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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

The Death of Zernik, by Zhu Yue

Zhu Yue

Translating names can be one of the trickiest challenges facing the translator of Chinese: do you you use pinyin to transliterate the sound, at the cost of losing any meaning implict in the name, or directly translate the actual meaning, at the risk of ‘"Princess Jade Phoenix" chinoiserie’? Zhu Yue’s invented names thus constitute a refreshingly different kind of challenge. In the original they are constructed from Chinese syllable sounds (the protagonist of the story, for example, is called “Ze-er-ni-ke”) like all foreign names – but the story is not set in any specific country, and the names do not precisely map to the sounds of any actual language (apart from the protagonist’s friend, who was apparently named for the inventor of the Maxim gun – although Zhu Yue later informed me that the name was irrelevant to the story and I was welcome to alter it if I saw fit). So “Ze-ni-er-ke” could equally well have become “Zerniac”, “Zurrnik”, or “Zirnirka” – each of the different names shifting the setting of the story up or down a latitudinal notch or two, each combination of consonants a slightly different modulation of architecture and climate.
— Dave Haysom

I am going to tell of a man slain in a duel, and the name of the man was Zernik.

There was something absurd about the circumstances leading to the duel. One cold winter’s night, Zernik emerged from a tavern, somewhat inebriated, and set off against the freezing wind towards the dock. All was dark at the time, but for the faint glimmer of lanterns on a few of the freighters. Zernik came to a halt at the waterfront and gazed out at the inky blackness of the sea. It was then that the sound of a string of fierce curses reached his ears. Turning, he discovered there were two people fighting close by. One of them pulled out a dagger and thrust it at the other. The victim let out a moan, and turned around, trying to escape – but he chose the wrong way to go, and found his path blocked by the sea. The murderer came after him and struck him again and again, before dealing him one final push. The wounded man tottered, and then collapsed in the sea. The murderer did not linger; he turned and disappeared into the depths of the darkness.

All this happened in the briefest of instants, giving Zernik no time to react. But he recognised both the murderer and the victim. The murderer was named Pagise, and he was a fashionable artist; the victim, Fensord – he was the artist’s disciple, and model. Zernik had often seen the two of them together, at salons or art exhibitions – they were inseparable.

Zernik went straight to the constabulary to report the incident. The officer noted down what he said, and asked him to be ready to testify when the time came. Two officers were then dispatched: one to go and collect the body; the other, to catch the killer.

A fortnight passed. Events had not proceeded in the manner Zernik anticipated. Pagise and Fensord had indeed vanished, but the constabulary had neither found the body nor apprehended the murderer – they had failed, in fact, to discover any clues whatsoever. Stranger still, another witness had emerged: General Beisaillon had reported to the constabulary that he had seen the murder with his own eyes, from the deck of the boat where he had been standing at the time. The fact that the ship was leaving port meant that he had not been able to report what he had seen sooner. Beisaillon’s testimony matched Zernik’s in all particulars but one: he claimed it was Fernsord who had killed Pagise – the latter who had fallen into the sea, and the former who had taken advantage of the darkness of night to escape.

And so the constabulary asked Zernik to think back again carefully – was it not possible he had misinterpreted what he had seen, or gotten the two men confused? Zernik, astounded, insisted he had made no mistake. But then Beisaillon pointed out that he happened to be well acquainted with both Pagise and Fernsord, and it was inconceivable that he could have erred in such a vital matter. In order to try and move the case forward, the constabulary brought both witnesses together, face to face. After a fruitless debate, Beisaillon proclaimed he was prepared to stake his reputation on it: it was Fernsord who had killed Pagise, and not the other way round. Zernik said that he too was willing to stake his reputation on the matter. Beisaillon sarcastically wondered aloud how exactly much the reputation of a clod like Zernik might be worth. At once, Zernik demanded satisfaction for this insolence. Beisaillon accepted the challenge, and made it known that he would be sure to put this jumped-up galoot in the ground.

Zernik’s friends were astonished by what he had done. As far as they were concerned he was a mild, timid sort, as listless and apathetic as an old man, though not yet thirty years of age. He lived alone in an old villa, both parents having died when he was young. He had inherited his father’s title, but the glory of his family name had long since faded away. His one younger sister had been married off in distant lands. Zernik’s fiancée had renounced their engagement just a few months previously, having been seduced by a French military officer. At the time, Zernik had chosen silence, holing himself up in his house for a week before returning to his friends as though nothing had ever happened.

And now Zernik had provoked a duel, with only two days in which to prepare. His opponent had chosen duel by pistol, and Zernik did not even own a gun. His friend Maxim loved to collect all manner of firearms, he remembered, and would surely be able to lend him a dueling pistol. So he headed towards Maxim’s lodgings, only to discover upon arrival that his friend had just departed. Knowing that Maxim usually took his leisure at the Bridge Inn, Zernik hurried there to look for him.

The Bridge Inn was in uproar. Several men were crowded around a circular table, wreathed in blue smoke, playing dice. One of them, tall and powerfully built, was standing there hollering, one foot propped up on a chair, when Zernik appeared, peering all around in search of Maxim. In the very instant that he cast the dice, the tall man caught sight of Zernik, and froze. The others, captivated at first by those three skittering dice, eventually noticed the change in their companion’s expression and turned, as one, towards Zernik. The inn went very quiet. This man looks an awful lot like a fellow I killed, the tall man muttered to himself after a considerable pause. Zernik was confounded by the words of this complete stranger. Are you referring to me, sir? he asked.

It transpired that this man, named Klübor, had – just a few months previously – killed a young man in a duel over an ill-fated gambling session. No matter which way you looked at it, he said, the resemblance was remarkable. Having narrated his tale with considerable gusto, Klübor now solemnly adopted Zernik as an old friend. Under the influence of the general atmosphere, Zernik explained his own unfortunate situation to Klübor, who then took an even keener interest in the youth who had suddenly manifested before him. He exhorted Zernik to go and have his fortune told by Patalisha. That woman, according to Klübor, could read the future with remarkable accuracy. He went to consult her whenever he found he couldn’t tell which way the winds were blowing, and time after time her predictions came true. At this point Klübor called over the innkeeper to bring him a pen and paper and – leaning over the circular table – he dashed off a letter of introduction. He wrote Patalisha’s address on the other side, and then pressed the paper into Zernik’s hand. In a tone that was virtually an order, he told Zernik to get going at once.

Cast out of the Bridge Inn with a piece of paper clutched in his hand, Zernik had no idea where else he could go to look for Maxim, nor any idea who else might be able to lend him a gun. His mind was a blank. In the end, he looked down at the address on the back of the letter, and hailed a carriage.

Having arrived at an unprepossessing house in an alley towards the south of the city, Zernik handed the letter to the old maid who opened the door, and a moment later he was led into a parlour where a pale woman in a black gauzy dress was waiting for him. He saw at once that she was a young widow. They sat down at a low table; he told her why he had come and explained his plight. Without any change in her expression, Patalisha took a dark green ceramic incense burner out of a closet, and bade Zernik scoop out a handful of ash. She spread the letter of introduction on the table, and told him to sprinkle the ash onto the paper. He did as instructed.

As she began to examine the ashes on the paper, Zernik caught his breath in anticipation of her verdict. The old maid brought him a cup of tea, and then after a while he heard her gathering up her things, and the sound of the door opening, then closing. He guessed Patalisha and he were the only ones left in the house now.

Patalisha finally raised her head and told Zernik that his death was inescapable. So the day after tomorrow is the date of my death? Zernik stared at Patalisha. She stood up and nodded, as if to indicate that it was time to leave. Is there nothing I can do? He was still trying to see through her – he could see pity in the gauzy blackness of her pupils, but behind the pity was something else, something… indecent. No. Her voice was cold. He leapt to his feet and embraced Patalisha. She did not resist. In the feverish kiss that followed, it felt to Zernik as though he were coupling with death before his time.

They lay on the large bed of the chamber. Only now do I understand, said Zernik, that despair and desire are one and the same, and so hope always implies restraint. Patalisha said nothing. Turning his head, he saw a picture hanging on the wall. It was a portrait of a young man, quite dashing. Who’s he? he asked. My husband, she replied. He’s dead. Did he die in a duel too? No, it was bee venom that slew him. We went to the coast on holiday one summer, and one day he went for a stroll by himself. He found a flowerbed on the shore – he was particularly fond of plants – and so he went over to look, and a bee stung him. Within seconds he had breathed his last. It was only later on, that evening, that we found his body in the flowerbed. The weather at the time was blisteringly hot, and there was nothing to be done but inter him as quickly as possible. There was a small hill, not too far away from the shore, and on the hill there was a little monastery. We buried him there. The day of the funeral was a particularly fine one, with no more than a few strands of cloud in the sky, and standing in the graveyard on the top of the hill you could see the ocean’s cobalt blue, without the slightest hint of wind. I suddenly felt myself becoming dizzy, the hill flickering as though it were a hallucination – and then I saw an enormous wave rushing towards us, and in a trice it had engulfed everything below…

It was already dark by the time Zernik returned home. He encountered Maxim at his door. It turned out his friend had been waiting for him there all day. Maxim had brought several pistols for him to choose from, and wanted to volunteer himself as Zernik’s second. He was anxious. If only the police were to capture Pagise tomorrow, he kept saying, or find Fensord’s body, then you could call off the duel with honour. But no, that wasn’t what Zernik was hoping for – he wanted this duel to happen. Maxim told his friend that his opponent was a renowned member of the shooting club, who had taken part in four previous pistol duels, and been victorious every time. One would have to be a madman to challenge him. You know, Maxim, said Zernik, the closer I get to madness, the calmer I feel.

Zernik passed the day before the duel, and death, in a state of complete calm. He got up very late, and wrote a brief letter to his sister – though he had no intention of posting it. Then he dug out a few old diaries to browse through. They dated from his youth: he had not kept a diary since he turned twenty. He read them conscientiously, and consigned them all to the flames when he was done. In the afternoon he sat numbly in his armchair, toying with the pistol in his hands until dusk, when he finally drank a few glasses of wine before falling asleep without having eaten.

Maxim came to collect Zernik on the morning of the duel. He had already hired a carriage. A grove beyond the city limits had been settled upon as the site of the duel, and they would need to spend around two hours on the road. Sitting inside the carriage, Zernik suddenly found himself feeling agitated. He pulled up the curtain to look outside, but all he saw was a gloomy sky and cold mist filling the air. Nothing of his surroundings was clearly visible; a few indistinct human-shaped things swayed on either side of the street. He lowered the curtain and closed his eyes in rest. After a while, he felt like his mind was floating – as though it were leaving his body and drifting up into the air.

The grove emerged from the mist at last. Maxim nudged Zernik, so that he could ready himself with a clear head. Beisaillon and his second were already waiting for him in a clearing between the trees. With them, too, was an old man, bewhiskered and elegantly attired, carrying a medicine case; presumably he was the surgeon.

Zernik and Beisaillon shook hands. Their seconds measured out the distance of twelve footsteps. And then the surgeon tossed the coin that determined that Zernik would be the first to fire. Zernik took his position, discovering that he could see nothing of his opponent through the fog. He raised his pistol and, without aiming, pulled the trigger. Nearby, several bird-shaped things rose into the sky with shrill cries. Now was the time for Beisaillon’s shot, yet there was no gun retort but, instead, a thud. Zernik saw the shape of a man rushing towards Beisaillon – shouting, for it was the shape of Beisaillon’s second. Then another shape followed, the surgeon this time, the edges of his medicine case sharply silhouetted in the fog. Over here, Zernik! It was Maxim summoning him. Hurrying through the white mist, he saw Beisaillon, his head cradled by the surgeon, blood spurting from his neck like a scarlet fountain. The surgeon looked up at Zernik. This man is dead, he announced after a moment of silence. You shot him through the throat.

After seeing Zernik home, Maxim bade him farewell, and left. Zernik had still not come to his senses. He took a hot bath, and lay in bed until around three in the afternoon. Then he got up, dressed carefully, went outside, and stopped a carriage. He had the driver take him to the grove beyond the city limits. There was snow drifting through the air now, getting heavier and heavier, and the white breath from the two panting, mottled nags lingered in the air as they strained to pull the black carriage behind them. The sky was already dark by the time Zernik reached the grove for a second time. He gave the driver all the money he had on him and told him to wait beside the trees, and then he went deep into the grove by himself. The black branches were so laden with snow that the individual trees seemed to have merged into one darkly ominous whole. Zernik wandered for a long time before he found the clearing. He walked over to Beisaillon’s position and stood there, quietly, unable to stop himself wondering whether there had really been any duel here, just a few hours ago. Zernik had won, but he did not know what he had defeated. Crouching down, he stared at the snow-covered ground, and before his eyes there was nothing but whiteness.

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