Piano Twilight, by Chen Cun
Many adjectives could be used to describe Shanghai-based author Chen Cun (b. 1954). Some that seem apt are obsessive, imaginative, offbeat, meticulous, satirical, erotic, enigmatic, absurd, innovative… and ambiguous. After gaining a fair amount of recognition for his fiction – he has received the 2nd Chinese Minority Peoples' Literary Prize, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Shanghai Literary Prizes, and others – Chen Cun turned his focus to internet literature, and was active for many years as the moderator of a message board at 99read.com. In “Piano Twilight,” a man develops a strange obsession with the twilight and the sound of the piano music played by the woman who lives downstairs. The piano music connects a series of enigmatic events, and everybody knows it and everybody participates in the obscure game whose rules it seems to be defining. “Piano Twilight” is an old story, written in 1992, but it serves as an outstanding entry point into Chen Cun’s unique fictional world, a world where everything takes on a secret meaning, where double intentions blossom out and spread confusion and intoxication.
Michael Day was joint winner of the Bai Meigui Translation Competition, Leeds University, UK in 2015.
When I look out the window in my room, I see a wall. On the other side of the wall is a junior high school. Each morning, loudspeakers blare out staccato blasts of sound. When my mind is unsettled, I stand at the window, look out on the schoolyard, and watch the students running endlessly back and forth. Only the afternoons are silent.
As I have said before, I am in love with the twilight, with the sun setting in the west, with the golden light that spreads throughout the sky. In the twilight I find peace, and before I know it I am sunk deeply into distant memories. Once, when I was living in Gongrenxincun, I faced a gray building with perfectly square corners and thought of robots in a Japanese cartoon. They were loud, unruly, and ugly, and they made me feel anxious. Although there were a hundred other ways to explain it, I think this is the real reason I moved – because that twilight feeling was like an addiction.
I moved into this ancient alley after a lover broke my heart.
For several days after the move, my home was in a state of chaos. All the furniture sat in the middle of the room while the workers put things in order. In the evenings, after the workers left, I would carefully clear a patch of holy ground amid all the nails and wood where I would pull up a chair, lean back, and read a book, a bottle of beer close at hand.
On one such evening, the sound of the piano drifted in. It was a waltz by Chopin. The tempo was precise, if a little stiff. When this stiffness harmonized with the twilight, the effect was pleasing to the ear. I stuck my head out the window, but I could not see anyone playing the piano. It must be the old woman downstairs, I thought. There was a piano in her room. I put on a jacket and went downstairs to get the paper. The door that led to the second floor was closed. It seemed no one was home. I continued down the stairs, lured by the sound of the piano. The door that led to the first floor stood open. The old woman seemed completely absorbed in her playing. Her body and the form of the piano appeared as silhouettes in the dusky light. I stood for a while at the entrance to the stairway. Before I knew it, a skinny black cat crept out of the darkness, followed by a voice.
“Have you had your dinner?” asked the voice by way of greeting.
I lifted my head. It was the old man who lived downstairs. His voice was loud and grating. The old man was sturdy and stout, but there was a sparkle in his eye. He asked me again. I responded hastily and stepped out of the way.
From that day on, I always heard the sound of the piano at twilight. She played all kinds of pieces – Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, even Debussy. It seemed she could play anything. As the sky twisted itself into a knot of obscure hues, the sound built up steadily until it reached my third floor windowsill. I could somehow sense the music before I could actually hear it. My heart would begin to sing along, and only after a while would I consciously notice that the evening’s program had begun.
I rarely saw the old woman on my way up or down the stairs. When I did see her, it was always when she was cooking. She would fry fermented tofu until it turned yellow, use chopsticks to peel shrimp. The pan never held more than twenty or thirty shrimp, and she was clumsy with the chopsticks. Her clothes were plain yet spotless, and hung loosely about her frame. If she noticed me, we would greet each other. Sometimes we would exchange a few words about the water bill or the electric bill. A lazy, rural Zhejiang accent tinted her speech. She never had much to say.
One time, no one had shown up to read the electric meter in our building for three months, and when the old woman saw me, she asked me to call and check up on it. Fine, I said, I’ll give them a call. The old woman thanked me. No problem, I said, my bill hasn’t come yet, either. Several days later, the bill came, and we ran into each other at the entrance to the stairway. She was carrying a bowl full of snails. I mentioned that my electric bill had come, and she said that hers had, too. We talked about how expensive the electric bill was, how high prices were these days. For a moment, the atmosphere seemed to lighten, and we finally began what I thought was a real conversation when to my surprise she frowned, turned as if I wasn’t there, went into her apartment and shut the door.
I stood there in the darkness. I wanted very badly to talk with her about something other than the electric bill. I wanted to ask her questions. I would have been satisfied just to sit in her room, holding my head in my hands and listening silently while she played the piano.
But I never had the chance. I only blabbed on about the electric bill.
The sweet odor of mold would strike you the moment you entered through the rear gate. Debris covered every possible surface. The building was always incredibly quiet, the stairs and the hallways bathed in dusky luminance. There were just three apartments, in which a grand total of four people lived. The second floor tenant was an old man who was almost never home – or he came home very late and left very early. His door was always closed. The old woman’s black cat was the only sign of life anywhere. I had never seen it eating anything, much less chasing mice. It was like some kind of ghost, moving about with uncanny litheness. Sometimes it would come to my door, sitting there and making no move to enter. I would call it, tempt it with food, but still it would refuse to budge.
That day, I retreated to my upstairs sanctuary from the darkness that remained in the wake of the electric bill. No sooner had I opened the door than I heard a composition by Liszt. At first I thought I had forgotten to turn off the radio, but soon I realized it was the old woman playing the piano. Her rendition of Lizst was unhurried. I could tell that she was in a good mood – so good that her playing had gone a little slack. I closed my eyes, thinking not of the old woman, but only of ten highly sensitive fingers flitting up and down the keyboard.
I was a little curious and a little agitated. There must be a story here, I thought. She must be playing the piano for someone. In the sound of the piano, I heard music. What did she hear?
In my head, I composed her story.
I often saw the old man who lived with the old woman. He was always rummaging through the clutter in the corridors and the corners. When he saw me, he would drop whatever he was holding and greet me loudly, hurriedly pasting a vapid grin on his face. The first time I saw him I asked obliviously what he was looking for. He gave me a strange look, chuckled twice, and did not answer. The next time, I knew better than to ask. Have you eaten dinner yet? he asked. Yes, have you? These pleasantries were extremely interesting.
The old man’s clothes were fairly shabby. His form was made up almost entirely of square corners – only his protruding stomach broke the pattern of straight lines. Maybe it was just the light, but for some reason his white shirt always looked gray. His unkempt hair stuck up like a cockscomb, and I wanted to laugh whenever I saw it. He was always so busy. He seemed so necessary.
The cat served as his lookout. When he was busy, the cat stood to the side, deep in thought.
The old man completely ignored the cat.
I imagined that someone must care about that cat. Perhaps the old woman would cradle it to her breast while they bathed in the sunlight on the veranda. When it had slept its fill, it would extend a lazy paw, its eyes half-closed. But in fact, no one stroked its black fur. Everyone ignored it, leaving it to survive or perish on its own.
Everything was perfectly still and silent, as harmonious as the twilight and the music of the old woman’s piano.
I loved the piano, but that didn’t mean I played it well. I only started learning when I was twenty-five, so as you can imagine, I was hardly a professional. A thick layer of dust had settled on the piano cover. There was a lot of sheet music inside the bench, but very little of it had ever graced the stand. I had been smart enough to learn how to play fragments, ten or twenty bars each, of many famous pieces.
When the workers at last beat a retreat, my home was transformed beyond recognition. I could sleep in my own bed again. It had been half a month since I had been able to do that, and it felt great. But regardless of where I was laying at the time, every night when the notes of that piano sounded, I would go to sit in my wicker chair, bolt upright, silent as a stone, watching the sky. I would first catch wind of it when the sky began to grow dark, and only once it had turned very, very black would the sound gradually peter out.
I wanted to play the piano too, so I hired a piano tuner. He was a cheerful little old man. When he was finished tuning the piano, he played it briefly.
“I tune the piano downstairs, too,” he remarked while he played.
My heart skipped a beat. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he refused to talk about anything except pianos. My piano was an average one, he said. It was old.
“The old woman must have been playing the piano for a long time,” I said.
“Of course. When he was your age, my father would pass through this alley and hear her playing. So you tell me. How many years do you think it’s been?”
He gathered up his tools and got ready to leave. When he reached the door, he turned back and said, “There’s a story behind that old woman and the piano.”
“What kind of story?”
“What kind do you think? I have other houses to go to, little brother. We’ll talk next time.”
I opened the piano cover and sat up straight. A pleasant feeling ran through my fingertips when I touched the keys. Each time I began to play a melody, it wouldn’t be long before a flawlessly performed composition would drift up from below. I would stop and listen, staying as quiet as possible. The music filtered through the twilight luminance on its way up to my room. I sat at the piano bench, refraining even from smoking, my heart filled with absolute serenity.
Over time, we came to a sort of unspoken agreement. I would request a piece, and the old woman would play it. Sometimes, I would find that the old woman’s playing was full of melancholy. My fingers bounding lightly across the keys, I would play a brisk, lively tune. My playing would gradually increase in volume until it merged with hers. I was pursuing her. She would hear this, of course, and her playing would gradually grow softer until finally she would handle this delicate situation by discretely changing her tune.
In this way, the two of us would meet in the twilight. When we met in the halls, she would always ask if I had eaten dinner yet, and I would always respond that I had. The conversation never went any further than that. But I felt that I knew her very well. I understood how she felt each day, and she understood my feelings, too. Our hearts were open to each other.
Not long after, I sat down at the piano one evening and played a string of notes. There was no response. I continued playing until I stumbled and couldn’t go on. There was still no sign of the old woman. I played a new tune, but it made no difference. I changed my tune again and again, all in vain. I couldn’t stand sitting there so I got up from the piano bench and went downstairs. As always, the old man stood in the hallway rummaging through his clutter. I was going to ask him but he turned to me with that strange smile and I lost even the strength to put my question into words. I went to get the paper, and when I came back, the old man was gone. There was only that black cat that had never been loved by anybody. It stared at me with complete lack of interest.
I felt empty.
Then that door closed forever. They had vanished without a trace, even the black cat. Now I was the only one left in the entire building. Suddenly, the twilight was unbearable. I would take walks in the nearby park, shutting the door behind me.
One day as I wandered, thinking that even the park had begun to bore me, I happened to run into the old man who had tuned my piano. He greeted me vigorously and we made small talk before he asked if I had gone to the old woman’s wake. I was shocked. I had no idea the old woman had died.
“No, I didn’t… I had no idea…” I was at a loss for words.
He laughed and said, “The old woman, when she was young…”
“Yes, I know,” I said quickly, and walked off alone. I didn’t want to hear any more stories about the old woman.
In the park, the sunlight shone brilliantly. The shadows of the trees swayed. A fresh breeze blew.
I opened the gate to the building and stepped inside. I was greeted by the sweet odor of mold. Suddenly, from a dark corner, a voice boomed loudly, “Have you eaten dinner yet?”
I saw the old man. He squatted in the corner sifting through trash. I answered evasively, passing by behind him. The door was open downstairs and the room looked just like it always had. An unseen window cast a rectangle of light onto the piano bench where the old woman always sat.
I went upstairs. At the bend in the stairs I noticed that the black cat was following me. I picked it up, held it close, and scratched it behind the ears.