translator's practice, and Goodman was exceptionally generous in reading several of her beautiful translations and guiding us through some of the most powerful and evocative moments therein.
Helen Wang, January 26, 2016, 2:04p.m.