From the short story collection, Vertical Motion
forthcoming in September from Open Letter
When I was at home, I always heard people mention “Gao-ling.” I got the impression that it was a hill, with several long, narrow little streets leading to it. On the hilltop was this city’s largest hospital. People said that Gaoling wasn’t far from my home. The streets were filled with small houses and dilapidated old two-story wooden buildings. The residents were mainly poor laborers. Those people could barely afford coal for cooking, so when the children had time they headed for the main street with brooms and dustpans. As soon as they saw a little coal fall from a rickshaw, they rushed over and brushed it into a dustpan. In talking of Gaoling, this is the way the adults referred to it. I grew more and more curious: What on earth was Gaoling like?
As it happened, one Sunday I was buying stationery in the vicinity of Gaoling. After doing that, I took a small, narrow alley to Gaoling itself. The sun was strong that day, and people were all taking cover in their houses. I saw no one on the narrow asphalt road. I was perspiring. I walked straight to the end of the road and still didn’t see anyone. After I climbed the hill, the road turned and became a downgrade. I hesitated a little and then decided to turn into the area of small, narrow dilapidated houses. It was next to an adobe house that I walked in, and then I immediately saw a filthy public toilet. After passing the toilet, I came to a home where a mourning hall had just been erected. Hanging in the hall were photos of the deceased: it was a sweet-looking girl wearing a red scarf. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen. The coffin hadn’t been carried in yet. I was confused: I’d never seen a funeral for a child. I wanted to stand there and watch, but someone drove me off. Someone’s heavy palm struck me on the back. Enduring the pain, I ran off, almost crying.
“She died of meningitis,” a girl about my age told me.
She looked like an old hand. She had pigtails, and her hands were rough. You could tell by looking at her that she was used to doing housework.
“I don’t dare stay at the mourning hall,” she added, haughtily curling her lips.
I lacked the courage to accost the girl. The atmosphere all around was too secretive, and I wanted to get away. Between two adobe houses there was a narrow path that could accommodate only one person. As I was about to take the path, the girl pulled me back. She was strong: she pulled at me until I nearly fell down.
“It’s a dead end, you fool.”
She wanted me to go with her, and so we circled back to the mourning hall and went past it. Some people were already sitting in the hall: they had begun beating the gongs, and a woman was sobbing. I didn’t know if it was her mother or a relative. We hurriedly put the hall behind us. I asked the girl where we were going. She answered, “The hospital.” I said I wasn’t interested in going to the hospital. She insisted, saying, “The hospital is a lot of fun.”
We scrambled up the hill and finally went through a cobweb-like and densely settled residential area, and reached a level place made of concrete. On one side of it was a high wall. The girl said the hospital was inside the wall. I thought the entrance to the hospital was nearby, but we walked a long time. We walked past the level concrete area and then once more came to the street. We were still at the wall, and we hadn’t seen even a trace of the entrance.
“Let’s rest for a while.” With that, the girl sat down on the ground with her back against the wall. Her head drooped.
I saw her massaging the tiny cracks in her palms. As for me, I was hot and thirsty and wanted to go home.
“The hospital is a lot of fun,” she said again, as if she’d guessed what I was thinking.
At last, we saw an old woman selling popsicles. I wanted to buy one, but she waved us away and said she had sold them all. Noticing my disappointment, the girl giggled. She told me there was a gap in the wall just ahead and we could get into the hospital that way.
After walking a little farther, we saw the gap in the wall and made our way through it. Ahead of us was an old five-story structure. It was a mess in front of the building. Piles of glass test tubes, syringes, and rubber tubes were everywhere. Mixed in with them were numerous glass jars filled with dubious objects that looked a little like human organs.
“There are little children, some living and some dead. Don’t look! Let’s run!” the girl shouted.
She and I ran off together. We ran past several black brick buildings. People were looking out from the windows of each building. These were probably hospital wards. Finally, we reached a garden. The girl threw herself down on the lawn and didn’t move. And I sat down beside her. A profusion of roses formed the border. I had never seen such beautiful large roses. Their strong fragrance immediately dispelled my fatigue and thirst. It was very quiet in the garden: even the buzzing of bees was audible. I thought, this must be the place that the girl had said was so much fun. And actually it was great here; I didn’t want to leave. I shoved the girl. I wanted her to get up and go with me to enjoy the roses, but she didn’t move. And so I circled around the large border several times by myself. It was wondrous—and oh, so pleasant—below the blue sky. The more I looked, the more impatient I was to share this with the girl, so I shoved her again. Finally, she sat up, yawning. Like an adult, she said gravely:
“You fool. Under the flowers are little babies, some living and some dead. You mustn’t poke at the flowers as you look at them. Last week, a girl in the hospital was frightened here and . . .”
She broke off, keeping me guessing. I shoved her hard and asked, “And what? What happened to her? Hurry up and tell me!!”
“She died.” She curled her lips.
“You’re talking nonsense! You’re the one who told me this place was a lot of fun.” All at once, my heart felt empty.
“It is a lot of fun. I didn’t lie. Come on, let’s go look at the flowers together!”
But I didn’t want to go with her. I was afraid she would suddenly part the clump of flowers and make me look at that ghost-like thing. I suggested that we admire the flowers from a distance. Staring at me, she nodded in agreement. Ah, the roses! The roses! In the strong floral fragrance and under the gentle blue sky, I felt that I was in a fairyland! The wards next to the slums were so squalid, and yet a wonderland was hidden here. How could anyone imagine this? It was unusual, too, to have the chance to see such a beautiful lawn—so lush, so green, so clean!
I lay on the lawn, pillowing the back of my head with my hands. It was so pleasant to lie down like this. The girl was standing over me. When she bent down to talk with me, her head looked huge—just like a dustpan.
“Hey, you’re resting your head on three little babies. Two of them are dead. One is still alive. You’ve pinned her legs down.”
I jumped up with a rush. I wanted with all my heart to dash out of this garden that was possessed by evil spirits. From behind, she held onto me by my clothes and wouldn’t let me go. She even tripped me, wanting to make me fall.
“Look at the flowers, look at the flowers! You aren’t looking at the flowers.”
I felt wronged, and tears welled up in my eyes and spilled out. Through teary eyes, I saw large roses swirling all over the sky, and so I gradually calmed down. I stood there foolishly and gazed at the roses. The girl surreptitiously placed a soft, cold thing in my hand; she wanted me to hang onto it. Flustered, I threw the thing off and swung my arms for all I was worth. I felt something moist on my hand.
“Why are you so jumpy? It’s just a twig!” she said.
The wind stopped blowing, and the roses fell slowly to the lawn—one rose here, another there, trembling as if they were alive. I looked closely at my palm and finally saw that it was clean; nothing dirty was there. So I relaxed and took careful steps to avoid trampling the beautiful roses. The girl’s voice echoed in my ears—tender, yet stiff; fervent, yet frosty. Such an unearthly voice—
“In the slums of Gaoling, a girl died next to the hospital, and in the hospital there are borders of roses . . . Shhh. Quiet, quiet! We’ve come out. Look, here’s the gap in the wall.”
As the girl and I walked on the blazing asphalt road, it was almost twilight. The old woman selling popsicles had gone home.
We parted at the intersection, each of us surprised by the other’s presence.