From The Imagined Land
The editorial team of Latin American Literature Today is happy to bring our readers exclusive previews of upcoming works of Latin American literature in translation. In this issue, we feature a preview of The Imagined Land by Eduardo Berti, translated by Charlotte Coombe, which will be published by Deep Vellum on May 15, 2018. We wish to thank Deep Vellum for their collaboration with LALT; visit their official website to learn more about this outstanding press:
“Deep Vellum is a 501c3 nonprofit literary arts organization founded in 2013 in Dallas’s historic cultural neighborhood of Deep Ellum, with the goal of bringing cultures into conversation, to share stories, build connections, and grow empathy. Our mission is threefold: to publish award-winning, diverse international literature in original English-language translations; to promote the craft, discussion, and study of literary translation; and to cultivate a more vibrant, engaged literary arts community both locally and nationally.”
From The Imagined Land (Excerpt 1):
The new sun illuminated the first day of the new year. We had been awake all night, as was customary on the danian-ye. Then at dawn, we had devoted the first hours—the hours of the long shadows—to visiting our dearest neighbours to wish them a good year, or at least a better year than the one just gone. Many of them gave us a gift of two small cloth bags, each containing a coin—one for my brother, one for me—and all of them wished the same thing to my father: for grandmother’s death to bring peace to the heart of the family and to ward off any other deaths.
When the first sun of the new year reached its highest point in the sky, it did not find us unprepared. Outside our house, in the courtyard half-shaded by an awning, we had laid out the objects ready for the light of the chu-yi. There were mattresses and tablecloths for the sun’s rays to caress, and also the oldest books, the ones with pages as yellowed as autumn leaves, so that the first wind, the first air of the new year would purify them and prevent them from deteriorating by chasing away any insects living among their pages. According to my father, the insects preferred certain words and knew how to seek them out in the oldest books, until they had devoured them. Many of the neighbouring families used to mock these old beliefs and ancient rituals. They thought them obsolete and ineffective; but my parents were very superstitious, my father more so than my mother, and his adherence to tradition seemed to have re-intensified since grandmother’s death.
That day, my father put my brother and me in charge of selecting the books and carrying them outside, while my mother was busy draping sheets over a length of bamboo cane. She hung up not just the ones we had been using on the final day of the year, but also all the folded sheets stored in cupboards, and Li Juangqing (who was more than simply a cook, but not quite a governess) followed suit with the four or five tablecloths we owned.
At the time, it seemed logical to me that we only owned white fabrics, but now that decades have passed, I wonder what compulsion prevented us from covering the beds and tables of our home with any other colour. I like to think that the books made up for the lack of colour, the classic editions discreetly bound in solemn leather in measured hues of emerald green or cherry red, sky blue, grey, or ochre. I liked the contrast of the sheets and tablecloths strung up, with the books piled up beneath them. My brother, however, could not get on with books at all: he lacked that blend of dedication and curiosity required to be a good reader. Or perhaps it was the turbulent age he was at, which prevented him from sitting down and applying himself to reading. My brother was seventeen; I was coming up for fourteen. My brother’s blood was pulsing in a way I could not yet comprehend, but which fascinated me, the way one is mesmerised watching the choppy waves of a raging sea.
After grandmother died, my father forbade us from going into her bedroom. No blood relatives were allowed to enter her room until forty-nine days had passed since her death. There were still sixteen days to go until they lifted the veto, and as every six days my father would oblige us to hold a ceremony with the aim of banishing the soul of the dead woman, there were still two ceremonies left to go.
In the meantime, Li Juangqing was allowed to go into the room to clean. I confess that I was relieved to be forbidden from going in: my grandmother had suffered a long agony and I was the one who had to attend to her in her final moments. I could not shake the image from my head. It had all happened right there, in the bed we were still calling her deathbed. My grandmother had been ill for too long; I could not say since when exactly, but I remember that many things had happened while she was shrinking away beneath the bed sheets, becoming weaker and more wrinkled, the pain gradually eating away at her. The day my father brought a rabbit home, my grandmother was laid up in bed. The day the rabbit escaped and we had to turn the house upside down until we found it inside my father’s left boot, my grandmother was still in bed. The night when my brother had a kind of nightmare, took a few steps like a sleepwalker and chipped half of his tooth by colliding with a door, my grandmother was still alive but had worsened considerably. I could list ten or maybe twelve episodes that I associate with my grandmother dying, as she lay face up on that bed.
Why was I the one, at the meagre age of thirteen, in charge of looking after her? There were a number of reasons: because my grandmother and Li Juangqing had never seen eye to eye; because my brother was going through a turbulent time as I have mentioned, and my father and mother did not view him as a very reliable nurse; because my father worked incessantly and was not at home very often; because I am a woman and it is preferable to have a woman looking after a sick old lady who was frequently in a state of undress. My mother had originally been the one assigned to looking after her, and was probably doing it most efficiently, until she made a mistake. Thinking that my grandmother was asleep, she told a visiting friend that her mother was not actually sick, but just old. My grandmother overheard her, and took grave offence. She forbade her from entering her room, or rather, from going in there on her own. Since my mother was the one who fed, cleaned, and attended to her needs, including massaging her back and feet, (tasks she was very skilled at) my presence was required. I was like a key that my mother needed in order to step over the threshold.
I do not think my grandmother ever forgave my mother for not viewing her as ill and she died with that resentment in her heart. We talked about it once, out of earshot of everyone else. My grandmother was not in denial about her old age. Of course not. She did, however, defend the right to feel ill.
I have the same rights as a young woman, don’t I? she asked, nodding in agreement at her own words, not really caring about my opinion on the matter.
As the death of my grandmother drew nearer (we could all see it coming, although we did not know when, or wish to talk about it), my mother pulled further away from her and my father drew closer. During an intermediate stage, in a period of transition that lasted a couple of weeks, I found myself alone for the first time with this woman, who was still my father’s mother and had lately started to show, due to her dramatic weight loss, a jaw that was identical to her son’s.
In the final three weeks with my grandmother, everything we did was reduced to a kind of exercise that I had recently initiated; a sort of mental gymnastics to prevent her memory from stagnating. What’s your son called, grandmother? I would ask. What’s your brother’s name? She always answered correctly, although sometimes after a concerted effort, and sometimes with a look that seemed to say, but isn’t my brother dead? Or, but my son’s still alive, isn’t he? Maybe it was unwise of me to mix up the living and the dead, but then again, this was the same woman who just a few years ago used to regale me with a repertoire of at least thirty ghost stories.
The day came when my grandmother answered the question about her brother’s name incorrectly. This happened the following day, and the day after. Not long after that, came the day when she could not answer any of the questions correctly. That day she also did something unexpected. She asked me to open a drawer and pass her a tiny object wrapped in a rectangle of red silk. I did as I was told. It seemed for all the world—and it was impossible not to conclude as such—as if I was carrying out her final wishes. She unfolded the silk with trembling hands.
This is yours and always has been, she said, looking me straight in the eye.
It was a collar, also red. I immediately understood: it was the rabbit’s collar. The rabbit that one day had hidden itself away in my father’s boot and that, weeks later had disappeared from the house without a trace. My brother said that my father had killed the rabbit to give the meat to his friend Gu Xiaogang. I remember going to my father and asking him if this was true (without letting on that the information had come from my brother). He immediately denied it. Yet a day later, Li Juangqing made another remark to the same effect. Now my grandmother, dusting off the collar, seemed to be tipping the balance to the detriment of my father.
Concerned that all the signs seemed to be pointing to one thing—what with her forgetting names and then suddenly remembering the collar—I decided to talk to my mother. To my amazement, she barely batted an eyelid. A doctor had visited at midnight while my brother and I were sleeping and told them that grandmother had only hours left to live.
Unusually for him, my father stayed at home that day. In the morning he shut himself away to work. In the afternoon, at almost the exact moment it started to rain, my mother and I undressed grandmother and dressed her again in clean clothes, ready for death. We then went to look for my father. Grandmother was delirious, or something like that. My father appeared with my brother and we spent a long time in silence, while the pattering rain seemed to speak to the dying woman in a secret language; a language as secret as the one she had taught me unbeknownst to my parents and my brother.
With my grandmother only minutes away from death, my father whisked her pillow away and swiftly left the room.
My mother did not follow him. She looked at my brother, then smiled at me. We had not dared to move. She explained to us that grandmother needed to depart peacefully. She had to be in a straight, horizontal position. A dying person should also never be able to see their feet. This was something my grandmother always used to say in her ghost stories.
As for the pillow—the one she had rested her head on during her long agony, but which had not received her final breath—it remained on our sloping roof for months afterward, pinned down with a few nails to stop the wind from blowing it away so that the birds could peck at it, as was traditional. The pillow relentlessly decayed and—along with the sheets, tablecloths, and books—fell victim to the brilliant warmth of the first sun.
She asks me why I have come. I reply that I am slightly worried.
About me? she says.
No, I explain. Your future is the least of my worries. What worries me is your brother.
Then she tells me she does not understand why I am visiting her, and that perhaps I would be better off visiting his dreams.
I tell her that I am not free to choose, that I go wherever I am called.
And your brother is busy dreaming about other things, I say, laughing.
But I didn’t summon you.
Of course you did! I say loudly. There’s no doubt about that, and anyway, I admit, I wanted to see you.
See me? she says. But I can’t see you, and that’s not fair.
The one who dreams is the one who sees, isn’t that the way it should be?
I feel like I should clarify that there is a mistake in there. The one who is dreamed about is the one who sees. The one who dreams thinks they have seen something, but they only think that because of the images their mind creates when they wake up.
There is a silence, and as she has no proof of my existence apart from my voice, she asks me to say something.
Without hesitation, I tell her I miss her. Then I ask her to tell me the same thing.
I miss you, she says. Are you going to come often?
I don’t know, because it’s not up to me. I’ll come when you summon me, that’s for sure, and while this is still unresolved.
This? she asks. Your bird? My brother?
I do not answer.
Grandmother, are you there? Grandmother?
Although I try, I cannot be completely silent. I know she can hear the rasping sound of my breathing.
From The Imagined Land (Excerpt 2):
Marrying off my brother became, in short, my parents’ main obsession; out of pride and necessity but also—as I already mentioned—because my mother thought that he was getting a bit old. My father did not agree with the latter (he had married my mother just after he turned twenty) but he did not object, because all he wanted was to find a beautiful daughter-in-law as soon as possible, one who would not only make Gu Xiaogang squirm with envy, but even more so Gu Xiaogang’s wife. He saw her as the true author of the betrayal and this gave him the perfect reason to exonerate his friend (it was not Gu who was bad, rather it was due to the poisonous influence of his wife). It also made him feel superior to Gu (Gu Xiaogang’s wife tells him what to do, but in my house, I give the orders). This served as a feeble consolation for his wounded pride.
If my father had been looking for a wife for my brother, instead of the finest wife, he could have found her in the blink of an eye. The country was becoming militarised; many young men were already dying in the skirmishes with the Japanese army. Although the war was still a long way off, both in terms of time and distance, some of the neighbouring families’ sons had decided to enlist. Many of them used this as an excuse to escape their old-fashioned or oppressive families. As a result, there were two or three women to every single man. This disparity was likely to increase because of what many called the ‘female tide’, the rising birth rate of women. It was futile for parents to resort to such legendary methods as, for example, giving women men’s names. Perhaps nature or the gods—which some people, I know, believe to be the same thing—were sending future mothers to balance out the soldiers who were soon to die.
Time passed quickly, much to the anguish of my mother, who every so often would put forward the name of another young woman and watch my father immediately rule her out. My father was on the verge of becoming an expert at saying ‘no’ and, like all experts, he used varied and compelling arguments, each one with crushing simplicity. The dangerous thing, which my mother soon came to realise, was that he increasingly came to enjoy this role of impugner, as if parodying his friend Gu Xiaogang on a large scale. With every candidate that he ruled out—and I cannot deny that many of them deserved a firm refusal—my father was healing the wounds caused by Gu’s rejection. The candidates had no idea that my father had disapproved of them (and the parents of the candidates knew even less), since the whole process was confined to a hypothetical game. It began with my mother suggesting a specific name and ended with my father ruling the girl out, time after time.
While not giving up on proposing further candidates, my mother was despairing and often let off steam by talking to Li Juangqing. I tried not to miss these chats, which were my main source of information; although Li Juangqing usually filled me in—never my brother—on what was bothering my mother.
It took a colossal effort to stop myself from telling Li Juangqing or my mother that I had already found the dream girl for my brother. This was of course the daughter of Liu Feihong, the blind man who sold all kinds of birds at the market closest to our house. By that, I mean live birds, not the chickens, ducks, partridges, or other poultry sold at several places nearby.
Liu Feihong's daughter was the most exquisite creature I had ever seen in my life, but even so, she was not ideal—and never would be—for my father because she was poor, very poor, like the perfect heroine in a tragic novel. Her mouth, her nose, her eyes, her neck, her hands, her arms were perhaps nothing out of the ordinary if you assessed them individually—like in Gu Xiaogang’s poem, almost as an examination of beauty; yet the sum of the parts was nothing short of miraculous, and was helped, I now think, by the suggestive curve of her eyebrows and the unusual colour of her skin, which was neither yellowish nor typically western, but the colour of the moon.
Today when I try to recall that face with its brilliantly whitish complexion, images of the actress Ruan Lingyu come to mind, all of them without exception in black and white, because Liu Feihong’s daughter looked like she had stepped out of one of those old movies full of creatures with lunar skin. There was a difference, however. At that time, there were coloured photographs of Ruan Lingyu and other famous actresses in circulation. The original black and white photos were carefully painted over, particularly on the lips and the cheeks. I do not deny that the retouching did more justice to the real appearance of each actress, but it also spoiled the magic and, in my opinion, the ‘real’ Ruan Lingyu (even in artificial colours) was much less striking than the ‘artificial’ one in black and white.
Nothing like that could happen with Liu Feihong’s daughter. She had such a fabulously authentic paleness that, between a black and white photograph of her, and her real image, the only discrepancy would be in her clothing, not the colour of her skin. Did this mean that the blind man’s daughter was more beautiful than Ruan Lingyu?
Nowadays, with joyful subjectivity, I could speculate that she was. She genuinely possessed what Ruan Lingyu or other actresses achieved artificially (I am talking about black and white cinema, but also about rice powder). Ruan Lingyu was also at the height of her beauty—by the way, who was to predict that a couple of years later she would commit suicide?—while without any makeup at all, Liu Feihong’s daughter was showing the very first glimmer of her splendour. In time she would become even more beautiful.
I might have reasoned that if I liked Liu Feihong’s daughter so much and she was so poor, then there was nothing to lose by mentioning her in the presence of my parents. With nothing to lose, what harm was there in putting her name on the list of candidates that my father mercilessly ripped apart? The answer is just that; I did not want her to be yet another name on any list, even less for my father to blithely dispatch her in the offhand way he had already dismissed dozens of girls.
My father’s decisions and opinions had always been sacred to me, even when what he decreed prevented me from doing what I wanted. When that happened I would get angry, protest loudly, or retreat into silent hostility, but I never questioned my father’s power. If anything cracked, it was my will (my ‘impulsiveness’ as my mother would say, springing to my father’s defence, as she nearly always did) and under no circumstances his sacred authority. However, at that moment, months after Gu’s final visit, seeing my father taking so much delight in rejecting young women started to have an unexpected effect on me: for the first time I was aware of his humanity; for the first time I understood the fragility and frailty behind so much of what he did. In that context, the simple idea of putting forward the blind man’s daughter was almost a sacrifice. My father saying ‘no’ to her would be the same as—if not worse than—him rejecting me.
What is the most valuable object in the world? she wants to know.
A dead blackbird, I say.
A dead blackbird? she replies. And how many gold taels is that worth?
Exactly, I say. Nobody can tell you the price of it, and that is why it’s invaluable.
She remembers a story I told her once. I must have told her about two hundred stories, but I have forgotten all of them.
I am touched by the fact that now it is the other way round; now she is telling me something in the darkness, making my words her own.
A blackbird happens upon a palace and the nobleman who lives there entertains him with the finest music and the finest wine. The blackbird, despite all of this, is sad and bemused. Obliged to do so by the nobleman, he drinks a few drops of the wine and does not dare to miss a note of the raucous music. Days later, the blackbird is found dead in the palace gardens. What happened? The nobleman does not understand. A wiseman gives him a simple explanation: You entertained the blackbird as you would have liked to be entertained, but not as the blackbird would have liked.
I met Liu Feihong and his daughter two or three days after my grandmother’s death. It was before the twenty-fourth day of the last moon, when the portrait of the household god is burned and replaced by another to last the next year. It was usually my grandmother who burned the portrait, with the same conviction with which she assiduously wrote a message for my grandfather (her dead husband) and set it on fire to send it to the afterlife. To the imagined land. This is what she used to call death.
My grandmother had a white blackbird that she kept in a cage with thick iron bars and a kind of wire mesh over it. Like other elders in the city—many of whom were friends from the past—some mornings my grandmother went to the shores of a lake where you would always see birds that were bright yellow in colour except for their black heads and tails. She went there with her blackbird, as did hundreds of elders from the city or even from neighbouring villages. They took the opportunity to sit and warm themselves in the sun.
Seeing her shuffling along, watching her leaving the house carrying the birdcage, filled me with tenderness and admiration. My grandmother was no longer physically fit and I was astonished that she undertook those pilgrimages when her feet (unlike mine) had been deformed by being bound as a child. They were so disfigured that on the one and only occasion when she dared to show them to me, they reminded me of mutilated hands. But my grandmother had learned to live on these feet and, taking reasonable breaks, she never went more than two weeks without taking her cage down to the lake.
Fortunately, her blackbird did not weigh much and the cage was portable and light; unlike those who showed off their obese birds in cages bordering on ostentatious. The cages said more about the old people than the birds did: there were cages made of iron or wire, bamboo or various kinds of wood; they were stripped or decorated, round or square; they had hooks that were twisted, long or short, some were practical to carry, others not so much...
The wisest of them preferred wooden cages, and an ebony cage was not the same as a rosewood one, because the choice was dependent on crucial details: the size or shape of the bird’s wings, for example, or even the sound of the bird’s song.
The variety of cages could be best appreciated when they were all hanging from the branch of a tree next to the lake, with all the birds inside, almost all of them covered by a blue cloth.
The excursions to the lake had a clear purpose: so that the bird (the white blackbird, in my grandmother’s case) would sing better every day or, at least, so that it would not stop singing. There were two favoured methods for achieving this. The first involved rowing around the lake in a hired boat, with the cage on your lap. These outings were reputed to drastically improve the bird’s singing. As my grandmother was no longer in any fit state to row (there were some old people who did, with the cage balanced on their knees), occasionally my father would accompany her, strengthening his arm muscles by doing the rowing. For the other method, my grandmother did not need my father or anybody else. It involved hanging the cage up with the others by the lakeside so that the birds could sing in unison, or so that in the intervening silence, the caged birds could hear the magnificent melodies of the creatures that inhabited that place: those very bright yellow birds with a splash of black. They were not only beautiful to look at, but also to listen to. Among them were several ‘master birds’ whose primary virtue was training other birds with their fine display of warbling.
When my grandmother fell ill and had to stay in bed, her white blackbird plunged into an unyielding silence. She deduced that it was because the outings to the lake had stopped. Her doctor was opposed to her leaving her bed, and my grandmother had neither the desire nor the energy to do so. She had already completely lost the sight in her left eye and wore a patch because the light bothered her. She tried to convince herself that this was something temporary and went on smoking her only cigarette of the day at five o’clock in the afternoon as if everything was normal, but looking at her, it was impossible to believe that only a few days before she had been able to walk with the cage all the way to the lake of the singing birds and back again.
My mother, who was still speaking to my grandmother at that point, offered to take the cage to the lake. The offer came at a price for her: walking with a birdcage in our city was synonymous with old age. My mother, who was what you would call ‘middle-aged’, did not know what scared her more: being rejected by the circle of old people (and not helping my grandmother) or being accepted as one of the elderly. I have come to suspect that she asked me to go with her as a way of showing that she was a mother, not a grandmother. In any case, what happened in the end was a combination of the options she dreaded: the old people received us with astonishment, but without hostility. My mother explained that she was coming on behalf of the blackbird’s owner, and everyone was very sorry to hear that my grandmother had fallen ill, but at the same time, it was to be expected.
We’re old, said a man who had no teeth, but still had a full head of hair. Some of us with no children or family have already appointed a guardian to take care of the bird, just in case.
Going to the lake did not have the desired result. The blackbird still refused to sing. We went two more times, but in vain. My grandmother began to worry. My father began to worry. It was Li Juangqing, who was always in the know, who told us about the blind man. She told us that at the market there was a bird seller, known as Liu Feihong, who apparently had a gift that was common among the blind (feeling the bones of the arm and foretelling the future), but who also had an extraordinary knowledge of birds. At first my mother would hear nothing of it, but soon my grandmother died and my father, affected by the ill-fated silence of the blackbird, thought that although it had been impossible to save grandmother there was no reason to give up on her bird. The mission of going to the market therefore fell to my mother; and she went with me, not with Li Juangqing, because by that point, after the excursions to the lake, we were like accomplices in the matter.
I rarely went to the market and my mother never went. It was Li Juangqing’s world, the world of wood, rice, oil, and salt, as my grandmother used to call housekeeping. But that day, as my mother wanted my company and nobody else’s, Li Juangqing simply drew a map for us showing the location of Liu Feihong’s stall. The map was so well drawn that there was no way we could get lost.
At the market you could buy everything: porcelain wares, bottles of sweet wine, rice liqueurs, new or second-hand rugs, lemons piled high in yellow mountains, purple and red flowers, coal and firewood, eggs of all sizes, live eels, and all manner of ready-prepared dishes...
Liu Feihong’s stall was not in the most accessible area, but a little further away, close to the man who sold the strong-smelling tofu, a factor which greatly reduced the clientele around there. Nevertheless, we found him and saw that what Li Juangqing had told us was true: the blind man sold special bird feed (with milled rice, flour, and grated radish), and had cages containing all kinds of birds, from hwameis to parrots, from a lark to a pair of nightingales. The only birds he did not have were mythical birds, such as the jingwei that dreams of filling the ocean with rocks, the dong-zhen that can distinguish lies from truth, or the jian that has only one eye and one wing and flies around in circles looking for its other half.
While my mother talked to the blind man, I became aware of the presence of his daughter.
I had never seen such a beautiful girl in my life. There is no room for mythical birds here, I thought. She was the only extraordinary creature.
I was thinking this when, rather abruptly, Liu Feihong unhooked a cage containing a white blackbird just like my grandmother’s, albeit a little smaller.
This is what I would recommend, he said, almost in a whisper. My mother did not like what Liu Feihong was suggesting. It was like a healer prescribing an expensive medicine that only he knew how to prepare. Did we really need to buy another blackbird, and moreover, a white one? Or did Liu Feihong just want to sell us one of his rarest birds? As if reading my mother’s thoughts, the blind man calmly added that he knew buying a white blackbird was not something you did every day. It was, I suppose, for the nouveau riche like Mr Gu. Not for my family. Before spending that amount we would weigh it up as if we were buying a car.
He advised her to take the blackbird for a few weeks. A sort of loan, if you will, said the blind man, and only then did I notice that his accent was from the north. If it doesn’t work, Madam, bring it back to me. If it does work, pay me for those weeks and then we will see if you want to buy it or not. How does that sound? Do we have a deal?
Liu Feihong was a slip of a man who looked old before his time; but if you studied him more closely, it was easy to see that as a young man he would have had attractive features. Liu Feihong’s wife, who was not blind and appeared to be about ten years younger, had an undeniable beauty, although nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps the daughter had inherited her beauty, as is often the case, from one of her grandparents?
I could not say for sure how they concluded the negotiation. I had suddenly gone completely deaf, as if in the presence of a blind man it was only polite to lose one of your senses; and my eyes were for Liu Feihong’s daughter alone. If I had been less bewildered, I would have heard her father calling her by name: Xiaomei. But I only found out this fact months later. That morning, all I could do was stare at her. I was brimming with questions whose answers I was almost glad not to know, since I felt that the mystery and the slow unveiling of each one promised to be exciting. How old was the blind man’s daughter? What did her voice sound like? How did she move when she walked? How would she look with her hair tied back and her ears uncovered? While my mother negotiated a price for the bird (while she negotiated a wife for my grandmother’s bird), I said to myself that here, in flesh and blood, was the perfect girl for my brother, or, without any exaggeration, the perfect girl for any young man. It was true that Xiaomei’s loose-fitting dress hardly gave away anything about the shape of her body, but her wrists, her neck, the little that you could see, all implied that her body was as exquisite as her face. It was true that she was wearing shoes and you could not see if her feet had been previously bound; but Xiaomei’s hands were so impossibly pale and delicate that Mr Gu would have run into serious difficulties if he tried to devote a verse of his poetry to them.
Within a few days, and as if by magic, my grandmother’s bird recovered his vocation as a singer. This made Liu Feihong’s aura grow. My mother began to speak of him in the presence of my father, who uttered his name with a curious respect, as if he were a doctor or a wiseman who had healed grandmother. The fact that they were talking about Liu Feihong (and that, in the end, my family would keep the hired blackbird), meant that the existence of his daughter might also be mentioned. To my dismay, neither my mother nor Li Juangqing ever let slip that Xiaomei was attractive. Any allusion to her was only ever a fleeting or marginal remark: she was mentioned because she was the blind man’s daughter; they talked about her as one might discuss an addendum, without giving her a leading role. I saw this as an unfair paradox, because as I have already said, Xiaomei looked like the actress Ruan Lingyu who was always cast as the protagonist. At the same time, I was relieved that this was how things were, for I had just made one of those discoveries, which although unexpected, was not entirely unpleasant. Whenever my mother or father talked about the blind man, I immediately became nervous and, even worse, if the conversation turned to Xiaomei (or, strictly speaking, to four words: ‘the blind man’s daughter’), it was impossible to prevent my cheeks from reddening.
If someone had told me then that I was in love with Xiaomei, I would have burst out laughing. I saw her as a role model: the girl I wanted to be, and the girl I wanted at my brother’s side.
I was so taken by her smile that I started practicing it in front of the mirror until I had perfected it. I am not sure if this equates to love, but as soon as we arrived home with the bird we had hired, in the cage we had bought (the blind man explained very courteously that the agreement did not include the cage), from that morning on, I started going to the market as often as I could, to see Xiaomei. I made up various excuses to offer to accompany Li Juangqing. If she did not need to go, as was sometimes the case, or if she rejected my company (because I understood later on, the market was often her alibi for her personal affairs), then I would make my own way to the market, cautiously, making sure never to go down certain streets that were reputed—and for good reason I believe—to be dangerous places for little girls.
Translated by Charlotte Coombe