A River Full of Glass, by Qiu Huadong
A leading writer of new urban fiction in the 1990s, Qiu Huadong (b. 1969), a Beijing business journalist-turned-writer, addresses the conflict between the ideals of the utopian global city that dominate urbanist discourse about Beijing and the realities of the city that people inhabit it. In this story, a middle-class young man is surprised and dismayed at his pregnant wife's reaction when he tells her that he found a dead baby in the river while out fishing: 'He kept talking until he got to the part where he pulled the baby to the pool in the river, then stopped. “And then?” “What ‘then’? I didn’t pay attention to him after that.” ....“Then you just sat nearby and kept fishing?” “Yes, the fish were biting like crazy after that, you couldn’t keep them away.”'
This short story first appeared in Chutzpah (《天南》) magazine and is reproduced by kind permission of Ou Ning
It was a Saturday and the weather was especially fine, so Feng Bin decided to go fishing. He hadn’t been fishing for a long time, mainly because his wife was pregnant, so he had to spend a lot of time at home taking care of her.
They had been married for five years. Last year after buying a house in this upscale development, his wife, a fashion designer, decided she wanted a child, and soon got pregnant. Now with her due date just one month away, Feng Bin felt he’d arrived safely at harbor, his life proceeding completely according to plan.
“Do you want to take your saltwater spinning rod or your retractable casting rod?” his wife, Yuan Mei, asked him as she got together his fishing tackle.
“The saltwater rod is only used for lake fishing. I’ll use the ordinary retractable rod. I’m going fishing on Chaoqing River. It’s not too wide.”
“When are you coming home?”
“I won’t be home for lunch. I’ll be home by dinnertime. I want to catch a whole bucket of fish before coming home.” Feng Bin asked his wife for the red plastic bucket. Last summer he had gone fishing up north at a fishing reserve, where he caught a whole bucketful of pink trout. Those trout were incredibly stupid, practically fighting for a place on his hook. But that fishing reserve was specifically designed for fishermen; it was stocked with starving fish that were easy to catch. This time would be different, because Chaoqing River was a natural river, wending its way from some remote source, sparkling beneath the sun. The river was eight kilometers from the residential complex, so Feng Bin decided to ride his bicycle there. He had a complete set of fishing gear that he had purchased in Japan: waterproof thigh angling waders, flexible fishing gloves, a fishing jacket, fishing bat, and a portable fiberglass rod. He kissed his wife on the forehead and set off. She stood on the stairs, her big belly proudly thrust out, watching him disappear down the sunlit road beyond the gates of the complex.
Feng Bin had been happy for a long time. It was eight years since he had first dated and then married Yuan Mei until she became an expectant mother. He met Yuan Mei just before graduating from university, and then endured a marathon pursuit for her love, but Feng Bin felt the entire process was genuinely satisfying. It was gratifying to share the minutiae of life’s pleasures and joys together, from the moment they fell in love, to when they married, to starting a family. Many people commented on the quality of their relationship and on how impossible it was to experience such intimacy themselves.
As he headed off, Feng Bin felt happy. For the past few months he had thought of nothing but his wife. The early summer light glimmered gently, like the light in their eyes when he and his wife gazed at each other, a light suffused with love. He hummed a tune, rapidly pedaling his bicycle toward the river, the Chaoqing River flashing with light.
It was still morning, so the air was as fresh as if it had been purified. Feng Bin decided to set up his fishing pole on the bank facing the sun. The sunlight was gentle, but soon its rays would grow powerful. Feng Bin squinted, deciding to cast his line in a bend in the river where it flowed more slowly.
Chaoqing River was about ninety meters wide, but it seemed extraordinarily still, perhaps because the riverbed was flat. There wasn’t a single ripple, so the surface of the river looked like a flat screen color TV, just like his 34-inch Sony flat screen color TV at home. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought such a large television, he thought, I’ve never liked watching television. Usually it’s Yuan Mei who watches it. She sits in front of the TV every night until very late. A woman’s real husband is her television, he thought, a bit disgruntled.
He sat there for a half an hour without a bite, maybe because the water was too clear. As the saying goes, the clearer the water the fewer the fish, so Feng Bin chose another location. He walked about 300 meters downstream to where a number of rocks protruded from the river and the water was babbling. He set up his pole once again, this time next to some reeds.
A little girl in a red shirt walked over from the path next to the river. She was around six or seven years old, her hair in two braids, her eyes moving swiftly back and forth.
“Uncle, have you caught any fish?”
“Not yet. The fish haven’t started biting yet.”
“What will they start biting?”
“Soon. When they get hungry.”
She sat next to him, and he immediately felt like he had a daughter who had rapidly grown to her size.
“I don’t want to be a fish.”
“Because their throats must hurt horribly when they get hooked.”
“You won’t turn into a fish. What’s your name?”
“My name is Xiao Hong. My daddy is fishing, but he’s over there. He already caught a small fish.”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“He’s at the bottom of a ravine. I’m picking wildflowers. I don’t want to tum into a fish.”
“You won’t. And your father wouldn’t let you turn into a fish.”
“Because when fish get hooked it hurts their throats way too much.”
Then the little girl named Xiao Hong sat down at his side. They didn’t say anything else for a while. Feng Bin felt a vague, fatherly feeling he’d often felt before, and now that this little girl was sitting at his side, he felt it again It was a kindly, warm feeling, just like the sun’s temperature, which kept rising. Sitting side by side, like father and daughter, they quietly stared in the direction of the fishing pole.
There was a bite. Fish always bite. Feng Bin got excited and quickly grabbed the fishing pole, pulling a shining, silver-colored, wildly struggling fish out of the water.
He tugged on the rod, pulling the fish closer. The little girl Xiao Hong started shrieking happily, but suddenly fell silent as though she felt the pain in the fish’s throat. She watched as Feng Bin grabbed the fish he’d caught and put it in the plastic bucket.
“Throw him back,” Xiao Hong said as she squatted next to the plastic bucket, staring at the fish. “Uncle—he’s in pain.”
“No. I caught him, so I won’t throw him back.”
“Throw him back.”
“Come on, Xiao Hong. Would your father throw back a fish he caught?”
“Sometimes he throws them back.”
“I won’t throw it back. It took a lot of effort to catch this fish.” He felt like a stubborn child. He thought: Am I a six-year-old?
Xiao Hong stood up. She looked around in disappointment, then pointed at the river and said, “There’s another fish.”
“What? Where?” Feng Bin stood up, looking in the direction she was pointing, but right then they heard a voice calling Xiao Hong. Of course it was her father, so she shouted in answer and dashed away.
He was still looking at the water wondering if she’d really seen a fish. What kind of fish? Sure enough, he did see something over there, something resting against a rock, something white but much larger than the average fish. How had it floated over there and become lodged against that rock? Maybe the river was too shallow so it couldn’t move and had gotten stuck there.
Feng Bin cast his line once again. He was confident he could catch a large fish, because more than anything else Yuan Mei loved eating fish, any kind of fish. But his eyes were constantly drawn to that object floating in the water—what could it be?
He squinted to get a better look, as the sun was already high in the sky. The river was flashing like crystals, as though thousands of fish were jumping, making him dizzy. He tried hard to identify it and figured it wasn’t a fish; it looked more like a toy doll. Or maybe it was a dead baby. This thought shocked him—a dead baby! He’d never considered such a thing—but that thing really looked like one. In fact, it resembled one more each minute. He kept staring at it until he decided to wade into the river and haul it out.
He rolled up his pants and waded toward the middle of the river. The light refracted off the ripples disoriented him, but the river wasn’t deep, it barely reached his knees. What could be in such shallow water? He stared at it, wondering as he got closer and closer, working hard to adjust his eyes to the reflection on the water before finally seeing it clearly.
It was definitely a dead baby. It (he? she?) was floating face down, lodged against a rock, swaying slightly back and forth. Its hair was brownish-yellow, like the hair of a one-year old. There were some green bruises on its body, but its skin was already swollen white by the water, making it look like a huge fish.
As he stood still in the water wondering what to do, he felt a piercing pain in his foot followed by a sharp ache that slowly crept up from his sole. He guessed he had stepped on a piece of glass. He took in a deep breath and pulled his foot out of the water. Sure enough, a piece of transparent glass was sticking out of the sole of his foot. He swore, pulled out the shard, and walked back to the bank.
Only now did he realize that this entire river was full of broken glass. He wasn’t sure where the glass came from, just as he wasn’t sure where the baby had come from. Where did the glass come from? Where did the baby come from? He was confused as he stood on the riverbank. He saw Xiao Hong and her father several hundred meters away getting ready to leave. They waved at him then disappeared. He sat down and bandaged his foot. Fortunately he had brought cotton gauze and medicinal patches. To avoid getting infected with tetanus, he squeezed out a few drops of blood—you can prevent tetanus by extracting some blood.
Now he sat there, feeling ill at ease. The sight of that dead baby floating face down in the water was heartrending. How did it die? Who was it? What couple threw it in this river? Should he report it to the police?
He didn’t feel like fishing anymore. The baby preoccupied him. He couldn’t do anything else. He decided to haul it out. He thought it over, then went back in the river.
But this river was full of glass. He now understood that the glimmering light from the river wasn’t from thousands of jumping silvery fish—it was from shards of broken glass. He tried his best to make his way carefully through the pieces of glass, but still ended up cutting his foot. The sole of his foot was killing him. Now both of his feet had been gouged by broken glass, but he was intent on hauling the thing over to the riverbank.
He approached it again. He tied a thin rope that he’d brought around its ankle—it was probably its left ankle—then started hauling it toward the bank like a fisherman pulling a small boat.
Suddenly he was no longer afraid of the glass shards in the water. They had already stabbed him, and he was bleeding profusely. If there were man-eating schools of fish in this river, wouldn’t they smell the blood and quickly gnaw him and the baby to fleshless skeletons? These thoughts didn’t frighten him in the least, because he knew that in this river, the broken shards of glass far outnumbered the fish. In the suburbs, people threw too many things into the river—even dead babies.
He returned to the riverbank and quickly bandaged up his other foot, which was covered in deep gashes from the glass that jutted up from the sandy riverbed like so many knifeblades. But now he heaved a sigh of relief, because he’d pulled the thing out of the river, and until he’d dealt with it he couldn’t possibly fish, and today was meant for fishing.
He finished bandaging himself and sighed with relief. He couldn’t fully relax knowing he was fishing in a river full of glass, so he stopped and took a look at the fish in his plastic bucket. The fish had already recovered. Maybe its throat didn’t hurt anymore. It was casually swimming around the bucket, its black back gleaming with vigor.
He suddenly stopped. He had a strong desire to go over and touch the thing—the baby—so he used a thin branch to flip it over in the river. “It” now turned into “him” —a baby boy. His eyes were tightly shut, but whether in pain or in slumber he couldn’t be sure. His skin was a ghastly gray, like a doll wrapped in plastic, floating face up on the water. He carefully examined him. This little thing had materialized out of thin air, establishing a relationship with him for no apparent reason. He couldn’t fathom what kind of connection this little thing could have with his soon-to-be born child. Now he could finally put him aside and concentrate on fishing, so he used the rope to pull him to a nearby pool in the river then returned to his original spot to focus on fishing.
This time when he started fishing he didn’t think about him any more, instead he was aware of the throbbing pain in his feet from being stabbed by the glass. There wasn’t another soul along the river. He was the only one fishing, and it stayed that way the rest of the day. Today he caught some dozen fish in all, of all sizes, filling half a bucket. He headed home before dark.
Yuan Mei was waiting for him to come home. She was cooking dinner, her swollen belly protruding. She wanted to eat fresh fish and fresh fish soup. So she was waiting for him to come home. Of course she would wait, because that red bucket had some dozen fish in it. Feng Bin had never felt as relaxed as he felt tonight while they ate a fresh fish dinner together. And naturally it was a candlelit dinner.
Feng Bin would always regret telling his wife about the dead baby incident. They had been lying in bed, almost asleep, already in pajamas, and were ready to turn out the light when he started talking about what he had seen when he was fishing.
From the moment he started talking he could tell Yuan Mei was holding her breath, as though she were listening to some incredible story. He kept talking until he got to the part where he pulled the baby to the pool in the river, then stopped.
“What ‘then’? I didn’t pay attention to him after that.”
“So he’s been there ever since, that baby boy?”
“Yes, he’s been in the pool in the river ever since.”
“Then you just sat nearby and kept fishing?”
“Yes, the fish were biting like crazy after that, you couldn’t keep them away.”
“Why were there so many fish? Was it because of him?”
“No, no, maybe it was because the weather started getting warmer so the river was getting warmer.”
“Why didn’t you report it?”
“I thought about it, but later forgot about it.”
“You forgot? Are you even human?” His wife’s tone was suddenly sharp.
“I really did forget. There were so many fish.”
“Then did you forget about the cuts on your feet too?”
“No, they were killing me.”
“But he was still there, he was dead, but you were indifferent. You pulled him over to the riverbank only to cast him aside, and then you fished the rest of the day.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“We just ate fresh fish from a river that had a dead baby in it.” Yuan Mei practically spit this sentence out of her mouth, then threw up. It was true that they had eaten fish from a river with a dead baby in it. If Yuan Mei was trying to completely purge it from her system, she succeeded. He didn’t know what to do.
Later when Feng Bin recalled the events of that evening, everything seemed chaotic—his wife started breathing rapidly, she vomited and her face turned stark white. She refused to talk to him. But a while later, after he had cleaned up the mess, her stomach started hurting.
This was a danger sign. Feng Bin was worried. He phoned the security guards, put on his clothes, and helped them carry his wife to the housing complex’s van to rush her to the hospital. Yuan Mei scowled at him all the way to the hospital, refusing to talk, making Feng Bin even more uptight. Later in the emergency room of the hospital, the doctors barely saved the child from miscarriage.
“How did this happen?” Feng Bin asked the red-faced doctor.
“She must have received a shock. Pregnant women who receive shocks react violently, and sometimes deliver prematurely. Fortunately you got her here quickly. Otherwise the child might not have been saved.”
“Does she need to stay in the hospital?”
“We need to observe her for twenty-four hours. Come again tomorrow. She’s out of danger.”
The next day when he got to the hospital the doctor told him his wife had already left. “She went back to her mother’s house. Her mother already came to get her,” the doctor said, looking at him suspiciously. “Are you her husband?”
“Of course” he said, furious. “Of course I’m her husband.” Now he realized that Yuan Mei was angry at him. But how could Yuan Mei be angry at him? What for? Was it because they had eaten fish from a river with a dead baby in it? It probably wasn’t that simple, because Yuan Mei has always been very sensible. But then what could it be? Was it just because of “him”? Because he hadn’t reported the case and instead sat nearby fishing the rest of the day? Now that he thought about it again he realized he really had forgotten about the baby, because he’d already pulled him to the edge of the river. Wasn’t it enough to pull him to the edge of the river? He had thought it was enough, but she apparently felt it was far from enough.
He lay alone all night on the spacious bed. The next day he phoned Yuan Mei. First her mother answered, then she answered.
“No matter what the problem is, I want to take you home, I also want to be at your side for the sake of our child.”
“You’re inhuman.” Yuan Mei’s voice sounded shrill and vicious.
“Me, inhuman?” He was speechless.
“Yes, you tied up a dead baby with a rope and hauled him over to the edge of the river, then tossed him aside and ignored him. You forgot all about him, but he’s a person too! Then you sat there and fished the rest of the day. You tell me, are you human? And here you are, almost a father—it scares me.”
“You’re scared of me?” He was even more confused. “But I couldn’t do anything else, I had already... but he... what else could I have done?”
“You’re inhuman. I think I need to be alone for a while. I don’t want to go home. I need to think this through for a while.”
“Think what through?”
“Whether or not you are capable of being responsible for our child.”
“Is that in question? Of course I’m capable.”
“But your actions prove otherwise.”
“You’re being totally unreasonable.”
“And you’re totally inhuman. I need to have some peace and quiet, because you really hurt me.”
He thought this was utterly absurd. Their life had been so peaceful and tranquil. Then, after a day of fishing, after he saw a dead baby who appeared from nowhere, a baby boy, after he pulled him over to the edge of the river, his life changed. He couldn’t figure it out. He thought for a long time, then decided to go to the bank of the Chaoqing River to look for him again.
He searched along the river for a long time. He remembered he had put him in a pool in the river, but now nothing was there. It was like an illusion, nothing was there. He followed the river, desperately searching, as though he could get his wife and child back if only he could find him, but he couldn’t. He felt angry. He couldn’t figure out what in the world was going on. Afterward he took off his shoes and waded into the river. He rolled his pants up to his thighs, then started walking downstream. He wanted to find him, because he was sure he had seen him that day. Now he wanted to find him. The river was wide but not very deep, so he walked along carrying his shoes. Wading along the river, he confirmed that it was full of glass, because he was obviously being cut by it. He was bleeding, but was completely oblivious to it, because all he wanted to do was find him, that gray-skinned doll—maybe he wasn’t really a dead infant after all. But the river, despite being full of glass, was empty. He didn’t see a thing.
By Saturday he had gone back to the river on three different days. But he never found him, and was completely at a loss. He gave his wife another phone call, begging her to return. “Come home, I think that infant was an illusion, I haven’t seen him since. Come home, come home quick.” But he heard nothing but silence at the other end of the line—yes, nothing but silence.