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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Mister Lover, by Wang Xiaobo

Wang Xiaobo

This story is one of a collection of “Tales of the Tang” by Wang Xiaobo: stories ostensibly set in the Tang Dynasty, but peppered through with suspiciously modern elements. From the point of view of the translator, the difficulty lies mainly in tracking Wang’s shifts through the various vernaculars – he casually tosses in a “stinking-ninth” (borrowed from a Cultural Revolution term listing the least-desirable social classes), continually floats in and out of mock-epic imperial-historical style, while the dialogue mostly sounds contemporary.

There were a few language nuts to crack. The worst of them was the term 梓童, a second-person pronoun (“you”) used exclusively by the emperor when referring to his empress. Long story short: no one knows for sure where it came from. But it contains the character (child), and is most likely a homophone for (also meaning child), and the whole is probably a mingling of two senses: that the empress’ job is to bear children, and that the empress is the junior of the emperor in status and power.

I chewed on it for a long time (a really long time), and in the end settled on “Childe-mother”, “childe” being an old word for a son of nobility. It combines (I hope) the sense of the empress being the mother of noble children, and of her exaltation as the emperor’s consort. I’m afraid it may be more clever than evocative.

The other was the title. The literal translation of the title is “Uncle Lover”, which obviously wasn’t going to work. This combines two annoying things about vernacular Chinese: that you can address just about anyone using a kinship term, and that you can use these kinship terms (or people’s occupation) to create titles for them. Thus a child might be entirely justified in calling the postman “Brother Postman”, much as it might get the translator’s goat. I felt like “Mister Lover” was the right level of coyness.

In the end, my favorite thing about the story – both as translator and reader – is its easy way with ironic humor. Actually, that’s my favorite thing about Wang Xiaobo in general. He fades in and out of irony, clearly enjoying himself as he tells his story, yet as it reaches the end it slides sideways into something truly chilling, and original.

While Gao Zong lived, the four seas were calm, the empire knew peace and prosperity, and all the world’s goods flowed towards its capital. Chang’an was, at the time, the most glorious city on earth. Within its walls stood the emperor’s palace, its countless sumptuous halls adorned with painted pillars and carved beams – neither the Caliph of Baghdad nor the Persian emperor had seen their like. Emperor Gao Zong possessed the world’s most beautiful concubines; even the scullery maids of his palace would have fetched a scoop of pearls on the Turkish slave markets. He enjoyed delicacies entirely unknown to the foreigner, and even the imperial kitchen slops would have made rare dainties on the tables of Europe’s viscounts and counts – even dukes and princes. He wore soft satins embroidered with gold thread, never seen by common eyes. In the imperial household silk was used for dishcloths, white jade for whetstones, gold for the commodes, and the baths were built of jasper blocks from Annam. The emperor lacked for nothing whatsoever, and thus he came down with a mild case of depression.

One day, an itinerant monk from Ceylon arrived in Chang’an. The monk’s name had already reached the emperor’s ears, and he was invited to the palace to preach on Buddhism. The monk sat himself down before the emperor and spoke, not on the Buddhist classics, nor on the life of the Lord Buddha, but of things seen and heard in his travels. He spoke of the phosphorescent wakes of ships traversing tropical seas on moonlit nights. He spoke of crab-eating monkeys on coral reefs, glimpsed from the ship in the first glint of dawn. The monkeys had the faces of dogs, and they reached down from the reefs and scooped up fish in their claws. He described man-eating trees in tropical rainforests. Lotus flowers big as wagon-wheels in warm-water rivers. Southern nights, filled with the scent of flowers, when mermaids surfaced and displayed their charms beneath the moonlight. The emperor possessed all under heaven, but he had never seen such scenes as these. At first he thought he would have the monk’s head for such wanton fabrication, but then changed his mind and let him go.

Before the Ceylonese monk left, he gave the emperor a bracelet made of bone beads, covered in indecipherable Sanskrit script. The emperor couldn’t read Sanskrit, and nothing made of bone had ever been permitted within the palace, but he treasured that bracelet nonetheless. When he held it in his hand, the emperor was able to see all that the Ceylonese monk had described. Though he was wealthy beyond compare, he couldn’t take a single step outside the imperial palace. Being emperor wasn’t necessarily a good thing, he thought. Not a soul besides the emperor himself, and those who had been emperor before him, knew that emperors were susceptible to a malady known as “imperialitis”. This involved allergies to pollen, to hay, and even to fresh air. Merely ascending the tallest tower in the palace and looking out over Chang’an’s greenery would leave him congested for days. And then there were the rashes… Worst of all, he could eat nothing but the food meticulously prepared in the imperial kitchens, served in silver bowls. A single taste of the mutton-offal stew made in vast pots on the streetside would give him loose bowels for three days. He could only make love to the flower-like women of the palace, whose skin was like snow – should the eunuchs bring him a sturdy, powerful girl from the countryside, one whiff of her sweat-scent would be enough to knock him out. Listening to the monk’s tales, the emperor came to feel he was a prisoner within his own palace. And so he ceased frolicking with his concubines, and refused to meet his ministers, and remained locked in his private chamber day in and day out, in the company of his bone-bead bracelet.

From the high window of the emperor’s private chamber he could see wild geese fly by, and the chimes under the eaves sway in the wind. The shadows of the roofbeams drew long beneath the sunlight, finally disappeared, and then reappeared beneath the moonlight. He saw the snow vanish from the rooftiles; the moss growing green, then yellowing. In the blink of an eye several seasons had passed, and he had neither summoned his concubine to lie with him nor attended to the affairs of the realm. He asked the eunuch who brought him his food for news of the Ceylonese monk, but the monk had disappeared without a trace.

One day, an emissary of the realm of Taz arrived from the distant west, bearing the warrant of the Tazik ruler. Despite the emperor’s depression, he was obliged to meet the delegation, as the Taz and Tang empires were matched in strength. The Taz cavalry, mounted on blood-sweating steeds, bows on their backs and arrows between their teeth, often harassed the Tang borderlands. The Taz emperor wished to make reparations, an offer the Tang could ill-afford to rebuff. As prince of his people, the emperor had a responsibility to ensure their safety. Thus he ascended his throne and received the delegation with a haughty smile. He asked the emissary what sights he’d seen on his way, but the emissary did not understand his speech. Neither could he understand anything the emissary said. The emperor began to lose interest in the proceedings. He instructed his prime minister to entertain the delegation with a feast, while he himself retired to his chamber.

He arrived in the chamber at nine o’clock, three hours after he had left it, and found that in those three hours someone had broken in and stolen his bone bracelet. This threw the emperor into a rage, and he had the maid and eunuch who were standing guard outside the chamber brutally flogged, until they mewled like kittens. He meant to have them flogged to death, but later changed his mind, and instead gave them over to his most merciful empress, hoping that under her corrective influence they would reveal who had stolen the bracelet. Even her ministrations coaxed nothing from them, and in his fury the emperor ordered they be sent out through the Meridian Gate to be beheaded, before changing his mind once again and sparing their lives. Instead he ordered that the imperial guard arrest the family members of all the city reeves responsible for catching thieves, so that they might not be distracted from the case by family matters. He also ordered that all the city gates but one be sealed, and that anyone leaving the city be rigorously searched and interrogated. Then he began to feel bored and returned to his private chamber, instructing the eunuchs to tell him when the bracelet had been found.

Meanwhile, all the reeves of the Chang’an constabulary gathered in the dispatch room of the Jing Zhaoyin yamen to discuss the details of the case. It was midnight, the red candles were lit, and a few gray-headed reeves who’d come from the palace spoke through tears of gratitude of the emperor’s magnanimity in sparing their base and despicable lives. The all-illuminating benevolence of The Holy knew no bounds – as it shone upon the grasses and the flowers, so it shone even upon the worthless, stinking-ninth reeves. Should they fail to locate the bracelet they would dash their own brains out, without troubling the emperor to lift a finger. The other reeves listened, moved to tears, and praised in one voice the magnanimity of the emperor. Then they quieted down, and by candlelight began thinking of where the emperor’s bracelet might have got to. They thought until the flames guttered and dawn glinted, but no one thought of a single lead.

As everyone knows, the imperial city walls were made of close-set, polished bricks, four zhang in height, and patrolled day and night by the purple-clad imperial guard. Even the most skilled thief in Chang’an would need the aid of hook and ladder to scale the high walls, and that was impossible in the case of the imperial city. But it was even more unthinkable that the thief was someone within the imperial palace. The Holy was a prince of such benevolence as appears only once a century. Even the poorest wretches in the land revered him; how much more so the residents of the imperial city? Furthermore, the emperor himself was the source of all love in the world: everyone loved the emperor, and the emperor loved everyone. Anyone who did not love the emperor was living in darkness – without his love they could not survive an hour. Outside of the imperial city it was conceivable there were one or two vile thieves who might dare steal the apple of The Holy’s eye, but it was mad to think that sort of person could exist inside the imperial city. The reeves thought until their heads would burst, then one by one fell asleep on the benches.

The hot May-morning wind blew into the dispatch room, and the blue-bottles danced. The reeves awoke, and were immediately ashamed at the thought of the emperor waiting anxiously for them to retrieve the bracelet. A few of the older, more experienced reeves said they should go into the streets and look for anyone behaving suspiciously, then bring them back for questioning – perhaps that would lead to the restoration of the emperor’s property. So they went out into the streets. Among them was the “Thief-Strangler”, Wang An.

Wang An had been a reeve in Chang’an for ten years, and had never taken a thief alive. He was exceedingly brawny: by the measurements of the Tang he was more than nine chi in height – by today’s reckoning at least two meters. Broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, hair to his hips, dark of brow and clear of eye, with a voice like a watch-tower bell. He didn’t remotely look the part of a reeve. His very first day on the job he had interrupted a robbery, wrapped a chain around the criminal’s neck, and dragged him back to the yamen. He had used a little too much force, and the thief was strangled. He hadn’t caught another one since. His name was known to the criminals of Chang’an; when he appeared at one end of a street, they were already disappearing down the other.

Someone like Wang An ought not to have been a reeve at all. He ought to have been a purple-clad member of the imperial guard. Guardsmen needed no martial skills, only height and a beard, both of which Wang An possessed. He could even have been a spear-bearer at the front gate of the imperial city. The ways of the Tang were different than those of the Song or Ming: the young daughters of officials and ministers would often go out riding, and when they saw spear-bearers of particularly heroic mien, they presented them with fruits they carried in their bosoms. Even princesses and gentlewomen often rode in and out of the palace, and invited the handsomest warriors into their chambers to tickle them with their beards, afterwards presenting them with betrothal gifts of inestimable value. In becoming a stinking-ninth reeve, Wang An had sacrificed a lifetime of love and amorous dalliance.

Wang An went out in the company of the other reeves. The rest went to the broad avenues and bustling commercial streets; no one was willing to partner with him. He bid them farewell, and walked through the streets that separated the city districts. Chang’an was made up of one hundred and eight such districts, or fang. Each fang was four square li in area and surrounded by its own walls, three zhang in height, with corner towers that pierced the clouds. Between these walled fang were open avenues one half-li wide, planted with locust trees. Chang’an in the age of the Tang was vast: greater than Rome, greater than Babylon, greater than Baghdad, greater than all cities that are or ever have been. As Wang An walked through the verdure between the fang, he encountered not a single soul.

Most of the fang of Chang’an were bustling cities in their own right, but along the green avenues far from their gates there was no one to be seen. And Wang An was headed for Guifang, in the north-western corner of the city, which was even more deserted. The avenue was choked with tall grasses, leaving only a narrow footpath. In places, the plaster had crumbled from the walls of Guifang, exposing the baked mud bricks that made up the wall. At its foot was an open gutter in which water flowed green as pus, and when the breeze blew the dry locust blossoms dropped from the trees like rain.

The corner towers of Guifang had long since collapsed. Of the four fang gates, three had been permanently sealed. The one remaining elm-wood gate was now little better than a rickety fence. At noon, the one-eyed gatekeeper sat in the shade of the gatehouse, mending his clothes – he was wearing the clothes as he mended them, and looked like a monkey hunting lice in its fur. All that was visible upon entering the fang was ruins: crumbling walls and collapsing buildings, withered trees and yellowing grass. Guifang had been more or less abandoned for more than a century.

Wang An didn’t know of anyone, besides his own wife and the old gatekeeper, still living in Guifang. Standing in the open space inside the gate, looking in all directions, he could see no buildings but the small, grass-ridden pavilion standing atop the half-collapsed gate. A rubble-filled pool was overgrown with brambles; the old false mountain next to it was draped with withered vines. In the distance was a covered corridor, its roof caved in here and there, like the skeleton of a giant python. All was dry and yellow; there was very little green.

Wang An knew that in fact they were not alone in the fang, but he had never seen the other person, or people. The inside face of the fang wall was intact, and covered in scratched drawings of little people. Wang An had once asked the gatekeeper about these children’s scribbles, but found that the old man was both deaf and muddle-headed, and he mumbled in an indecipherable Shanxi dialect – it was quite impossible to catch his meaning. Wang An went home by way of the small path at the foot of the wall, examining the drawings as he went. He thought there was something quite peculiar about their style.

He passed a row of locust trees. It was an odd thing: there must have been more than a thousand locust trees in Chang’an, but only those of Guifang were infested with caterpillars. May had only just ended, and the green leaves of the locust trees were already completely eaten away, leaving only yellowed leaf-skeletons, like the beards of western barbarians. A girl in a green shirt was collecting caterpillars beneath the trees, and when she saw Wang An approaching she stood and shouted: “Mister! They’ve taken your wife away!”

Wang An was shocked. First of all, he did not know this person. Second, the girl was extremely pretty, with a head of jet-black hair, eyes as bright as springs, and lips red as flowers. She had small high breasts and slender hands and feet, as though she had a bird’s skeleton. And finally, she was putting the caterpillars she picked up into a fold of her clothing – she wore a long gown, dyed green with locust bean-pods and tied at her waist with a cord, and the caterpillars squirmed in the belly of the gown. A chill ran up Wang An’s back at the sight of her.

Wang An nodded to her, saying: “Did you see it happen? Who took her?”

“An old soldier in purple clothing. He told her to follow him, but she wouldn’t. So they grabbed her and tied her hands and feet with leather straps, and carried her away on the back of a horse. When they left they whipped the gatekeeper and told him to fix the roads. They were mean old soldiers.”

When Wang An heard that he went straight home. The girl loosened the cord at her waist and countless caterpillars cascaded to the ground. She stomped them into a paste, turning her feet green, then followed Wang An.

He lived in a little thatched building. The door had been kicked in and the furniture overturned, as though a mortal struggle had taken place inside. Wang An put things to rights, then sat on the bamboo bed to change. He removed his old clothes but found he had no clean clothes to change into, and had to choose a robe from the cabinet that was worn but not too dirty. At that moment he heard a voice say, “Mister, your shoulders are so broad, and your arms are so thick!” He realized that the girl had slipped inside, and was standing in the shadows.

Wang An said, “It’s not polite to enter without asking, child.”

She answered, “I didn’t finish what I was saying, mister! Before your missus was taken away, she cursed your ancestors to eight generations – why would she do that?”

“That’s none of your business. What were you doing just now?”

“Picking caterpillars to feed the birds.”

“Well go back to doing that, then.”

The girl thought for a bit and said: “I’m done with the caterpillars, mister. The birds have enough to eat. Now I have something more important to do. Your missus has been taken away, and there’s no one to wash your clothes. If I wash your clothes, I’ll bet I can earn more than I do feeding birds.”

Wang An did, in fact, need someone to wash his clothes, so he wrapped up his dirty laundry and handed it to the girl. She held it close, smelling the reek of the stables. It smelled good to her. Wang An turn his face aside, as if from something he didn’t wish to witness. She asked:

“Mister, why did she curse you?”

“Something of the emperor’s has been lost, and I’ve got to catch the thief. My wife is being held hostage. Until I solve the crime, she will have to stay in a cell and eat rotten food. That’s why she cursed me.”

“Still, she shouldn’t. That sort of woman should feel lucky just to have married a man like you! Never mind a few days in prison, she should be willing to sacrifice her life!”

Wang An lay down on the bamboo bed, narrowed his eyes, and thought: “It’s as if she knows my wife is ill-tempered and lazy… but how could she know that?”

Wang An’s wife had a terrible temper; she scratched with all ten fingers. He knew that she must have decorated the faces of the soldiers who’d come for her, and thus would have a worse time of it than the other women in prison. He had to get her out as soon as possible. He closed his eyes. The girl thought he’d fallen asleep, but in fact Wang An was reliving the past. In the evenings, before they went to the bed, his wife would play with his beard. Wang An’s beard was soft and shining, like the locks of a beautiful woman. Once his wife had threaded her hands into that beard all her daytime savagery fell away, leaving only tenderness. As the girl looked at his beard she, too, wanted to touch it, but he turned over in bed, pressing the beard beneath him, out of reach. She heaved a sigh and left.

Wang An opened one eye and saw the sunlight leaking in through the broken door. He thought of the seven moles on his wife’s breast, in the shape of the Little Dipper. The color of the moles was that of the red veins that run through the finest agate. They were always perfectly visible, whether by lamplight, moonlight, or under the stars, as evident as Wang An’s devotion to her. By night and day she was two different women: demon by day, goddess by night. By day a rearing cobra, by night the most docile of Persian kittens. Wang An was mystified by her behavior, and the more he was mystified, the more he loved her.

The next morning, when Wang An arrived for roll call at the yamen dispatch room, he found the place plunged in despair. While he’d been napping on his bamboo bed the day before, his colleagues had caught more than one hundred thieves from the streets, and confiscated dozens of bone-bead bracelets. After torture and interrogation, seven or eight of the thieves confessed that they’d stolen their bracelet from the palace. Those bracelets had been sent to the emperor, who flew into a rage when he saw them, saying that anyone who dared bring him counterfeits would be gelded and reassigned as a eunuch.

The reeves grumbled – if they caught a thief and confiscated a bracelet, they couldn’t know if the bracelet was stolen from the palace without using torture. But if the thief admitted it was from the palace, they didn’t know if he’d confessed just to stop the torture. They had to rely on the emperor to make the final judgment, but now the emperor wanted to geld them. Supposing he gelded them all: even if, in the end, they found the real thief and their wives were restored, they would no longer have any use for them. Surely the great and holy Son of Heaven could appreciate the irony?

The emperor sat in his private chamber in the center of the palace, one eyelid twitching. He knew that meant someone was talking about him, and he immediately suspected it was the flock of reeve crows, wagging their tongues. In the midst of his sacred rage, he considered issuing a decree and having the whole lot of them gelded. But he changed his mind an instant later: he could have the reeves gelded with a snap of his fingers – why not wait and see how things panned out?

When the emperor sat within his private chamber, he usually held the bone-bead bracelet in his hands. As he did he was able to see the tropical rainforests, the steaming swamps, and the decaying stumps in the warm-water rivers, and hear the heavy nasal breathing of the Ceylonese monk. He could also feel the monk’s heavy heartbeat as he dragged his feet from the muck, and smell the sour pungency of the monk’s chaste sweat mingling with the scent of the marsh-water. Not until he reached the extremes of exhaustion did he relax his grip and allow the warm gray beads to slip from his fingers. Now, without the bracelet, the emperor became agitated. He wanted to leave his chamber, ascend the throne, and begin ordering people about: geld Jing Zhaoyin, have all the reeves beaten, and execute the eunuch and maid who guarded his chamber. But he immediately changed his mind, and decided he would not leave the chamber. All those things could be done at any time – so what need for haste?

Even with the bracelet in hand, the emperor had a temper. At those times he would emerge from his chamber and go to his empress. The twenty-seven-year-old empress had skin as transparent as shimmering white jade. She had never once in her life eaten solid food, and subsisted solely on soups and broths. The emperor wished to smell the scent of the empress’s body, a particular fragrance she’d been born with, that could draw his soul out from his body. It stirred his desire every time he smelled it.

For the empress’s part, the conjugal act was a process of physical torment, but she never refused the emperor, nor did she utter a word of protest. The emperor took this as indication that, of all the people in the world, his empress loved him best. Every time he thought of her, therefore, his heart bloomed with tenderness. But every time, after thinking of her, he changed his mind. Going to his empress would be the simplest course of action – so why rush into it?

More difficult would be the retrieval of his bracelet. But he didn’t feel like leaving his chamber. It wasn’t a matter that concerned the realm and he couldn’t very well trouble his prime minister with it. He would enlist his empress’s assistance, and authorize her to act on his behalf. Though he had not seen her for three years, he was certain that she of all people understood him best, and was sure to be able to retrieve the bracelet. He sent someone to tell her that, though it was only a simple string of bone beads, it had been pressed in the hand of the Ceylonese monk throughout his travels, and thus had a special significance.

The emperor claimed that they were plain bone beads, but the reeves suspected otherwise. They were certain that the emperor’s personal effects were all treasures of rare power – at the very least they were potent Buddhist relics. It was said that holy relics shone with an aura of dharma, visible only to elder monks and those blessed by fortune. As more bracelets were found, therefore, they should first be sent to a temple of great renown, to be examined by an elder monk. Any that were determined to be Buddhist treasures could then be sent to the palace. Hearing this, Wang An stuck out his tongue and left the dispatch room. He gazed toward the towering imperial palace, the soaring eaves and rearing arches that made up the towers and pavilions of the palace, the whole looking like a mirage hanging in the sky – the shortest of the towers must still be a dozen zhang in height.

If they could find someone with the ability to climb those turrets, they might have some hope of finding the bracelet. But was a thief of those skills likely to be nabbed in the streets by the reeves? The way they were conducting the hunt, they were doomed to lose both their parts and their wives. His confidence in his colleagues’ thief-hunting skills quite destroyed, Wang An heaved a sigh and went home.

Back in Guifang, looking again at the stick figures drawn on the fang walls, Wang An noticed that they all had square heads, square mouths, and square eyes, and legs thin as flax stalks supported their enormous square bodies. He found himself pitying them – were they suddenly to come to life, those legs would snap immediately. As he pondered, someone called from behind: “Mister, you’re back!”

Wang An turned his head to see the girl in green standing beneath the locust trees, holding a pile of clothing in her hands. So long as she wasn’t catching caterpillars, she was actually quite charming. He grinned and said: “What a coincidence you’re here, child.”

She smiled in the sunlight and said: “It’s not a coincidence, I was waiting for you here. I’ve been waiting for ages!”

Wang An’s face grew stern again. He clasped his hands behind him, turned, and began pacing away. The girl followed behind him. She asked: “Were you looking at the drawings on the wall, mister? Guess who they’re drawings of?”

“I don’t know.”

“They’re of you!”

Wang An had already suspected that he might be the model for the figures, with their coffin-like torsos, because each wore a straw beard. But it still made him furious to hear her say it. How could anyone who’d been turned into figures like these still show his face in company? He quickened his steps toward home. Once there he rummaged through the cabinets, wanting to change out of the sweat-soaked clothes he was wearing, but found nothing. The girl said: “Put on the clothes I washed for you, mister!”

For an instant Wang An was going to refuse, but he changed his mind, and a smile re-appeared on his face. He took the clothes and said: “Go outside while I change.”

“What are you worried about, mister? I’m a child.”

Wang An didn’t want to force her out, so he changed in front of her, baring his body. He was hirsute, and highly embarrassed to let others see his hairy chest. When the girl saw his thick arms and broad chest, however, her heart bloomed with tenderness, and she said: “Your beard is wonderful, mister. Can I touch it?”

“Certainly not,” said Wang An. “A man’s beard is his dignity, not to be touched by just anyone!”

“What do you mean ’dignity’? Auntie touches it often, I’ve seen her!”

Wang An blushed instantly, turning nearly purple – his wife only touched his beard before they made love. What absolute madness that she had seen it! He roared out: “How did you see that!”

“While I was climbing in the trees. Why are you roaring? I’m not talking to you any more!”

Within an instant the girl’s face had flushed red, and her eyes grew round with fury. The swiftness of her temper took Wang An by surprise. He composed his own features, and did his best to smile. He noticed a pleasant mossy smell coming from his clothes, which were soft and clean, and said in a conciliatory tone: “You’ve cleaned these clothes very well, child.”

“Really?” the girl, still irritable.

“Most certainly. And they have a nice grassy smell to them. Did you smoke them?”

The girl was already happy again. “Smoke them? I just washed them in the pond out back, they come out smelling that way.”

Wang An broke out in goosebumps. He knew the pond she meant: covered in algae and full of toads and water-snakes, the water thick and green as snot. If he’d known she was going to wash his clothes there, he would have found a different laundress. But he couldn’t bring himself to say all that. He went to his cabinet and withdrew some copper coins, paying one zir per piece, and an extra five wen for having washed them well. Then he told her to go home, he was going to take an afternoon nap. Before she left, she said:

“I just have to touch your beard, mister. I won’t be happy until I do!”

Perhaps that really was all the little devil wanted. As it happened, he had something to ask her, so he called her back, saying: “You can touch, but don’t tug.”

She extended all ten fingers and plunged them into his silky beard. She felt that if a woman could have a beard like this (not one she grew herself, of course), she could know no greater happiness. While she was lost in the pleasures of the beard, Wang An asked her:

“Those drawings on the wall, child. Do you know who made them?”

“I did.”

He had guessed as much, but affected not to believe her. “You don’t have to believe me,” she said. “I’ll draw some for you now!”

She fetched a piece of charcoal from the kitchen, then climbed up the wall and began to draw. She went like a gecko up to the window screen, moving in all directions with ease. Wang An thought that if the great cat burglars of Chang’an could see her wall-climbing skills, they’d die of shame. In a moment the drawing was complete. She came down from the wall and patted the soot from her hands, saying:

“How’s my drawing, mister?”

“It’s very good,” Wang An said, nodding. As he was going to leave, he looked over to see her standing in the light of the sinking sun, eyes squinting against the glare, smiling and defenseless. He abruptly changed his mind, and leaped towards her like a starving tiger, with a swiftness no stooping hawk could match. The girl, however, ducked to the floor and skittered between his legs like a rabbit; by the time he had turned to follow, she had already danced well out of range. She laughed and clapped her hands: “Mister wants to play cat and mouse! But you’ll never catch me. I’ve got to go home now, I’ll be back again tomorrow!”

The next morning, when Wang An arrived at the yamen for roll call, he found the dispatch room in happy tumult – the case of the bracelet had come to a close. The wise and benevolent empress had announced that it was she who had gone into the emperor’s private chamber and taken the bone-bead bracelet. The reeves went cheerfully to the yamen of the imperial guard to retrieve their wives, but were told by the guards that their wives could not be released without direct imperial order. They were sure the order would not be long in coming, however, and the reeves would soon be reunited with their families. Wang An was skeptical. He returned home and busied himself sweeping the yard and putting the house in order. While he was working the girl suddenly appeared in the doorway. She waggled her eyebrows at him and said:

“Why are you so busy, mister? Is auntie being let out?”

“It seems that way,” Wang An answered. “The empress admitted she was the one who took the beads, so the case ought to be closed.”

“I’m not so sure,” she said. “Why would the empress steal the emperor’s treasures? She’s not a thief, is she?”

Wang An laughed. “Child, if the empress says she took the bracelet, she must have her reasons. It is not for us to second-guess. Perhaps, as empress of the realm, she can’t be touched by accusations of petty theft. This case doesn’t concern me. But I’m quite impressed with your wall-climbing skills – who taught you that?”

“No one. I was born with soft bones, I’ve always been able to climb.”

“Whether you were taught, or taught yourself, it’s a dangerous skill to have. You’d better forget it. When your auntie returns, you can learn embroidery from her.”

Instantly the girl flew into a rage, baring her teeth like a wildcat. “I know how to embroider,” she spat. “I don’t need to be taught. Don’t celebrate just yet, mister, this may still end badly!”

Wang An resolved to ignore her. She said: “Will you try to catch me today, mister?”

He thought of the day previous, and turned red with shame. Before he’d come to Chang’an, Wang An had been a reeve for nine years in the government of Hejian. He’d been the pride of the reeve’s department, and the scourge of thieves, fast enough to catch birds on the wing, yet he’d been unable to grab hold of a little girl. He shook his head and said:

“You’d best forget what happened yesterday, child. I had a moment of confusion.”

“You weren’t confused at all! I’ll sit right here, and you see if you can catch me!”

As Wang An well knew, she was like the clouds in the sky, the wind on the earth. No one would catch her. The day before he’d been taken in by her appearance of complacency, and ended up looking the fool. He wouldn’t be taken in today. He shook his head again:

“Why should I try to catch you? The whole thing is over.”

After the girl left, Wang An lay on his bamboo bed, thinking that in a few days he would see his wife again. He tried to recreate her lovely image in his mind, but found it difficult. He was fascinated by the girl – not by her feminine charms, of course. Though she was indeed beautiful, she was still immature. His wife at night was far more beautiful. He was fascinated by the girl’s agility, her nimble frame, and her mercurial temper: qualities more attractive than mere feminine charms.

Wang An’s mind drifted to thoughts of his wife as she sat on the bamboo bed, statuesque and full-figured, her exposed bosom like a living jade sculpture. It was as if the entire purpose of her day-time savagery was to conceal her nightly beauty – to make it seem a dream. But it was the girl’s figure as she scaled the wall that appeared before his eyes – her body seemed to have no weight at all. Someone like that could never be caught, unless she allowed it, and what an effort it would be to make her give herself up willingly! Thank the heavens, there was no need for Wang An to make that effort.

At the same moment Wang An was enjoying a sweet respite, the emperor was suffering a splitting headache. He was beset by troubles. The empress said she’d already destroyed the bracelet. The emperor was obliged to emerge from his private chamber and try to resume life as before. But the light outside dazzled his eyes, and the noise aggravated him. He had no appetite for delicacies, he shifted uneasily on the dragon throne, and the palace girls chattered and babbled hatefully. So he returned to his private chamber, and sent for his empress to join him there.

The fragrant empress stood before him, the blush rising on her cheeks. She seemed particularly alluring to the emperor, who thus found it particularly difficult to say what he had to say. He vacillated for a while, and then in tones of sorrow spoke: “Childe-mother, we know the pains you have taken to dissuade us from our love of the bracelet, and we have attempted to heed your urging. In truth, though we possess six palaces of beauties, there is no one we can trust but you. Because of your natural fragrance, because of your love for us, we long ago resolved never to act contrary to your will. But truly, this bracelet is our very life, we must have it back. We hope you can appreciate our frustration.”

The empress knelt at his feet and hailed him, proclaiming herself deserving of a thousand deaths – meanwhile the emperor’s mind wandered. As he gazed on the empress’ flower-like countenance he thought of how he had lost his mother at an early age, how he had never known motherly love. Falling in love with the empress had been accompanied by a faint sense of guilt, and when they made love and her body shuddered beneath him, he felt an Oedipal sense of transgression. If it weren’t for that, he would never have abandoned her for the ascetic solitude of his chamber. And so he gave her a pained smile and bid her rise. He honored her with a seat on the throne beside him. Grasping one of her hands, he said:

“Childe-mother, we have devised a way of retrieving the bracelet. But we fear it may offend against you. Ever since our fates were linked you have suffered much on my behalf. To retrieve this bracelet, you must undergo fresh suffering, and for this we ask your forgiveness.”

The empress rose and once again knelt at the emperor’s feet, proclaiming that it was only thanks to the emperor’s great magnanimity that she was today the mother of the realm, that she was willing to do to anything and everything for the emperor, but that the one thing she could not do was bring the bracelet back, as it had already been destroyed. The emperor grew tired of hearing this. He motioned the empress to leave him. Then he sat for a great while on the throne, before finally making a decision. The empress had already suffered so much on his behalf, what harm was there in making her suffer a little more? It was the clouded thinking of the stubborn child who vexes his mother: if she could bear the pain of birthing him, what could she not bear?

When Wang An went next for roll call at the yamen, he found his colleagues drinking and gambling in the dispatch room, in an atmosphere of great laxity. Before he had a chance to ask about developments, he was called to the court, held down and given thirty strokes of the paddle – as a reeve one was always getting beaten. But the beating was strangely light, hardly enough to harm a mosquito. Afterwards, Wang An knelt and waited to hear the reason for his beating. But the honored magistrate said nothing, simply shook his head, sighed, and retired from the court. He asked the reeves who had beaten him what his thirty strokes had been for, but they too left with only a sigh and a shake of the head. He went back to the dispatch room to find out what was going on. They told him that the emperor had decreed that all the reeves of the city should continue pursuing the case of the bracelet. Their progress would be strictly monitored, as well, and for every day they failed to solve the case, each reeve would receive thirty strokes.

The empress has already destroyed the bracelet, the reeves said, so how could they pursue the case? Was this not expecting antlers on a dog? Squeezing milk from a hen? The emperor in his heavenly mercy had decreed thirty strokes per day, but even if he gelded the lot of them and sold their families into slavery, they would still be powerless to help. Wang An, for his part, was less phlegmatic. He hurried back to find the girl. After searching all of Guifang with no result, he went home to sit on his bed and lament his stupidity: first, he shouldn’t have tried to grab the girl so rashly. Second, he shouldn’t have believed the case was concluded. Third, he shouldn’t have told the girl to learn embroidery from his wife. By this time she was sure to have flown far away. He had lived in the same fang as her – what a stroke of good fortune that was. And she had delivered herself to his door – what a godsend that had been. Heaven had afforded him such opportunity, yet he had let her slip away. How could he call himself worthy of his beard, and his wife?

Wang An could only place his hope in the empress. But when he returned to the dispatch room, he heard that the emperor had decreed that she be stripped of her imperial status. The reeves of the Jing Zhaoyin yamen were to move their offices and their implements of torture into the palace. That night he would personally preside over the trial of the empress, and ordered that all the reeves of the city be in attendance. When Wang An heard this his face turned the color of iron, and he sat on the long bench like a piece of lumber.

After the empress had been lowered to the rank of commoner, she was moved from the palace hall to a dark cell to await her trial. There, choked by the smell of the mildewed pallets, she was stripped of her long robes and jewelry, and made to wear prisoner’s garb. She had never before felt such rough-woven material, it seemed as though her whole body were being gnawed by rats and insects. As evening fell, the last sunlight shone through the window; the whole place looked blood-spattered to her, and when she thought of the humiliations and tortures to come she nearly fainted away. Finally someone opened the cell door, clapped manacles on her wrists and ankles, and led her to meet the emperor. She stumbled, barefoot, over the stone flags of the palace, thinking, It is a cruel thing, to be the great beauty of one’s age.

To the empress, even a quick trip to the powder room was a powerful torment. The wind that came in the window felt like knives cutting her face. No matter how soft the towel after her bath, it always seemed to scour and grate her. Merely to be alive was to suffer. But in the end, it was better to be the great beauty of one’s age than not. Just like the tender mercies of the emperor: wherever they fell they caused suffering, but how much worse if they never fell at all. The empress accepted whatever punishment was bestowed upon her by the emperor; she could die upon the rack, but would never cease to urge him against the bracelet.

When the empress came to kneel before the emperor, her voluminous black hair was in disarray and an iron chain was around her neck. She was dressed in the brown garments worn by prisoners before their execution, and her hands and feet were bare. In a breathless voice she called, “The prisoner hails the emperor and wishes him eternal life!” This gave the emperor a strange feeling. He told the empress to raise her head, and found that in the day they’d been apart she had acquired a new artlessness. He said in conversational tones,

“Childe-mother, we find you more appealing than ever in manacles and prisoner’s garb.”

The empress replied that she had been stripped of all rank, was now a criminal before the throne, and should not be addressed as “Childe-mother.” But the emperor replied that he was more pleased with the criminal before the throne than he had been with his erstwhile empress. She said that, so long as the emperor was pleased, she was happy to remain a criminal. The emperor took her hand and drew her to the window, showing her the raging bonfire in the palace courtyard, the savage reeves, the blood-stained implements of torture. When she saw these things, the empress felt the world spinning around her, and she collapsed into the emperor’s arms.

When she awoke, the emperor said to her: “Childe-mother, it’s still not too late for a change of heart. Otherwise, we can only beg your forgiveness for what is about to happen.”

The empress knew that nothing would dissuade the emperor from his pursuit of the lost bracelet. But she swore that her body belonged to His Highness, and whether he chose to lay that body on the Dragon Couch or on the rack, it was no more than she deserved.

The emperor instructed that she be dragged into the courtyard, and as he took the throne thousands of reeves roared in unison, nearly bursting the empress’s delicate eardrums. She was borne through the human corridor formed by the reeves (nearly fainting from the stench of masculine sweat) and brought to kneel before the bench, and to repeat her confession before the emperor. Still she would not change her story. The emperor ordered that her finger-clamps be loosened, and her palms struck with cane switches, and her toes pierced with golden needles. Several times she fainted, but still refused to recant. Finally the emperor ordered that she be loosened from the rack, whereupon she collapsed to the ground and fainted dead away.

The emperor ordered her to be removed to his private chamber, and seen to by the imperial doctor. Then his face hardened, and the reeves threw down their cudgels and kowtowed before him: thousands of men tamping the earth with their foreheads. The emperor raised his voice:

“Full well we know how you crows have refused to exert yourselves in our cause, instead slandering the empress for a thief. We ought to subject each one of you to the death of a thousand cuts, yet we must rely upon you to retrieve what we have lost, thus we spare your lives for now. In all our palace there is neither stone pestle nor stone mill, no one could hope to destroy a bone-bead bracelet. You may claim the empress hid the bracelet, but you all have dogs’s eyes in your cur heads, you saw how she suffered on the rack. She would have handed over the bracelet for certain, were she able. Thus you curs must now abandon this madness, and set your sights once again outside the palace. Do you understand?”

The reeves raised their heads and said in one voice: “We understand!” A smile appeared on the face of the emperor.

“One last thing we shall make known to you. We have ordered that all the best pig-gelders from the provinces be called together in the capital. If the bracelet is not brought before the throne within seven days, we will have you all gelded halfway. If the case is still not solved seven days later, you will be gelded completely. Now go out, and recover what we have lost! Begone!”

The reeves left the palace and rushed into the streets to make arrests, disregarding their bloody foreheads. Instead of participating in the arrest-making, Wang An went home. To his surprise, the lamps were lit, and the girl was sitting in their light. As he came in, she rose to meet him, saying:

“You’re back, mister! Why is your forehead bleeding?”

Her words stung him to the quick, infuriating him. He fought to contain himself, but couldn’t prevent the corner of his mouth from twitching. The girl clapped and laughed: “You’re angry! Come try to catch me – if you can catch me you’ll feel better!”

Even more furious, Wang An wanted to pounce on her, but knew it was hopeless. He forced a smile, and sat crosslegged on the bed, telling the girl to bring him a low table and to place the lamp on the table. Then he told her to sit across from him, and the two stayed there for some time. The girl put her hands on the table, and her thin bony fingers were like seams of gold in the black rocks of the ice-coated cliffs of the north. The dark-blue veins under the white skin of her elbow were like the many streams of a marsh after first snowfall.

Wang An put his hands on the table as well, and held her hands between his own.

Wang An felt the allure of those hands, akin to the allure his wife’s neck had held for him years ago. Before their marriage, his wife had also been a thief, though she couldn’t scale walls or soar over roofs – she was adept at sneaking in and out of homes. She hadn’t been Wang An’s case, at first, but he’d been taken by her slender white neck, and swore he would wrap that neck in a chain of iron. Wang An wasn’t much of a womanizer, but he had an affinity for female thieves. So his heart had beat when he saw the drawings on the wall, and the sight of the girl picking caterpillars beneath the tree had caused a restlessness in him. Now, seeing the pair of slender wrists on the table under the lamp, he couldn’t help lightly moving his own hands over them.

Ten years previously, when Wang An had seen his future wife’s slender neck, her swan-like visage, he was filled with male lust. He knew his own nature; that reaction made him certain the woman was a thief. Seeing her entering the front gate of a rich man’s house, he went to wait by the back. Now, sitting across from the girl, his fingers lightly stroking her skin, the thrill was no less than what he’d felt ten years ago. The girl’s wrists trembled with a thought of escape, but she stilled them immediately, leaving them within his slowly-tightening grip. Wang An did not truly believe he would catch her, not until the moment his hands held her fast. He suddenly squeezed her with all his strength. She cried out then, and tried to pull away, but couldn’t budge him. Then her face reddened with pleasure, and she cried out, “Mister, you’ve caught me!”

It struck Wang An that there was no use in catching her. He didn’t have a scrap of evidence, and couldn’t send her to the yamen to be beaten or punished. He felt that she’d been playing a game with him, and he let go of her hands. She held her wrists under the lamp, and flew into a temper when she saw the deep bruises pressed there. She held her wrist out to him, and said:

“Put the wooden shackles over my bruises, mister. Lock a chain around my neck, and drag me to the yamen, I’m willing!”

Though Wang An knew she was a thief, he couldn’t simply send her to prison. He sat for a while, at a loss. At first he wanted to tell her: Forget any of this happened. Then he wanted to tell her: Go on home. In the end he said:

“I’ve caught you and let you go, child, are you satisfied? Now tell me: did you take the emperor’s bracelet or not?” The girl said, “What are you saying? Why would I be satisfied? This wasn’t the way you caught auntie, was it?”

Wang An had stood in the narrow alley by the back door of the rich man’s house, and when his future wife came out, he locked the chain around her neck. He should have taken her to the yamen, but he didn’t. Instead he took her to a deserted place, and wrested the stolen goods out of her clothing. That’s when he saw the moles on her breasts. Unable to stand this, he violated her. When he saw himself stained with her virgin blood, he knew he couldn’t send her to prison, and so he took her for his wife. He briefly related this story to the girl, then said: “Now you know, child, what sort of man I am. I’m begging you, help me get the emperor’s bracelet back, he’ll castrate us all otherwise. Do you know what ’castrate’ means?”

A look of distaste came over her face as she said she knew what castration was, but she didn’t understand why Wang An was so upset. If he feared the knife, he could just flee the city. As for the bracelet, she could be of no help. Wang An said:

“Please don’t play games with me, child. My gut tells me that even if you didn’t steal the bracelet yourself, you know perfectly well who did. I know you can help me get it back. Fleeing the city… perhaps you’re too young to understand. How could I leave my wife behind?”

The girl lost her temper again. Pulling her legs up under her into a squat, she said, “If you think I’m a thief, mister, why don’t you search my clothes?”

“I can’t do that, I made that mistake once with my wife.”

She grew even angrier, shouting, “Why is it a mistake! We’re both thieves, where’s the sense in searching one but not the other!?” As she said this, she pulled her clothing open. Wang An saw that she, too, had seven red moles on her chest, identical to his wife’s. He stared in shock for a moment, before realizing that a bracelet was tucked into the folds of her open clothing. It could only be the emperor’s, but even as he reached for her ankle it was too late. A breath of wind seemed to swirl around the room, and the girl was gone.

Wang An spent a long time thinking. Then, in an instant, he had the answer to his riddle. There were two things he had failed to realize. One, the girl and his wife were obviously well acquainted. Wang An could imagine that his wife had been lonely in this fang, and that if a young girl came to keep her company, she might tell that girl many things. Two, the girl had never ceased her thievery. It was common custom, when reeves were ordered to solve some case at the local level, to take their families hostage. She had meant to use this to get rid of Wang An’s wife. And in fact, for the past two years, Chang’an had seen a rash of major burglaries. Wang An was hardly a shining star of his yamen, however, and no one had ever bothered coming for his wife. Not until the girl picked the emperor’s own pocket did she finally get her wish. Once he’d grasped these two facts, Wang An felt he had the case fairly in hand. He was confident he could retrieve the bracelet. He added new oil to the lamp, and seated himself upright beneath its light. He knew she would come back.

Sure enough she did. She sat across from Wang An, pulling faces and sticking out her tongue. Wang An hardened his face.

“Stop making faces, child, it’s ugly. Answer me this: were you born with those red spots on your chest?”

Her face turned dark.

He spoke again. “My wife treated you like a daughter, even exposed her breast, but you had her thrown in jail. Don’t you feel ashamed?”

Her face returned to normal and she replied: “Why would I feel ashamed? I’ve wanted to see her in a cell for a long time. She told me about the time you strangled a thief, and you swore before Buddha that you would never catch a thief again. You said you’d cut off the hand that reached out to catch anyone. But now you’ve caught me three times – why aren’t you ashamed? You haven’t cut off either of your hands!”

Wang An’s face reddened as he said, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of there. ’The great man does not demand of his words that they be absolute, nor of his actions that they be resolute,’ there is no need to cut my hand off.” Then, feeling this might not suffice to chastise the girl, he added:

“You’ve had your fun now, child. You stole some things, and painted on some moles, and kept stolen goods in your clothes – those are my wife’s old ways. How long will you continue to play these children’s games?”

“If I’m a child, as you say, then I might as well play my games to the end!”

Wang An had no immediate response to that, and the girl continued, “I’m not really a child, though. The moment you apprehended me, I became an honest-to-goodness female thief. You should treat me the way you treat all female thieves.”

Wang An made a wry face. “My wife has suffered in her time. Ten years ago I violated her chastity, and she scratches and bites me to this day. That’s my debt of dishonor, and it may never be repaid. We can’t let her suffer any further, child, or that debt will grow even greater!”

“Pah! You say she’s suffered? Who are you fooling?”

The girl said she knew far better than he what sort of woman his wife was. When she came by during the day, his wife went about with tangled hair and filthy face, as ugly as you pleased. She spoke in a masculine bass. She referred to Wang An as the most wretched of a pack of curs. Ten years ago he had raped her while her neck was shackled in iron; she said he was furry, like a big monkey. At night, due to her womanly weakness and their wedded status, he possessed her body. Recalling it in the daytime, she felt sick as if a mud-eel squirmed in her throat. She wanted to tear him to pieces and eat him, thus relieving herself of a decade of heavy fury. Then she would show the girl the blood under her fingernails, saying that she’d just scratched Wang An so badly he’d fled from her in a panic. She laughed like an owl in a graveyard, and confessed to being night-demon. After Wang An raped her she’d had no choice: like a mad dog in a cage, she could only pass the time by gnawing on her chains.

Watching her in the evenings, however, everything seemed different. She sat before the mirror, tending to her toilet, waiting for Wang An’s return. Her long hair lay perfectly arranged over her shoulders, the cotton robe that draped her body had been smoked with fragrant herbs and bore not a smudge, not a crease. Her face wore a tranquil smile, and she spoke in a smooth contralto. She said Wang An was foremost among the reeves, as she was foremost among the thieves. The best of the thieves was bound to fall in love with the best of the reeves, as a beautiful prisoner might love a handsome executioner. In the evenings she appeared gentle, mature, statuesque. The girl loathed her round, Buddha-like shoulders, her full, heavenly buttocks. Looking at those long slender legs, those marble-sculpted hands, she wanted to die from pure spite.

When she spoke of Wan An’s violation of her, it was in very different terms from the daytime. She said that, as the chain wrapped around her neck and she began to panic, she had also tasted a sweetness bound up in the cruelty of the chain. After Wang An had chained her he hesitated, long enough to remind her of how beautiful she was. Then he led her into the tender young willow-wood, and she began to guess what would happen. She had been pulled along by the chain, her steps faltering. She’d thought of calling out, but never did.

As it began she struggled with all her might, but then acquiesced, docile as water. She did not recall the pain of losing her maidenhood, but did remember the morning mist that trailed through the early-spring treetops, and the drooping willow-switches. Her clothing was fouled with snow and mud, and she had to wear Wang An’s wrap, stepping through the half-melted remnants of snow in the tree-shade, back to his home to be his wife.

After tending to her hair, Wang An’s wife opened her robe and showed the girl the moles upon her breast. She said that on moonlit nights, Wang An would press his lips fiercely against those moles. The girl burned with jealousy; she longed to take a smoking brand and ruin that white breast, those pink moles. Then the wife would tighten her sash and bind her buttocks with another cloth, making the curves of her body swell beneath the wrappings. As she described how Wang An’s gentle hands would soon unwrap her, she nearly fell into a swoon.

She also described his body. His broad chest, his thick hair and iron muscles. He was like a passenger ship on the ocean, broad of beam and mighty of stern. As they were taking their pleasure together she supported this vast ship like water – water milk-white as moonlight. All women are water, she just hadn’t known it. She was a lone thief, she’d had no way of knowing, not until Wang An entered her waters under full sail. As she recounted this, the fragrance of desire rose from her body. The girl smelled it. She wished desperately that she could slake her hatred of this cooing, reeking slut by plunging a knife into her.

The girl said she didn’t believe that true love between a man and a woman, particularly a great man like Wang An, required doing that ugly thing. She had tested Wang An, and was more certain than ever that it was only gross seduction that had succeeded in corrupting him. Then she left the room, never saying what it would take to make her return the bracelet.

Three more days passed, and the emperor was losing faith in the reeves’ ability to find the bracelet. He issued an edict stating that, if the thief came forward to return the bracelet, the crime would be forgiven. Not only that, the thief would be given a title, rewarded with treasure from the imperial coffers, and allowed to pick a beautiful bride from within the palace, or a handsome husband from the imperial guard. All of Chang’an, from court to commoners, was shocked – had the emperor gone mad?

Only Wang An saw the emperor’s sagacity. Wang An believed that any lost thing could be found again. If you couldn’t catch the thief, you could use something the thief wanted – wanted even more – to effect a trade. Despite his faith in this principle, he still couldn’t think of a way to get the girl to hand over the bracelet. He sat in his home at midday, brooding over the question, one finger picking unconsciously at his bamboo mat, until he’d made a great hole in it.

It was hot outside, the sun so fierce even the cicadas were stunned, and all of Guifang was hushed and still. But inside Wang An’s home there was cool green shade, the air filled with the bitter scent of oleander, the fragrance of grasses, and the lingering sweetness of dried locust blossoms. Bottles and vases holding all manner of green sprigs and branches filled his home. The moment they began to yellow, the girl removed them and replaced them with fresh sprays. The room was a mass of green branches, brush, and grass. When she was satisfied with her work, she lay on the mat beneath the window and slept.

The girl made no sound as she slept. Only her shoulders rose and fell slightly. The posture in which she slept seemed to confirm the truth of all she had told him. She said she had no home; that she’d never had a home. Wang An didn’t understand how someone could grow up with no home, but how otherwise could she sleep in a posture like that? No one would sleep that way in their own home.

It had been two days since she’d moved in to Wang An’s home. He had thought that two days and two nights under the same roof would allow him to understand any woman, but he still knew nothing about her, apart from what she’d told him. She said that she’d been close to no one apart from his wife. Perhaps his wife would know how to get the girl to give up the bracelet. But his wife was locked up in the cells of the imperial guard, beyond his reach. There was no one left to explain to him the girl’s thoughts; he would have to solve the riddle himself.

He thought of the night before, when he’d changed his clothes in front of the girl, and she had approached and touched his flesh with her finger. She hadn’t pressed her palms or her body against his, the way his wife did. It had been enough for her to look him over, smell him, touch him lightly. When she’d changed in front of him she hadn’t been in the least bashful. Under the grey-green lamplight Wang An had seen nothing about her, apart from the slight swell of her breasts, that might hinder the speed of her flight. She was like a cheetah brought from the West as a gift to the emperor; slight of frame, slender of limb, a match for any gazelle.

The girl said that she loved Wang An, that if she could not have his love in return, she would never give up the bracelet. His wife might die in prison, Wang An might be put to the rack – she would not be moved. Wang An was prepared to love her, but unsure of how to do it. If she’d been a few years older, or had lived for some time in the city, everything would be simpler. But like this… it was preposterous.

The girl said that, in the mountains of the uttermost south, she might only see a handful of people in a year, and it was the need for love that brought her out of the forests and into Chang’an. Wang An didn’t understand: how could one come to need love, living alone in the mountains? What strange conception of love had the wilderness bred in her?

Wang An couldn’t fathom it, and woke her to ask, “Child, while you were in the mountains, did you see the birds raising their tail feathers, or the snakes intertwined? As autumn fell over the land and the cicadas called, did you feel a stirring? Perhaps you’d seen a tomcat after the scent of a female, or the billygoats butting heads on a cliff?”

The girl flew into a temper. “You’re horrible, mister, you’re as filthy as she is! If you keep talking like that I’ll run straight back to the mountains, and won’t come back until you’re a eunuch!”

Wang An had no choice but to let her sleep; she was no moony love-crazed girl. Painting moles on her breast, daring him to capture her – this was only sport, not her true purpose.

The more Wang An thought, the thicker his head felt. He sniffed the forest scents of his room, and thought he would go out for a walk. He went out into shade in the center of the fang, where it seemed very hot. When all the locust blossoms had fallen, the worst of summer would be upon them.

Spots of sunlight sifted down through the leaves and swirled in strange patterns on Wang An’s body. He gradually forgot his troubles. He moved into the deep green, and saw an ox-cart squeaking along in the distance. There was more than one path between the fang; they wound and twisted through the locust-wood, joining and parting. Wang An saw a butterfly that had become tangled in the brambles, beating its wings as it strove to escape. He thought of how the emperor was striving to reclaim his bracelet, seeking a path that would lead him to smooth skin glistening in moonlight. All these paths twisted and wound, yet they all converged here, and who could fathom what had brought them together?

Wang An laid a wager against himself: if the butterfly could fly clear of the brambles, then the emperor would get his bracelet back. When the butterfly’s white wings were slashed to ribbons by the bramble thorns, when its tiny body and tattered wings sunk to the ground, he nearly cried out in dismay. At that moment the girl appeared by his side, and took his hand.

“Mister, you didn’t tell me you were going for a walk! Let’s go together.”

Wang An forgot the tragedy of the butterfly, and went with her deeper into the green. He held her small hand in his, and felt a chill enter in by his palm. He thought of their first meeting, the girl collecting caterpillars beneath the locust trees. She gathered the living insects to her breast, and how sublime had been that sensation of chill squirming! She bore the scent of moss about her and Wang An thought of how she’d washed his clothes in the pond, how soft and comfortable the clothes had been afterwards. They walked for a long time in the green shade. Wang An was relaxed and happy; the scent and sensation of her nearby body was gradually growing distinct from the sounds and sights of distant things. When the sensation of chill squirming finally made its way to his core, Wang An knew he was in love.

When they returned home, Wang An took off his clammy clothes. The girl stuck out her tongue, and tasted the sweat on his chest. She called Wang An “mister lover”. Later she sat facing “mister lover” in the oval wooden bathtub, filled with cool water.

Wang An saw her amid green shade. He finally reached out one thick finger and laid it on her breastbone, with no hint of lust, and told her he loved her, that he was filled with a green love for her. When she heard that, the girl hopped out of the bathtub and left. She didn’t come back.

The next morning, before the sun rose, the bone-bead bracelet came flying in through the window of the emperor’s private chamber and smacked him in the forehead. He was so pleased to have it back that he overlooked the extreme rudeness of the manner of its return. He ordered his guard to release the reeves’ families, and gave each of them five catty of silver as consolation. When Wang An’s wife returned home, the sky had not yet fully brightened. He was worried she would rail at him, but for some reason she did not. After she’d washed away the accumulated grime and stink of the jail, she put on her long robe, and the two of them played bedroom games. While they were resting she said that scratching and pulling hair were nasty habits, and she’d decided to rid herself of them. While locked up in jail she’d come to a realization: she could also be the woman by day that she was by night. Naturally, Wang An approved of her new-found philosophy.

His wife said she hadn’t believed she would return to him alive, because she knew it was Qing (the girl’s name) who had stolen the bracelet. She knew the girl’s propensity for climbing walls, and that she sometimes took things. So when the imperial guard came for her, she cursed both Wang An and Qing, and both their ancestors. Cursing them was fruitless, however. She sat amid the rotten, damp straw of the jail, bitterly regretting that she had never whispered in his ear about her new young wildcat friend. Then it occurred to her what a nasty habit jealousy was, and she resolved to change.

Still she knew that Wang An was a match for this case – her husband was the most vigilant of all the world’s reeves, particularly where female thieves were involved. If he couldn’t find the girl, she would soon appear of her own accord. The real difficulty would be in inducing her to admit she was a thief, and getting her to hand over the goods.

One day, long before the bracelet was ever lost, she and Qing were sitting inside and chatting. She’d just explained the metaphor in which she was water and Wang An was a ship, and said this was the true essence of love. The girl answered that her own experience of love was very different. While she was living in the mountains of the south, she’d once ventured deeper into the forests. It was midsummer, stifling and dry. She’d found herself in a mountain valley, under leaves so densely woven the day seemed overcast, amid grass as tall as she was, tree-trunks and stones all covered in moss. As she moved through the shade she passed by a pool, so full of light-green duckweed that the dark surface of the water was hidden.

She went on to say that the air in that valley didn’t flow at all – it was like green oil, suffocating. Amid that thick green was a patch of white: a snow-white skeleton seated in the deep grass. She recoiled in shock, then in the silence began to feel her own body and bones, and they seemed to her smooth and chill. And then she was overcome by the purest terror, as when Wang An’s wife had felt the iron chain around her neck. But then she felt love welling up from within the terror, as pure white as the bones amid the grass, as the birch trunks in early winter, smooth and chill.

As she tugged playfully with his beard, Wang An’s wife told him how she had rejected the girl’s experience. She had mocked the girl: “Just try and find a lover anywhere on this earth who can give you your green love!” She’d never felt an iron chain on her neck until she’d met Wang An; when she was locked up she felt as if she’d been conquered. That shame, that submission – how could that possibly be compared to bones in deep grass?

Comments

# 1.   

Lolita complex?

Long Yang, July 18, 2015, 11:53a.m.

# 2.   

I thought 梓童 was the name of the Empress...

edie, November 5, 2015, 2:37a.m.

# 3.   

Amazing work as usual Eric. I'd love to see more translations from this collection. I had no idea Wang Xiaobo wrote stories set in ancient China.

This story reminded me a lot of old Tang and Song chuanqi, like the ones collected in Y. W. Ma and Joseph S. M. Lau's Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations. Worth checking out if you haven't already.

I think 'childe-mother' could be switched out with 'Your Grace' if you wanted something less foreign sounding, but it works fine as is. 'Reeves' kind of threw me for a loop. Was there a specific reason you chose this word over 'magistrate'?

Also, I've included an excerpt and link to this story on my new blog of 'weird fiction' from China:

http://sinoweird.tumblr.com/post/133871915214/while-gao-zong-lived-the-four-seas-were-calm-the

Open to suggestions for other stories, interviews, essays to link to!

Nick Stember, November 25, 2015, 2:51a.m.

# 4.   

Thanks for the comment, Nick! Glad you liked the story. Wang Xiaobo has a bunch of 唐人故事, the next should probably be 寻找无双.

I'm okay with a foreign-sounding rendering of 梓童 -- as Edie's comment shows, it's an unfamiliar term even in Chinese, and I think deserves something unsettling in English as well.

"Reeve" was a rendering of 公差, which really isn't "magistrate" no matter how you cut it. I toyed with "bailiff" and "constable", and ended up going with an older term -- "reeve" is at the root of "sherrif": "shire-reeve".

Weird fiction from China is an excellent idea! I also submit Dave Haysom's translation of Zhu Yue's The Death of Zernik.

 Eric Abrahamsen, November 25, 2015, 4:36a.m.

# 5.   

Any chance you will doing the rest? :)

I agree that creating an unsettling effect is probably a more faithful translation. I just wonder if it disrupts the flow of the narrative for your average reader. I go back and forth with this kind of stuff--if I'm super faithful to the original text then it satisfies my OCD translator brain, but I then I wonder if I'm losing readers because I'm using 'weird' words.

Interesting dilemma!

Aha, 'shire-reeve.' Neat. I had no idea that 'shire' wasn't something Tolkien invented. Names of officials are tricky too, since they are usually associated with a specific time and place. 'Constable' sounds British to me, 'sheriff' American, not really sure about 'bailiff.' More neutral maybe?

Thanks for the suggestion! Keep em coming!

Nick Stember, November 26, 2015, 1:53p.m.

# 6.   

"Uncle Lover" would have the right amount of coyness. Languages and cultures are always more alike than we like to think. But the whole story works very well in English, as far as I can tell.

Martin Winter, December 22, 2015, 1:12p.m.

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