“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Binary, by Zhang Yueran

Zhang Yueran

There are two facts that may or may not help your understanding of this story, but certainly added to my enjoyment of it:

1. Chinese gay slang for 'top' and 'bottom' is '一号' and '零号' respectively, that is 'number 1' and 'number 0'. If you're not sure how this works, look at the shape of the numerals.

2. As an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, Zhang Yueran majored in Computer Science.

Now, I'm sure there must be other gay-themed stories which lean on the fact that binary code is basically a series of 'tops' and 'bottoms', but Yueran's is the only one I've come across in a mainstream collection. She doesn't make a big deal of it, but the image is there in the background.

This story was published in the collection Ten Loves in 2004, when Yueran was only 22. This phase of her writing was very much influenced by Jeanette Winterson, and I think we see Winterson's use of fable and mythic imagery in the story's two male figures, or rather emblems: a boy in a dress, and a literal knight in shining armour.

In her afterword to the 2010 reprint of Ten Loves, Yueran names "Binary" as one of her two favourite stories in the collection: 'Looking at it now, Binary's narrative feels overly mysterious, and certain passages drag a little, but I am still touched by its portrayal of the tangled emotions of youth, indescribable terror laced with awkwardness and absurdity. Of all my writing, I think this is the piece that most accurately captures the condition of being young.'

—Jeremy Tiang

This translation was originally included in the Math Paper Press publication of Ten Loves. You can hear more of Zhang Yueran's work in this video of a book reading she took part in together with Jeremy Tiang.

This is how it works: 0 moves to 1, and 1 moves back to 0. An endless cycle.

0.

In April I returned to the town of B, to Mountain Lake Road. Before coming back, I’d been living in the middle of a dank forest, writing my novel with a pen like a twig. I saw no one. Sleep was the only visitor to come between me and my writing. Each time it afflicted me, I fell into a spiral of dreams that deposited me on Mountain Lake Road, yes, that wide road in the town of B. Huge cars rushed by as I stood on the pavement, wondering what I’d come to see.

These weren’t particularly bad, as nightmares go, but I invariably woke from them unable to remember how I’d planned to end my novel. I had to revise it from the beginning and see where it led, but before I could get there, the dream came again, like a typhoon, and I’d wake to find another startled morning with my ending blown away.

Naturally, I developed a great interest in Mountain Lake Road, a place I was unfamiliar with. It seemed to hold some kind of symbolic meaning for me, but I couldn’t even remember what it looked like. So it made sense to return to B, where I might finally be able to finish my novel.

Facing this strange road with its speeding cars, I felt at a loss. Even though I took every precaution, the first time I crossed the road, I was hit by a car coming from the west.

It was a long time before I regained consciousness and climbed up from where I was sprawled on the side of the road. Just then, Sange appeared, darting across the road. He was wearing an ultra-tight pair of jeans, and over that a mid-length dress in red and grey checks. His hair was permed, and the cigarette in his hand emitted little sparks. The morning haze in this polluted northern city made me cough. How’s this for the ending of a novel, I thought to myself. But perhaps this was our destined ending anyway – Sange had been missing for a long time, but the minute I came back to Mountain Lake Road, there he was.

Can this encounter be dealt with so simply, I wondered, or should I write a few more lines? For example, I ran over, my mouth slightly open, my breath visible in pure white bursts, and we talked about the past. What did we do? Sit? Lie down? At the time we were in the middle of the road, where the traffic policeman stands during the day, spitting clouds, fog streaming from our mouths, dabbing at our nostalgic tears. Or maybe I stayed where I was, the same pride I’d had since I was a little girl preventing me from going forward, glaring at this incomparable lover on his street corner. His dress was a copy of one I’d owned long ago, though I gleefully noted that his buttocks were too flat to give it a good shape. As he walked past a stern old lady sweeping the street, she stared at this boy with his parasol skirt and flame-coloured hair, waiting for him to get close enough so she could lash out at him with her broom. Mountain Lake Road opens into a crossroads. I continued north while my lover went south.

1.

I continued north after seeing Sange. Mountain Lake Road is the widest in the city, lined by neat rows of trees. In the early morning, with the north wind blowing, each car that zoomed past seemed to slap me across the face. I soldiered along the red-brick pavement, not thinking for the moment what my destination might be.

In fact, all the while I was deliberating whether I should stop. I no longer remembered what was in the north, and seeing Sange had made my broken heart take precedence over my desire to keep going. Leaning forward as I was at a sixty-degree angle, I no longer resembled a young girl.

Finally, I came to a halt. I was not a serious walker, and hadn’t brought a water bottle, or tent, or torchlight, or tampons, or any phone numbers. All I had on me was my novel. I’d promised my novel I would finish writing it before the end of April. It didn’t like the wind, and the nights after April were too full of emotion. My novel feared being ruined – turned into an essay or even a love letter, weeping blood-tears. I decided to sit down where I was and finish it. My notebook was the colour of night, a background of balloons with a sweet cartoon cat resting on them. When I was fifteen, I’d fought with Sange and he'd flung my book to the floor. The cat lost its colourful head, leaving only the stump of its neck with a brown bow-tie around it. The headless cat had been with me for five years now, the pages once used to scribble notes to Sange, where even now some of his scrawled love letters were wedged, was now where my novel lived.

My novel would end on this northern morning. Two people meet, but they don’t fight, nor do they embrace. Everyone is wearing comfortable shoes. They walk past each other, and then a new year begins, and everyone oversleeps, forgetting many things.

But the minute I sat down to write, Little Kou appeared beside me in a shiny new black sports car.

My memories of Little Kou are all to do with colour. When we were in high school, Little Kou liked to sit in the front row, painting her nails. She enjoyed changing their colour to suit the occasion – the same shade as copper sulphate for chemistry lab, bright blood red when we had to dissect a pigeon for biology. Once I saw her on her way to a piano lesson, her nails alternately black and white. I’d heard she’d died in a car accident, and her funeral was like a flower garden, our classmates sent chrysanthemums in so many different colours. I was far away from B at the time, and all I could think of was what colour her nails were at the time of her death.

I’d never been close to Little Kou, but her fascination with colour endeared her to me. When she stuck her head out of her car to call to me, I was glad to find she hadn’t died after all, and stuffed the novel back into my bag before standing to welcome her.

She said, ‘I’m getting married today.’

I replied, ‘You can’t be, you’re younger than me. You’re not old enough.’

She ignored this, and continued, ‘And you’re invited.’

I hesitated, noticing that her fingernails were clear today – a magical transparent colour. When she touched me, I felt nothing, as if her nails didn’t exist. They reminded me that I’d missed her, and so I said, ‘Why not? I’ll come. Where is it?’

‘Mountain Lake Road.’

0.

I walked south along Mountain Lake Road, Little Kou ahead of me, leading the way.

Back at the crossroads, I glimpsed Sange through a gap in the speeding traffic. I almost cried out in surprise – I’d been gone at least an hour, and he was still here, walking north this time. His jeans were very tight, not because he was fat – in fact, he’d lost a lot of weight – but because he always picked jeans even skinnier than he was. The skirt flared out around his legs like a morning glory, and his cheeks puffed as he dragged on his cigarette, like a bagpipe player.

Little Kou stood on my left, her weightless hand clutching mine. She said, ‘There’s Sange.’

‘Right,’ I said.

‘He’s wearing a skirt. He’s a homosexual.’

‘I guess.’

‘Is that why you split up with him?’

‘Yes.’

She laughed at this, and turned to me. ‘You know, when you were still together with him, I liked him too.’

I looked closely at her. Her invisible nails were lightly digging into my flesh now.

She continued, ‘Once, I hid behind a tree right at the back of the schoolyard to eavesdrop on the two of you. The wind was puffing out your clothes. I saw him put his hands into your blouse.’

I could feel my face change. ‘Are you still getting married?’

‘Of course,’ she said, her laughter brightening.

Sange had changed direction, crossing the road towards us, his face pale, moving as silently as a snowman.

As he reached me, I realised Little Kou had disappeared, Perhaps she’d ducked into a nearby alleyway to get married, although I’d never seen any streets branch off Mountain Lake Road. My hand, in fact my whole arm, smelled strongly of nail polish. And Sange’s scent was like an octopus, its tentacles reaching for me as I took a step towards him. I coughed a few times before raising my head to face this encounter.

Neither of us could help being agitated. We’d separated with many years of emotion behind us. I wanted to hug him, but discovered that Little Kou’s nail polish had somehow superglued my arm to my body. When I tried to reach for him, all I managed was to wobble like a penguin. Awkwardly, not knowing what to do or say, I blurted out, ‘Did you see where Little Kou went?’

He nodded. ‘They’ve remodelled that cemetery. Little Kou’s grave was moved to Twelfth Month Mountain. I’ll take you to see it another day.’

Then we stood where we were, not even trying to prolong the conversation.

A peculiarity of the town of B is the great difference between dawn and early morning. At five minutes to seven, mist shrouded Sange’s face, blurring the moment. At seven o’clock, the air cleared, and his features surged towards me. I felt a burst of panic.

But perhaps the difference was really in myself. They’ve done studies to show that the heart beats faster in the morning. My heart felt like it wanted to leap from my chest. I guess Sange must have felt the same way, because we blushed at the same moment, and said goodbye.

Then I turned to the north, and he turned south. I didn’t dare turn back as the thud of his leather shoes receded, but thought I could detect a girl’s footsteps joining his, a familiar sound, accompanied by a familiar scent. Even without looking, I knew he was with Little Kou.

1.

A little after seven, sunrise hit Mountain Lake Road. I continued north. You don’t see many knights these days, but there he was, on a big horse, a white thoroughbred. He was in shining armour, brighter than the sunlight. I stood still, waiting for him to pass, but instead he halted in front of me.

He wore no cologne, and his eyes were wider than my lover Sange’s. His breath was a man’s, and his body rippled with boundless strength, the waves of an ocean I had yet to explore.

I’ve never been able to understand men like this, tall and rough. I was in love with Sange, a delicate boy. He used to polish my nails and braid my hair.

The knight asked me how to get to Twelfth Month Mountain, but seemed in no rush to get there. He dismounted, and held his horse as we talked. I told him I was a traveller, and I’d only be in B long enough to finish my novel. He said he wanted to go west to find the silk road, but first he’d have to exchange his horse for a camel. I thought the wide skies and sandstorms of the west would set off his fine profile, and nodded to show I approved.

We began talking about love. I told him about Sange, but couldn’t go too far into my description, otherwise I’d have to explain how I resisted men like the knight.

‘You’ve known him since you were seven?’

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘That explains why he’s a homosexual. A lady academic has written that when a little boy’s best friend is a girl, he’ll prefer boys when he grows up.’

‘Is that how it works?’ I was sad to learn this. It seemed this was an irretrievable fact, decided for me many years ago.

‘You see, he understands you, a girl, too well. He knows every part of you. And so women have lost their mystery for him.’

This knight was far cleverer than I’d taken him for at first. He was ready to go now. Abruptly, he said, ‘Come to the west with me. I’m still interested in girls.’

His frankness moved me, and I agreed. ‘But first,’ I added, ‘Take me back down Mountain Lake Road. I have to say goodbye to Sange.’

0.

The knight set me down, and left me to walk over on my own. I felt I’d let him down in some way. ‘You can water your horse or something,’ I offered.

‘I’ll be here. Do what you have to.’

I walked south. Sange appeared again, heading north. It was about nine in the morning. He’d been here several hours now, still in his dress, mincing like a crane.

We met in the same place, the middle of the road. I brought him to one side and we sat on the pavement. We chatted by way of goodbye. I showed him my novel, still missing its ending. He placed the book on his knees and read it earnestly, reciting aloud sentences that pleased him. I interrupted to say he’d picked my favourite bits. I told him a knight was waiting to take me away, and he seemed surprised. We talked about our innocence, that we were still virgins. He asked if I regretted being with someone like him.

‘A little. I became a Believer later, and these sorts of affairs are a stain on the soul.’

Sange and I had never talked like this, saying everything we had to say. He even apologised for ruining the cat’s head on my notebook. We faced into the north wind and talked until sunset. The sun was tipping over the horizon before we finally ran out of conversation. We were drained. I stood to go, and he kissed me. I hugged the yielding body of my lover.

As I walked away, he called out, ‘I hope you finish your novel soon.’ My heart filled with warmth as I left, walking north.

1.

I couldn’t find the knight. Perhaps I’d taken too long, and he’d met another damsel. I had no regrets. It was thanks to him I’d been able to go back and tell Sange everything I needed to. This was important to me. I’d be able to finish my novel with a grand reunion, and then start a new life.

I reached for my novel to continue writing, only to find it had vanished. I must have left it on the pavement on Mountain Lake Road. That thought made my body turn, and head once again to the crossroads.

0.

It was darkest night now. There were fewer cars, although the remaining ones were flying past. I was almost hit a few times, but somehow managed to avoid them.

I never get tired of saying this: I saw Sange again. Night-time is so cold in the north, but my lover wasn’t even wearing a jacket, just that dress with its many clashing lines. He slowly drifted down the road. I stood opposite, wondering what to say. These constant encounters were damaging our relationship. I refused to cross. And there was Little Kou, standing with him, her clear nails glinting like the lights of hell, the smell of varnish suffocating me. I took a deep breath and turned, fleeing towards the north, abandoning my notebook.

Mountain Lake Road is surrounded by tall trees, close to Twelfth Month Hill. At night, forest creatures emit unimaginable noises. I sprinted through the dark. There were no street lights, only the starry glow of passing cars.

At the end of the Mountain Lake, before it turned into another road, I stopped for breath and saw the knight standing there. He seemed sad. I said, ‘You’re still here, good, let’s go.’

Against the night sky, he seemed desolate as a shadow puppet. ‘Heading west was just a beautiful dream. I can’t go. You can’t either. Those who die on Mountain Lake Road are doomed to wander it forever, their spirits unable to leave.’

I looked at him in shock. My foot, already off the ground ready to take a step away from Mountain Lake Road, slowly drifted back to earth. The rumble of cars started up as dawn arrived, and the knight led his horse back down the road, just like always.

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