I alight at Beigao bus station and cut through the tunnel under the airport expressway. Tractors and tricycle carts trundle past me beneath the low ceiling – entirely another world to the one atop the bridge.
I cross a trash-strewn area and continue alongside the dry and scorch marked grass verge. I can see the pair of stone lions that guard the nursing home gate. A kiosk sits right inside as a reminder for visitors to buy something.
The clerk’s expression echoes the half-empty shelves that have accumulated an impressive layer of dust. Three or four products are all there is available. I buy some tinned food and bananas, tokens that will permit me to inquire about the room number.
A smell similar to the kiosk hangs in the corridor, only it is more concentrated here. A heavy door curtain obscures each room. Drawing one aside reveals several elderly figures laid on their beds, a bedside cupboard at the head of each. A TV, its screen black, sits on top of a stand attached to the wall. An electric fan for use in summer is affixed to the wall too. Everything – human and object – is absolutely still. Agitated briefly by my incursion, the air quickly settles back into stagnancy.
The smell in the corridor and shop are clearly wafts of what’s been spilling out from the rooms all along. Clearly, the dozing elderly haven’t much need for air.
One of the beds, Zhou Peitong is waking up. He’s on the bed directly across from the door, feet facing me. His eyes just opened; the rest of his body is hidden by the quilt. In the unmoving air, the lower half of the bedsheet is quivering. The result of nerve damage in a leg, I later learn.
I’m here to see him at someone’s request, I explain. He remembers the female classmate, he replies in a frail voice. I realize that speaking is an ordeal for him, even the brief responses he manages are strained out between ground teeth.
It was Ni Jingxiong who sent me. She was Lin Zhao’s classmate at Southern Jiangsu School of Journalism and Zhou Peitong’s at the Central Academy of Drama. The last time she was in Beijing was the university’s 90th anniversary and she went to see Lin Zhao’s statue while here. She’d hoped to see Zhou Peitong as well but heard that he had already moved into a nursing home on the city outskirts.
“He was such a talent.” Eighty-year-old Ni Jingxiong told me about Zhou in a hotel elevator near Sanlitun, the metal interior wall’s reflection glinting in her eyes.
She remembered the article from that year’s class. Zhou Peitong had picked an unusual word to describe sunrise over the ocean. A turn of phrase utterly unlike how Ba Jin had put it, yet still one she would have never conjured herself.
When I mention this to Zhou Peitong, his reaction is somewhat stiff and severe: “I’m a man of little talent and less learning.” That’s all he has to say about it – about himself, it’s a reminder of some former way of being, and at the same time his rigid tone out-and-out negates the past entirely.
Not long after leaving the school, Zhou Peitong was labelled a rightist because of a satirical story that he submitted to People’s Literature magazine. This marked the end of his literary dream. His career’s one flash of brilliance seemed destined to remain that moment in the classroom, fondly preserved in the mind of a classmate but faded even from his own memory, the extraordinary metaphor now irretrievable by its composer.
After being declared a rightist, Zhou was demoted from the Ministry of Culture and sent to work in Qinghai, divorced by the wife that he had met at the Zhongnanhai student dance, then banished to Babao labor reform and re-education farm up the side of the Qilian Mountains. His fellow “rightists” and he were responsible for driving carts full of barrels of water from the glacier down to the farm site. On one occasion, while descending the slope, a large barrel tipped over and crushed Zhou’s left leg. He lost consciousness. When he came to, he got right back to work but his leg was useless after that.
It’s this injured leg that is shivering beneath the bedsheet. The nerve damage creates a chronic itch that never stops for a moment. Both his hands stay under the covers the whole time we’re speaking, his body fixed to the mattress. A yellow tube extends from beneath one corner of the quilt to connect to the urine drainage bag under the bed.
I place the tinned food and bananas on the bedside cupboard. He doesn’t show the slightest sign of interest. The nurse who checked me in at the entrance said that he likes to drink yoghurt, which his stepdaughter brings for him and there’s still some left of on the bedside surface. She only brings it once every two weeks though, says Zhou Peitong.
I sense that he has shut himself off from his stepdaughter, as well as from me, and from the rest of the world beyond his sickbed, allowing us just a single crack to peer through at him.
The occupant of the single bed across from him is fast asleep. Their face lolled over to the bed’s edge produces a raspy heave, which after a moment cuts out. He rolls over, and the rasp restarts. My arrival hasn’t disturbed him at all. When I first entered the room, one elderly resident was tucked head and body beneath their quilt while another had theirs down at chest level with their eyes shut tight. A vague smell of soiled bedclothes lingers.
“All he thinks about is that book,” said Ni Jingxiong.
Captain from Castile is the book in question. Zhou Peitong translated it when he was sent down to work in a boiler room in Tianjin. I looked up the story online: revolt against the Spanish Inquisition interwoven with a lovers’ tragedy. A Hollywood film adaptation was made in the 1940s and was very popular for a time.
My second visit coincides with his stepdaughter and her family dropping in. Two adults and a young girl. The stepdaughter says that it’s good timing, “We were about to leave, you chat with him a bit.” “Grandad, we’re off,” shouts the young girl. Zhou Peitong watches from his bed as they leave. His gaunt face doesn’t even twitch.
I walk the family to the corridor and speak with his stepdaughter a moment. She tells me that the translation manuscript is with a Japanese friend who is currently looking for a publisher. Last time I saw her, Ni Jingxiong suggested that we find some classmates to pull together ten thousand yuan and get it printed for the old man, put it to bed once and for all, so he can see it while still alive. “The old man is ‘shriveled up’, all that’s keeping him going is thought of this book.” The few of them can afford the costs themselves but feel that it won’t be nearly as significant to simply go ahead and print it, better to use their pull to have it published.
Back in the room, there’s no noticeable difference from my first visit besides the box of yoghurt on the bedside cabinet. The nurse says to give him one to eat shortly and put the rest in his drawer. Zhou Peitong’s eyes widen when he sees me enter.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
“How not well?”
“My sun is setting. The first six months in here, I could still get up and move around. Now, things are just getting worse and worse. All I can do is lie here in bed.”
I peel back a corner of his bedsheet. His leg is just as his stepdaughter described – “shriveled up”, like it’s no longer made of skin and flesh, apparently unfeeling. It’s shivering like before, as if operated by some other, unconnected thing.
I bring up the book and tell him about Ni Jingxiong’s idea. This time his eyes snatch open, a light suddenly flickering to life within them, “Uh-huh”, the switch for his whole being seems to have been flicked on and he is hanging on my every word. He has, in this instant, become emancipated from the bed. I observe that the extra-long strands of his white eyebrows charge his now radiant gaze with an extra intensity. The Zhou Peitong of so many years ago has been revived before my very eyes: the talent that Ni knew in the classroom incarnate; the writer unafraid to criticize higher-ups reborn. His speech is fluid now too – there are certain things that even after so many years of erosion will never completely wear away.
While this light gradually subsides, he speaks of his time translating the book in the boiler room back in Tianjin. When he was young, he read the original English and enjoyed it. During the Great Famine (1959-61), he travelled from the farm in Qinghai back to Tianjin where a friend named Dou and he worked and lived together while he translated on the side. Dou was an orphan who grew up in the Christian Church – the reason he’d been labelled a rightist – and would often pray while feeding the boilers.
Later, once his name was cleared, Zhou returned to Beijing and married an old classmate there. By this time the couple were already quite advanced in age, so never had any children. After his wife and classmate passed away, he went back to Tianjin once more to live with his old friend. This he did up until his leg worsened and he was sent to the nursing home. By then, he was short on resources to complete the work and the final chunk of the book remains untranslated.
He was against the idea of the home from the start, suspecting the whole time that it was his stepdaughter’s tactic for getting her hands on a slice of his pension. In his mind, it can’t have cost much at all to stay in a nursing home on the city’s outskirts, but the support worker said otherwise: His room might be north-facing, and there’s no air-conditioning in the summer, and the central heating is no help in the winter, but the bed and nursing fees aren’t cheap.
If the choice was his, he would prefer to return to Tianjin and live together with his friend Dou. “He’s willing to make sacrifices, and if we were together, we’d make sacrifices for each other.” But beyond this bed, he’s out of options.
Early spring sunshine casts the shadow of the nursing home’s iron gate in sparse slats on the floor. Elderly residents are sat in a line sunning beneath the building’s south-facing eaves, each of them dressed in dark blue and black and wearing a hat. Heads sunk low in their collars, it would be easy to miss them, to mistake them for old bedding hung out to dry. Over these past few years, I realize, Zhou Peitong might well have sat with them.
That same smell still hangs in the corridor. Spring is blocked out by the walls and can’t reach here. I enter what I remember to be the room. Laid on the bed directly across from the door is a different person entirely, I suspect that I’ve remembered wrong. But the other beds frame the same faces as before, deep asleep. I ask them about Zhou, but no reply comes, as if their connection with this world has long been severed.
I find a nurse in the corridor who thinks for a moment, then answers: “Mr. Zhou died. His body’s been collected. It happened at the start of the year.”
My mind’s gone blank. I take with me the bottles of Bliss yoghurt that I brought, out the home’s main gate I call his stepdaughter to confirm the news. Then I call to tell Ni Jingxiong. She struggles to believe it. After a moment’s silence, she says that Zhou Peitong was a year younger than her.
Patches of the lawn are greening with springtime growth, but the underlying withered yellow is still visible beneath and the edges are pocked with burns. This grass verge has never been able to shed its bleakness.
I ask for Mr. Dou’s phone number in Tianjin and after a time dial it. A voice at the other end, hoarse and near failure, says that they’re hard of hearing and can’t really catch what I’m saying. He tells me to call back at the time his nephew is set to come look after him. I say Zhou Peitong’s name and he replies, “I know, he died. We were good once.”
Captain from Castile remains unpublished.
This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.