The West Window

Figures in a Landscape

Illustration by Dongmei Chen

What could be viewed through the west window were sights from the very edge of the city: the turbid but broad city moat, the ground stretching away to the site of the ancient city walls, also a few willows, a red-brick water tower, and, furthermore, the chimneys and some kind of industrial building towering over the cement factory’s building site. The moat was roughly twenty meters wide, moats like that are quite rare in the south, with wooden rafts and bamboo rafts moored on both banks, brought there who-knows-how by the people who dwelt on the banks, to do who-knows-what exactly, but they could be seen, rafts of bamboo and rafts of wood, moored there in every season, and, over time, moss came to cover the water-soaked logs of the wooden rafts, and water hyacinths floated in the gaps of the bamboo rafts, and so did dead fish, and mystery garbage.

On this side of the moat was Mahogany Tree Road, where we grew up.

Hongduo’s grandmother was putting out pickled vegetables for curing, the weather was beautiful, and this fine day after a long rainy stretch kept the women frantically busy. Aside from Hongduo’s grandmother, numerous other Mahogany Tree Road women were putting out pickled vegetables to cure. My mother, too, was setting up the poles for the pickles. The sound of the bittern dripping off the pickles outside could be clearly heard inside, as could the hum of the flies drifting down the street, and, in that afternoon lull, I suddenly heard Hongduo’s grandmother chatting with my mother.

Have you seen our Hongduo? Hongduo’s grandmother asked.

Haven’t seen her, she’ll be on the raft, washing the cotton, won’t she? my mother said.

Not a trace of her, and she’s left the washing basin by the door, I don’t know where she’s gone off gallivanting, Hongduo’s grandmother said.

Actually, Hongduo was sitting in my home, at the west window, and there could not be any doubt that she had heard this conversation, though the expression on her face was oddly detached. Ignore her, don’t tell her I’m here, Hongduo said to me. She stretched herself in the rattan chair a few times, then turned her head to look out the window. The afternoon sun flashed off the water surface, refracting onto her forehead and face, lending her skin a beautiful golden hue, sparkling and translucent, showing the fine down of childhood on her features. Only this down reminded me that she was a fourteen-year-old girl.

I hadn’t a clue why Hongduo would be at our place without letting her grandma know. Maybe she had something to tell me, but didn’t know where to start. For a long time now, she had been sitting opposite me, blankly watching me oiling my air gun. I didn’t know what she had to say, she was spacing out in the rattan chair by the western window, and, except for the occasional creaking where the chair was coming apart, she wasn’t bothering me, though I did want to know what she had to tell me.

Take a look outside for me. Is my grandma still at the door? Hongduo asked in an urgent tone, which struck me as funny and abrupt.

What on earth are you up to? I put down the gun in my hands and looked over at Hongduo’s house. Hongduo’s grandmother was by the door, unravelling the gloves, and as usual was placing the cotton threads in the wooden basin, while also shooing off the flies that were drawn to the pickles. I came back and told Hongduo, She’s finished unravelling the gloves, the basin is full of cotton threads, you should go wash them.

No, I won’t, I won’t wash them for her anymore. Hongduo shook her head resolutely, her left hand picking at the nails of her right, and then she lifted her face and said, Go have another look for me, OK? See if Lao Qiu is at home.

What is it? What are you up to? This way of sending me to do her bidding was beginning to annoy me, so I picked up the half-oiled air gun, tapped its paulownia handle, and said, Can’t you see I’m busy? I don’t have time to run errands for you.

Hongduo rose from her chair, surprised by my odious tone, her face had flushed red right away, and, holding the edge of her dress in her hand, she flitted to the back door, her apprehensive glance sliding over my face, finally resting on my air gun, the only one on Mahogany Tree Road. I saw how the girl’s black eyes suddenly flashed, and she said, If only I had an air gun.

Two households lived in the passageway opposite, Hongduo and her mother in the front apartment, and in the back was the roofer Lao Qiu and his family. Apparently, the courtyard had once been part of a nunnery, so there was still a bronze censer by the wall of the inner yard, flanked on either side by a bodhi tree. Few people ever visited either family, since, in the great bustle of Mahogany Tree Road women, Hongduo’s grandmother was the kind who inspired loathing—selfish, garrulous, mischief-making, and she always had a nasty smell about her to boot, coming perhaps from the many years of picking apart filthy, greasy, industrial gloves, or maybe it was something else. In any event no one ever visited Hongduo’s place. Lao Qiu’s place was so desolate, which was evidently on account of his wife, sick with lung cancer, a sallow, haggard woman, her brow permanently clouded with sorrow, sitting during the day on her bamboo couch, constantly spitting into a bowl. At night her coughing was loud and penetrating, audible half a block away.

Lao Qiu was a good man, well-known on Mahogany Tree Road for being helpful, charitable. It didn’t matter whose roof had sprung a leak or whose cable radio was on the fritz, the housewives would all say, Go fetch Lao Qiu to fix it. Lao Qiu was the kind of guy who could do any odd job and would willingly help anyone out. Our own little house had been banged together by Lao Qiu and some of his work friends. When at times my parents bickered over chores around the house, his name would come up, since my mother would say, Just look at Lao Qiu, he’s a man too. If you could just do as much as he can do with his little finger, I’d be happy.

So I was really thrown off the first time I heard bad things being said about Lao Qiu. I didn’t know if there was anything to what Hongduo was saying.

Hongduo was sitting by the west window in our little house, picking at the nails of her right hand with her left, and, after a long time, she picked some dirt from under her nail and flicked it out the window. Hongduo shot me a secretive glance and, finally, said these shocking words:

Lao Qiu’s not a good man. He spies on me in the shower, Hongduo said.

With those words, Hongduo left, holding the corner of her dress in her hand. At her back door she picked up the cotton threads in the basin and headed for the moat. I saw her squatting on a wooden raft, beating the strands with a wooden club, and, seen from a distance and from behind, her posture made her look like a full-grown Mahogany Tree Road woman.

Afterward I couldn’t help telling my mother this secret. My mother’s astonishment turned almost immediately into contempt. That damned girl, my mother said, how dare she slander Lao Qiu? Her family relies entirely on Lao Qiu, he acts like a father to her. He spies on her in the shower, indeed! Nothing but damned lies, just like her grandmother. Everything that comes out of her is nothing but damned lies.

I don’t know what day it started, but Hongduo began to push our back door open at dusk. It seemed like she was using the cotton- washing time to meet me. But there was none of the ordinary puppy love between us, and the whole time this was going on I couldn’t figure out what her game was. A little timid, a little stunned, she sat by the west window, her arms still soiled from the water and giving off a sour soap smell. She fixed her eyes on me, or gazed unswervingly at the moat outside the window, but she didn’t seem to care what I was doing at all, or how the petrol boats and barges moved about. I guess maybe there wasn’t any game. She just wanted to sit at someone else’s window for a while.

Keep your distance, my mother told me. She’s just like her grandmother, so young and yet so devious. That family lies without blushing, every one of them.

Some of the secrets Hongduo divulged were later shown to be lies. Such as her frequently recurring claim that her mother was a doctor at a hospital in Beijing. Such as how her mother was so beautiful, how clean and spotless, and how solicitous and protective of Hongduo. Later I heard with my own ears her grandmother describing a totally different kind of woman, ugly, dissolute, inhumane, dumping her own daughter here and never asking a word about her again. Actually, her mother worked in textiles, and not much over a month after her husband died in a car accident, she had married a man from some other place. Hongduo had also once bizarrely brought up Lao Qiu’s wife’s illness. She said the disease had reached the vital organs and that she was about to breathe her last, and that even if she didn’t die, Lao Qiu would put an end to her. Would you believe it? Hongduo slid her damp fingers across the windowsill; she suddenly ripped her eyes wide open and said to me, Yesterday I saw Lao Qiu brandish a trowel at his woman. He wanted to hack her to death in her sleep. I happened to be on my way to the well to draw water so he didn’t go through with it, but you wait and see, her days are numbered.

A few days later I saw Lao Qiu pushing a handcart down Mahogany Tree Road. His sallow, haggard wife leaned against the quilt as she sat in the handcart, and although the illness showed all over her face, her gaze was still bright and piercing, without the remotest presage of death. Passers-by all stopped to ask about her state of health, and the patient answered, I won’t be any better soon, nor will I die soon. It’s all just a big burden for Lao Qiu. Lao Qiu held the handle and stood in the road, a tired smile on his lean lips. His five coarse fingers nimbly drummed along the handle, making a resonant sound, like a musical instrument. I heard Lao Qiu say, Today is Monday. She has a check-up at the hospital every Monday.

I don’t know why Hongduo lied to me.

For the people of Mahogany Tree Road, there could be no greater sensation than the rumor of Lao Qiu spying on Hongduo in the shower. I once asked Hongduo for some details, such as: When she washed in the kitchen that the two families shared, did her grandmother watch the door for her? Hongduo said, She watches the door for me. She watches the door for me every time I shower.

That’s strange, I continued, scrutinizing Hongduo’s expression. Since your grandmother was standing guard, how could Lao Qiu spy on you?

He spied on me through the window. She stammered conspicuously on this answer.

That still doesn’t make sense. Don’t you pull the curtain when you shower? Besides, the door and the window are side by side in your kitchen, so if Lao Qiu spied on you, how come your grandma didn’t notice?

Hongduo looked at me, startled, her eyes were sad, frightened, seemingly solitary and helpless. I saw her beautiful, generous body gradually growing unsettled; she curled up like a hunted rabbit beneath the west window, her left hand covering her pale cheek, her right hand propping up her ceaselessly trembling lower lip, and after about a minute, I heard her say those even more scandalous words.

I’ll tell you, but you really can’t tell anyone else, Hongduo said. My grandma gets money for it from Lao Qiu. She gets one kuai each time. I looked at the girl by the west window in amazement, still without any inkling of the truth or falsehood of the secret. I remember this was at nightfall in early summer, our little riverbank house was humid and muggy, but Hongduo’s dress, blue pattern on a white background, sparkled blindingly in the glow of the setting sun.

When I think of it now, I realize that I should have kept Hongduo’s secret no matter what, but whether it was because I was immature or something else, I treated the matter as a funny piece of news I could regale people with, and so these private matters of the former nunnery were soon soaring swiftly about Mahogany Tree Road. One day I saw Hongduo’s grandmother running down the stone road after Hongduo. Hongduo ran a few steps, then stopped, picked up the basin with the half-washed cotton threads, and splashed it all out at her grandmother, earning filthy, venomous curses in return. Hongduo now stood on the steps indifferently looking at her grandmother and the other washer women, her grandmother’s invective continuing as she delivered three slaps across Hongduo’s face. I saw it very clearly. Altogether it was three slaps that she gave Hongduo.

Hongduo then fled frantically into our home, stuck her paper-white face to the west window, I could see a bloodstain at the corner of her mouth, she sobbed at the window, she was swearing, but what she said was a complete blur. I knew that her anger now was on account of my disloyalty, but I couldn’t hear who or what she was swearing at. Hongduo wanted to push our back door open, but by then the back door out to the banks of the moat had been nailed shut by my parents.

When the rainy season started, Hongduo had stopped coming to our little house. In those days, the sound of rain in the city never stopped, and the water level in the moat kept rising, and the luxurious growth of the weeds on the banks obscured the ground, which was also covered in tile shards and garbage. Looking out at the rain from the window, from time to time I would catch sight of Hongduo in a smallish plastic raincoat and squatting on the raft, washing the cotton threads, bustling to-and-fro with her basin, and I knew that she would never come take refuge at our place again.

And it was right in this sultry rainy season that Hongduo suddenly turned into a full-grown young woman. One day I saw her and a few other girls coming out of East Wind middle school, and her fulsome body and haughty expression gave me a very strange feeling. When I passed by her on my bike, Hongduo suddenly turned back to look at me, her eyes full of contempt and scorn, and I heard her saying in a world-weary tone to one of her companions, Not a single good person lived on this street.

All of a sudden, I felt terrible, and also felt a loss I didn’t have a name for. The way it looked, Hongduo had thought me the only good person living on this street. I didn’t know on what basis she had come to this judgment. After all, Hongduo was just a fourteen-year-old girl.

Our roof had sprung a leak, the roofer Lao Qiu came by to mend it, and I spent a few midday hours helping him. When Hongduo passed by on the street, swinging her hips, Lao Qiu smashed a grey tile with his trowel, and then gave a sigh and said, That girl Hongduo is always lying. I think there’s maybe something wrong with her head. I remember when Lao Qiu said this, his complexion took on the color of the grey tiles, his brow locked in a frown. He looked despondent and annoyed. When it came to Hongduo, I had no answer to give him, though in my heart I had countless doubts and guesses. It was the first time I heard Lao Qiu make any comment about Hongduo. It was a little bit unexpected, but in a way it also made sense.

Always telling lies, always telling lies, there must be something wrong with her head. Lao Qiu kept saying this as he worked. I noticed that he was dejected and irritable. I didn’t add anything to what he said, because I didn’t know whether what he was saying might be another kind of lie. My previous experience had taught me Mahogany Tree Road residents often lived their lives hiding behind lies and deception.

From our roof we had a clear view of the goings-on of Mahogany Tree Road, but Hongduo had already turned a corner and could no longer be seen, so I could only look at what was going on closer by, namely, the capable and energetic mending of the leak in our roof. The noon sun after the rain shower was scorching and intense. On my right was the moat rising with summer rains, and on the left was the Mahogany Tree Road, wet and narrow and filthy.

It was this same autumn that Hongduo suddenly disappeared from Mahogany Tree Road. Hongduo left the basin brimful of dirty cotton on the raft, but where she herself had gone nobody knew. The following day her grandmother went door-to-door, asking about Hongduo’s whereabouts. Some people along the moat had seen her chatting with a boatman as she washed her cotton, and others had seen her jumping onto a coal barge.

On that day the moat had been closed to navigation because of a blockage, and a number of boats were moored on the banks. From the west window I could see cargo boats large and small, barges and farm junks crowding against the banks, and even as night fell there wasn’t any sign that the passage would be dredged clear, so the people on the boats were just leaning against the masts and eating dinner. I had seen Hongduo on the moat chatting with someone on the boat as she washed the cotton threads, I had heard her piercing, happy laughter, but I didn’t know what jokes the young men on the boats were telling her. That crowd of strangers doubtless had given Hongduo some joy, but I hadn’t seen Hongduo hop onto one of the boats, and I don’t believe what they later said on Mahogany Tree Road, that she jumped onto a coal barge and left with a bunch of strange men. They said they’d never seen a girl with so little self-respect.

Irrespective of what I choose to believe, the fact was that Hongduo had suddenly left. The wash basin was still on the raft, but she was suddenly gone. It was late at night by the time all the boats had dispersed, but Hongduo’s basin of cotton threads still stood on the moat-side raft. The summer night’s moonlight shone on the city’s edge, on this place—sometimes busy, sometimes deserted—while the water gently rocked this only basin full of cotton. The sound of lapping water outside the west window. I noticed that the moon that night was amazingly bright and clear. The moonlight painted Hongduo’s basin with a layer like frost, and it deeply pierced my eyes.

No Mahogany Tree Road resident ever saw Hongduo again.

At first I thought that Hongduo’s story might have ended with a drowning, wondered whether she might have come to an end like one of those children who, splashing about in the water, get stuck under a wooden raft, or a bamboo raft. My view diverged widely from the general opinion, but I was absolutely assailed by all kinds of terrifying but unspeakable imaginings. One day I went down to the river myself and made several dives under that wooden raft where Hongduo had last been seen, hoping to fish something out, but I got nothing, all I managed to fish out were some decaying gloves and threads, and even on them there wasn’t even a whiff of Hongduo left. I guess they were things that Hongduo had lost by accident or burdensome things she had deliberately thrown off, just gloves and cotton threads, no more than that.

Eventually, I had to accept the Mahogany Tree Road’s usual account. In a sense, Hongduo was an even more unfortunate case, a betrayed and abandoned girl: someone had traded her to a passing peddler, someone had sold her to a bunch of passing strangers.

That’s all there was to it. What else are you going to see from the west window?


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