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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

My Name is Ding Xiban, by Wu Qing

Wu_Qing

Wu Qing has a bit of a cult following in China, although he is almost unknown in the west. Highly regarded by the likes of Ou Ning and Han Dong, he worked with the latter on Rubber 《橡皮》 , described by the Chinese Studies Institute, Leiden, as “one of the most active and interesting avant-garde poetry and fiction web sites on the Chinese net.” Ou Ning published his short story, My Name Is Ding Xiban/ 《我就是丁西拌》, in issue 4 of Chutzpah magazine/《天南》 (2011-2013).

My Name Is Ding Xiban is a beguilingly funny read, moving the reader briskly through childhood memories of crippling shyness, to a solitary mountain hike, complete with masturbation and a female demon, and finishing with the eponymous Ding (now in the third person) and his friend pondering the day’s events over a beer. Who could resist such sentences as: “I’m of the belief that a towel is at least as important as a girlfriend, perhaps more so, because it is the object with which you end up having the most intimate daily contact.” As indeed he does. Which brings me to the translation, without which Ding Xiban would not have had his outing into English. Julia Lovell succeeds brilliantly in bringing Wu Qing’s comic writing to life. I’m resisting the temptation to quote certain particularly juicy bits here; it would be spoiling the plot. Read My Name Is Ding Xiban for yourselves, and enjoy… – Nicky Harman

This story first appeared in Chutzpah magazine in October 2011, and is reproduced by kind permission of Ou Ning.

One evening, as I lay in bed, I suddenly felt stricken by shyness. It came from nowhere – I’d just been lying there on my own. And this wasn’t your average, common-or-garden kind of shyness – it was of a completely different, chronic order of things. It was like I was the shyest person in the world.

As soon as I began to think of how shy I was, I began to feel even shyer, until I thought I might die of it. I lay there sleeplessly, thinking of all the things that I was too shy to talk about. I tried to pull myself together, failed, and began weeping with the self-pity of it.

I cried all night, hugging my quilt. All because I was shy.

This was in fact yesterday; I don’t know when I stopped crying and went to sleep, but when I woke up, I no longer felt so bad – or at least, I was no longer thinking about being shy. In any case, I couldn’t spend my whole life crying about it.

Let me give you a bit of back-story.

Seminal trauma #1: buying soy sauce. One day, in the middle of cooking, my mother discovered that she didn’t have any soy sauce left, so she gave me the empty bottle and told me to go and fill it up at a nearby shop. The problem was, I was too shy to do it. It took me twenty minutes to cover the hundred metres between home and the shop; and even that felt too fast. I began pacing up and down outside the shop. Scarlet with nerves, I tried to calculate whether the seventy cents my mother had given me were enough to run away on.

My mother knew perfectly well how shy I was, but she insisted on sending me. To her, buying soy sauce was a crucial rite of passage. “If you can’t even buy soy sauce,” she told me, “how’re you ever going to get married?” But at that moment, all I wanted was for the world to come to an end, and with it my soy sauce conundrum.

The owner of the shop, a woman about my mother’s age, spotted me lurking in front of the shop. “Wu Qing,” she called out, “is it soy sauce you’re wanting?” I fled, almost insane with shyness. But where could I go? Certainly not home, not with an empty bottle. If my father got wind of it, I’d get a beating. I crept back to the shop, hiding in a corner that gave me a clear view of the door.

If only, I thought, I could steal the soy sauce then somehow secretly give them the money.

After about ten minutes of loitering with no particular intent, I saw the woman walk purposefully out of the shop. Her daughter was left behind the counter. Salvation was at hand.

Because her daughter was slow for her age, I lost the crippling shyness I felt in front of other people. I slipped into the shop and handed her the bottle: “Quick,” I said, “soy sauce.” Unfortunately, she did everything in slow-motion – she slowly took hold of the bottle, slowly turned around, slowly opened the container of soy sauce, slowly failed to find the funnel, even though it was staring her in the face. It’s there – there, I kept on telling her. I felt like I was about to expire with anxiety; I prayed her mother wouldn’t come back. Finally, the bottle was filled; I stuffed the money into her hand and fled. Halfway home, I noticed the contents of the bottle were the wrong colour; smelling them, I discovered she’d given me vinegar.

By the time I’d returned to the shop, her mother had also come back. I slouched home with the bottle of vinegar. “Where have you been?” my mother asked me. “America and back?” I handed the bottle to her, studying my feet. “What’s this?” she wanted to know. “I asked for soy sauce, not vinegar.” I pretended confusion: “Didn’t you need vinegar?”

My mother was now properly angry. “You’re an idiot! You and that soy sauce woman’s daughter make a fine pair!”

That gave me something to think about.

Seminal trauma #2: smashing a vase. One playtime, probably in my second year at senior school, I somehow smashed a vase in the classroom. When the teacher returned for class, she asked who was responsible. About a dozen classmates denounced me with touching promptness.

The teacher told me to stand up at the front of the class and explain how I’d done it.

Shyness literally swallowed my voice; I couldn’t get a single word out. Instead, to the astonishment of my teacher, I began an elaborate mime detailing the smashing of the vase.

My classmates were in hysterics of laughter. Tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“That’ll do,” the teacher said, “you can sit down.” But for some reason I went on performing the mime, as if on a loop, weeping silently all the while.

Seminal trauma #3: getting my hair cut. Even today, I have an unholy terror of going to the hairdressers. When I was very young, still only a toddler, there was a hairdresser near my mother’s work, so she quite naturally took me there to get my hair cut. I never needed to say anything, as my mother had already given the hairdresser full instructions. As I grew older, I always went back to the same person, because my mother had already told him everything he needed to know. I trusted him completely, as if he was a member of my own family. But one day my mother suddenly told me that he’d run off with some woman – that I had to get a new hairdresser.

The news cast me into a deep pit of depression. It had never even crossed my mind that there might be another hairdresser in the whole world.

At this advanced stage in my life, there was no way I could adjust to a new hairdresser. I began to cry the very moment I set foot in another establishment. Each visit to the hairdresser became a traumatic humiliation; even now, aged 32, I’m paralysed with tension whenever I sit in that chair. I have this phobia of a hairdresser actually trying to talk to me; I can’t remember the number of times I’ve run out in the middle of a haircut.

My most recent haircut began like all my previous ones: I made a careful survey of at least twenty establishments, in the hope that I’d find someone I could tolerate. When my preliminary hunt got nowhere, I restarted the process, eventually narrowing my list down to two or three places. When I plucked up courage to go into one of them, I ran away as soon as I saw I’d have to queue.

I next took a bus out of the city, to an unknown suburb, in search of an entirely anonymous hairdressing experience.

It began, conventionally enough, with a girl washing my hair. Thankfully, she did not try to speak to me. She was different from the hairwashers I’d known before – gentler. Usually, they put a bit too much into their work, digging their nails into your scalp, but her action was almost limp, as though her hands were weakened by some terrible illness. I quite liked it. I next moved on to the hairdressing chair, expecting that the male hairdresser standing next to her would take over. Instead, my hairwasher picked up the scissors.

It wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined things; but I didn’t mind.

“How d’you want it cut?” she asked. I’d seen this question coming, and had an answer at the ready: “I don’t mind.”

As she began, I prayed that she wouldn’t ask me anything else. This time, the gods were not smiling on me.

“Have you been here before?”

My heart thumped. I knew this was just the beginning. I grunted negatively.

“D’you work nearby?”

“No.”

“D’you live round here?”

“No.”

“So what brings you here?”

“Just passing.”

“Were you born here?”

“No.”

“Where are you from then?”

“Zhejiang.”

“That’s a long way away.” I grunted.

“So what brings you here?”

“Just passing.”

“On business?”

“No.”

“Are you working round here?”

“No.”

“So what are you doing here?”

I decided not to tell her I was a writer.

“What are you so embarrassed about?” she asked, laughing. “Why won’t you tell me what you do?”

“It’s just – you know – a job.”

“So why aren’t you at work on a week day?”

“I don’t have regular hours.”

“Lucky you. But why did you leave Zhejiang?”

“I just did.”

“So which d’you like better, Zhejiang or Sichuan?”

“I like them both the same.”

“If you had to say one.”

“I like them both.”

“Just say one.”

– –

You get the picture. But I’ve many other examples of my shyness: like when my taxi driver, or someone on a train started talking to me. Or when I’ve gone up to the counter at banks or post office, and have literally wept with shyness – I’m not lying to you. Every day, I thank the Lord for automated cash machines and the internet.

I sense a question. If I’m so shy, how could I ever have found a girlfriend? Easy: I never tell people I’m in love with that I’m in love with them. This works particularly well if you’re both shy and broke (like me). Oddly enough, though, sex is the only thing that doesn’t make me shy.

– –

Waking at midday and finding nothing to eat at home, I went to a nearby noodle shop and ordered a bowl of noodles with peas. Maybe all that crying had given me a good appetite, because I slurped them quickly down, then looked around for a napkin. I spotted a girl at the next door table with a box of tissues near her own bowl of noodles. I walked over and took one to wipe my mouth, and then another to wipe my nose.

“These are my tissues!” the girl protested, glaring at me.

It took me three seconds to work out what she meant: she’d brought the tissues herself from home. Looking around at other tables, I noted that the restaurant’s tissues were indeed different to hers. I felt destroyed.

Although I very much wanted to ask her why she’d brought her own tissues to the restaurant, and indeed, placed them on the table, I felt overwhelmed by the most severe attack of shyness I had ever suffered. I instantly sank to my knees and begged her forgiveness. But it was all too late: I couldn’t forgive myself. I went into the kitchens in search of a vegetable knife and prepared to kill myself in front of her.

– –

I secretly began climbing.

I’ve written at least three stories about climbing: about the tigers and girls – with ghostly shrieks - I may or may not have met on mountainsides. As usual, my backpack contained a water bottle, a newspaper, a towel, a rope and a Swiss Army knife.

The mountain I wanted to climb had no name: no-one, or at least hardly anyone, lived on it; it had no scenery of note (except for the scenery you get anywhere); it was without significance (beyond the significance that everything has); it had no path (except for the paths you find everywhere). Was it high? I suppose so; or at least, no-one called it low.

I hate you, because you deceived me. I don’t really hate you, of course; you haven’t really deceived me, because I don’t believe anyone would take the trouble to deceive me. I must be imagining things.

At the bottom of the mountain, I encountered a beautiful girl, a handsome young monk, a courting couple, and two elderly women burning incense.

The beautiful girl, I thought, would not be climbing the mountain; and certainly not with me. Why was the handsome young monk staring at me like that? Had he been reading my stories in his spare time? He was holding a bottle of Coke Zero.

I wanted to say to the male half of the couple: So you’ve got a girlfriend – so what? I almost had one once myself.

The incense-burning old ladies were gossiping like a couple of karaoke divas. “You must learn the Gold-Steel Sutra,” one was saying. “I’ll teach it you for next time.”

I also spotted a yellowing police notice, with a blurred photograph of a male corpse. I didn’t bother reading it; I supposed they were trying to identify the dead man.

– –

I began to climb the mountain.

I muttered to myself as I walked; just a little habit of mine. If I got thirsty, I drank some water. When I came across an appropriate branch, I cut off a segment with my Swiss army knife to use as a walking stick. I would stop beneath large trees and test my eyesight by trying to find grasshoppers among the leaves. It was much harder than the Spot the Difference competitions you get in magazines. I used to be eerily good at this kind of thing when I was little; I’d have found and captured a grasshopper in thirty seconds. These days, I might still be searching after ten minutes. But of course, I contented myself with merely spotting it, no longer capturing it.

I sat down on a slippery stone by a stream, removed my shoes and soaked my feet in the shockingly cold water. I enjoyed a cigarette. I remembered the slogan for an advert for Scottish whisky: “This is the Chivas Lifestyle.” I started to find fish in the water, and crabs too. I stood up, gazing at the dozens of long-legged pondskaters skimming over the surface of the water.

On one expedition, I managed to fall into a dipping pool while catching fish. Luckily, it was a hot day, so I took all my clothes off and lay them out to dry on a rock while I spent the afternoon waiting next to it, completely naked.

It’s not always clear where the sources of such streams are. Once I tried tracing one back deep into the mountain, growing more frightened with every step and every strange creature I encountered. Tao Yuanming, China’s most famous hermit, wrote of how you forget distances when you’re following a stream; of how sickness and death will claim you before you find what you are searching for.

I was surprised by how quickly I found my way to the summit. I was obviously in better physical shape than I’d thought.

I gazed off into the distance, the breeze caressing my face. An eagle was flying overhead; or a sparrowhawk, perhaps. I sat down and started to read the newspaper I’d brought. There’s something very particular about reading a newspaper up a mountain. You feel oddly disconnected from current events – like the Jade Emperor surveying the mortal world from Heaven.

You may assume, from the fact that I read the newspaper for half an hour, that I am a normal person. Well, I instantly forgot what I’d read, then set about one of my favourite pastimes: ripping the newspaper into identical, tiny fragments which I delighted in releasing - in great fistfuls - into the wind. In the same way that everyone loves popping bubble-wrap, I think that scattering shreds of newspaper on mountaintops has a kind of universal appeal.

I took the rope out of my bag. Dear reader, don’t try and stop me; because I wasn’t preparing to hang myself. Whenever I climb a mountain, I pack a rope - I’ve been doing this since I was ten, maybe because I watched too many low-budget American action TV shows as a child. Maybe I thought I might need to haul myself some place as part of a death-defying stunt. Even though it had never happened to me once in twenty years, I still brought the rope every time, sensing that the rope might have a decisive role to play at a key juncture.

Today, its role was to enable me to skip.

I love skipping; humans don’t often get the chance to jump up and down free-style - not like sparrows, or rabbits, or frogs, or monkeys. But give a person a rope, and jumping enters a whole new realm of possibility. Jumping on your own, you quickly feel self-conscious; bring a rope into the equation and it seems perfectly natural. And skipping on a mountain is completely different to skipping at sea-level.

– –

When I was too tired to skip any more, I lay down on the grass. A breeze was blowing; the sky was blue with white clouds. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was lying on a vast, soft cloud. Science tells us that as clouds are only water vapour they won’t support our weight, and that certainly we can’t ride them like the Monkey King did. Who cares? I wondered, defiantly, what sex on a cloud would be like.

I tried to conjure up a dream lover – ideally a princess – for my cloud sex. Sadly, once you hit thirty, it takes more than fairy-tales to reach climax. Luckily, a couple of classic porn films on my phone came to my rescue. I took a towel out of my bag. This was no ordinary towel, mind; it had passed through a rigorous selection procedure. I’m of the belief that a towel is at least as important as a girlfriend, perhaps more, because it is the object with which you end up having the most intimate daily contact.

My obsession with towels comes from my long-term love of one book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which contains a particularly informative entry on the subject.

A towel, it explains, is an item of great practical and also psychological use to a space traveller.

If a non-hitchhiker encounters a traveller with a towel, the former will naturally assume that this person once possessed all manner of objects: a toothbrush, a bathrobe, soap, a biscuit tin, a flask, a compass, a map, a rope, insect repellent, a raincoat, a spacesuit, and so on. Consequently, he will willingly lend the hitchhiker all these things, and even a great many others, on being told that the latter happens to have unaccountably lost all of them. The logic goes like this: if an intergalactic traveller has managed to hold onto his towel, he must surely be a person worth taking seriously. Consider the observation (made of the hero of The Hitchhiker’s Guide): “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.”

This particular towel of mine was soft, clean and blessed with a flower design particularly evocative of female pants. I pressed it to my face and surrendered myself to its charms.

– –

I warmly recommend masturbating on top of a mountain, in case you’ve never tried it; it’s a million times better than in front of a computer screen. Well, there’s no radiation hazard at least. Everything’s different when you’re on a mountain: higher, freer, purer. Of course, some might counter that it might be more fun to have someone with you too, but that’s not an option available to everyone. Nonetheless, I think that there might be some commercial potential in a prostitution business specializing in outdoor unions.

I carefully examined the colour, thickness and smell of my semen, and was reassured by its apparent normality. Something started buzzing in my ear: a large bumblebee. I was struck by the terrifying idea that my sperm was a bee-magnet. The insect was not deterred by my whipping it with the towel. In fact, it now seemed all the more intent on attacking me. A few years ago, I’d been bitten by a wasp on my toe. It took a whole fortnight for the swelling to go down; the doctors couldn’t do anything for me, and a popular folk remedy (which suggested rubbing breastmilk into the wound) was of no practical use either. I dread to think what would have happened if it had bit my penis. So I quickly did my trousers up, picked up my bag and made a run for it downhill. The bee came after me. I quickly lost my balance and fell precipitously.

I was sure that I was going to die. Fortunately, a few trees broke my fall, and I managed to steady myself by hanging onto one of them. Though I wasn’t seriously injured, I was covered in cuts and bruises, and my clothes and trousers were torn and muddy. I hurried down the mountain, as darkness started to fall.

– –

I went down the way I’d come up, the last of the dusk light fading. Finding myself back at the stream, I washed my face, arms, legs and wounds (my trusty towel came into play again here).

As soon as night falls, mountains become terrifying places. Perhaps because I was imagining things, I started to hear strange noises all around me. Of course, I was mostly hearing the noise of the stream, but it started to bounce confusingly around me, and I thought I heard a woman’s voice, too. Was there a girl bathing nearby too? My natural licentiousness conquered my natural cowardliness, and I mindlessly began following the stream along. Suddenly, a bamboo forest lay before me. A few hundred paces later, I was hemmed in on both sides by green stalks.

Just as I was pondering whether or not to carry on, I felt a hand touch my back. I whipped around: a woman stood before me, radiantly beautiful in the moonlight, her forefinger pressed to her lips. Though my first instinct had been to scream, I suppressed it. “What’s wrong?” I asked in low, urgent tones. “Are you running away from someone?” Fixing a piercing gaze upon me, she moved her beautiful lips. “I love you; do you love me?”

I was, naturally, taken aback.

She repeated her previous statement.

By this point, I’d reluctantly concluded that she was at least half-demon. But as she’d already made up her own mind how she felt about me, I felt I should go with the flow.

“I love you I love you I love you I love you,” I answered. The girl vanished.

Hell and damnation. So she was a demon after all. I was still alive, at least. But if she hadn’t meant to harm me, what had she been after?

– –

As I went on my way, I wondered it if had been a hallucination. When I came off the mountain, I happened to pass the sallowed notice I’d spotted on my way up, so I read it by the light of my phone. The corpse in the photo, I discovered, was a brutal mess - it looked as if it had suffered death by a thousand cuts. The accompanying text went as follows:

*Caution – Danger

A snake demon has recently been seen frequenting the streams of this mountain, disguised as a beautiful temptress. If she says, “I love you: do you love me?” and a man does not respond or refuses her, her curse is harmless. If he answers in the positive, he will die of the snake demon’s bite on the stroke of midnight, external symptoms as illustrated above. The demon has already claimed a dozen victims; no known cure exists.*

I glanced at my watch: it was twenty-seven minutes past nine. I had two and a half hours left.

I decided to get something to eat, as I might as well die on a full stomach. But what? As it was going to be my last meal, I thought I should make it a decent one, but the news I’d just received had rather affected my appetite, and I wasted another ten minutes dithering over choice of cuisine. Eventually, I grabbed a hamburger at a nearby Macdonalds, got in a taxi (still eating) and booked a room in a five-star hotel. I thought I had just about enough money in my bank account to pay for one night.

It was 10.40 by the time I’d checked in. From stress or perhaps indigestion, my stomach went into convulsions when I got into the room. After rolling around on the bed in agony a while, I called room service for some antacid. By the time I’d taken it, it was 11.10. I ran a bath, got in and awaited my destiny.

What time remained to me I decided to spend ringing girls I’d been in unrequited love with. (Though I called my parents first, to wish them all the best and reassure them I’d never ask for money again.)

But which girl to ring? Obviously, the one who was most likely to run out and have sex with me. Realistically, though, this was not going to happen; I only had half an hour left. I decided not to bother. Even if I rang them, they wouldn’t necessarily pick up; and even if they did, would they have believed me if I told them that at midnight a snake demon was about to come and eat me alive?

I was starting to feel resentful toward that snake demon: why did it have to pick on me? It could have told me it loved me without eating my flesh too. Or why didn’t it just eat me there and then, and be done with it? What was with all this delayed gratification?

Then again, I only had myself to blame. I shouldn’t have told her I loved her; I should have had more self-respect. I’d told her I loved her before I’d even worked out whether she was a creature of the supernatural; I had it coming. All the same, though, eating people alive seemed a touch excessive. I mean, it’s the 21st century and all; even snake demons ought to keep up with the ways of progress and the modern world. And aren’t snakes meant to poison their victims rather than dissolve their flesh?

Maybe it was a parable, designed to teach men to use the word love more carefully. But I didn’t think I abused it that much. Only on unusually beautiful snake demons. And could you blame me? Was I in the wrong, or just plain unlucky?

And why hadn’t I read that notice before I went up the mountain? Hell and damnation and hell again. Perhaps it was all a parable telling us to read notices before we go up mountains. But Wu Song from The Water Margin didn’t read any notices before he slayed the tiger in a fit of drunken bravado. In fact, if he’d read the health and safety warnings about that tiger, he would never have become a legendary hero. Not that the comparison was particularly relevant to me. I was doomed as soon as I met my snake demon. I’d have needed to be an immortal, or at least a Daoist priest, to defeat her; and I didn’t have time to find either now.

I wondered why there were still snake demons in this day and age. And why had they picked on me?

One minute to getting eaten alive. Bring it on.

I love you, snake demon.

– –

Zhou Piqiu had walked many roads that day before he turned for home. At the entrance to his compound, he hesitated over whether to buy some beer at the convenience store.

Ding Xiban hated getting sore buttocks: as soon as he had enough money, he was going to dedicate himself to buying the most comfortable chair in the world, even though he’d sworn not to buy anything that he couldn’t easily take with him on his travels around the world. In any case, the debate was academic: he didn’t have nearly enough money to buy the chair of his dreams. The mere thought of Ikea made him almost ill with longing. As he showered, he felt the pointed mole on his bottom.

Deciding against the beer, Zhou Pijiu crossed the overgrown compound, stopped in front of a vast reinforced concrete apartment block and swiped the door with his card. It refused to open. After half an hour spent trying to pass through the wall, he aborted the attempt and rang Ding Xiban to ask him to buzz him in. There was no answer.

Still in the shower investigating his persecuted bottom, Ding Xiban heard the phone ring. He decided to go and pick it up if it was still ringing after the count of five. But after he had taken one naked, dripping step towards the phone, it stopped. If only he’d counted up to seven, he regretted, he needn’t have put himself to the trouble.

Zhou Piqiu suddenly felt overwhelmed with exhaustion, as if he was ready to lie down and die; and yet he couldn’t even get into his own apartment. Perhaps he should go and find a security guard; perhaps he should go and punch a security guard. He went off in search. Eventually, finding one walking towards him, Zhou had the strong feeling the guard was in fact about to punch him. Just as they reaching the point of confrontation, Zhou’s phone rang and the two of them passed without a word.

“Hello.”

“Hey.” It was Ding Xiban.

“My card’s broken. Can you buzz me in?”

“All right.”

Zhou Piqing returned to his own building. It was only when the door still refused to open that he realised he had got the wrong staircase. By the time he had found his way home, Ding Xiban had dried himself and was lying naked on the bed.

“I got the wrong door, damn it.” Ding Xiban laughed.

“Did you masturbate?”

“I had a shower.”

“I bet you have masturbated today.”

“And?”

“Do you know how I knew?”

“You can’t smell it, can you?”

“No.”

“Did you see the tissue in the bin?”

“No. I can’t see from here.”

“Then you guessed.”

“But how could I be so sure?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because I would have.”

“What kind of logic is that?”

“But I’m right.”

“You just got lucky.”

“Come on.”

“Where to? I’m not dressed.”

“Let’s get some beer.”

“Why didn’t you get some on your way in?”

“I wanted to get it with you.”

“But I’ve just had a shower and I’m not dressed.”

“I’ve walked for miles today and I’m not complaining. I just want to go out with you to get us some beer.”

“All right. Have it your way.”

Soon, they were back home, lying on their own beds, drinking.

“I’m exhausted,” Zhou Piqiu said. “I walked a long way today.”

“Where did you go?”

“Places other people don’t go. Out of town.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

“No. It’s hopeless.”

“Don’t worry; you will.”

“I won’t, but I have to keep looking; what else can I do?”

“There’s no point in getting anxious about it. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?”

“I’m going tomorrow as well. I have to keep looking.”

They slowly, silently drank their beer. Each pondered troubles they had no way of resolving.

“Read me a poem,” Zhou Piqiu said.

“All right.” Ding Xiban picked up a book from his bedside and flicked through it. Zhou Piqiu closed his eyes, waiting.

“Okay. It’s ‘Farewell to Minister Lu of Qin’, by the Tang poet Si Kongshu. ‘I know we will meet again,

But separation is still hard.

Let’s raise one more cup to each other, To battle through Shi’s wind.’”

Slightly blurry with beer, Ding Xiban intoned it slowly. Zhou Piqiu drunkenly closed his eyes and listened. “Read it again.”

“I know we will meet again, But separation is still hard. Let’s raise one more cup to each other, To battle through Shi’s wind.”

“It’s not a great poem,” Ding Xiban observed. “Language’s a bit clumsy.”

“D’you know why I chose it though? Because of the last line.”

“Read it again.”

“To battle through Shi’s wind.”

“What’s Shi’s wind?”

“It’s from an ancient legend about a merchant called You who married a woman called Shi. Though the two of them were very much in love, the merchant was always off on business, which back then could mean he’d be gone two years at a time, and the wife became very unhappy. One day, she begged him not to go again, but he still left. Soon after, she died of bitterness. But just before she died, she swore she’d turn into a headwind on behalf of all the lonely wives in the world, preventing their husbands from leaving home.”

“That’s a strange old story.”

“I mean, to become a ghost after you die – that’s one thing. But to turn yourself into a wind; that’s downright perverse.”

“But how could she become a wind?” Zhou Piqiu had opened his eyes again.

“Actually, a wind’s much worse than a ghost. If a woman turns herself into a wind, you’ll never escape her.”

“I think it’s beautiful. It means she can be with you wherever you are.”

“But a woman who’s become a wind isn’t a woman in the normal sense of the word.”

“What about that woman who became a cliff to watch over her husband?”

“Now that I can relate to a bit more.”

“How come?”

“Because at least that’s solid – something you can touch and see. Not like a wind.”

“Meaning?”

“What really bothers me is that she wanted to become a headwind. Not an ordinary whooshy, go-with-the-flow sort of wind.”

“I don’t care.” Zhou Piqiu closed his eyes again. “I still think it’s beautiful. You could be walking anywhere, feel the wind on your face, and know it’s your lover.”

Zhou Piqiu lay there with his eyes closed, as if he was enjoying the caress of a gentle breeze.

Ding Xiban thought the relationship between You and Shi had been more complex than some people imagined.

“Ring her,” Zhou Piqiu said after a while.

“Who?”

“You know.”

“Now?”

“Of course.”

“No. You ring her.”

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