This is an excerpt from my translation of Dong Xi's Record of Regret. It came out earlier this year as part of the Chinese Literature Today series at University of Oklahoma Press.
In this section, narrated by Ceng Guangxian to a bar hostess, it's the height of the Cultural Revolution and Xiao Chi, Baijia and Guangming, classmates of Guangxian, have signed up to join a production team in the countryside. Xiao Chi, who tried to seduce Guangxian only to be turned down, went down to the countryside because she thought Guangxian would join her. He turns her down once again but then finds himself traveling to the village where she has been sent, only to discover that it's probably too late...
She said: "We're going to harvest rice tomorrow. I can't sit up with you all night."
I told her: "I came all this way to see you. I didn't even plan on it. I was just walking by the train station and got on. I barely made it here." She looked up, studying me suddenly, as if looking for something she had lost. I said: "I was too stupid to understand before. I'm sorry."
"What's the use of saying sorry now?" She put a few roasted sweet potatoes in a plastic bag. "You should go. You might miss the bus back to town."
"You haven't told me what happened."
"Everything that was supposed to happen already happened. You can't change it now."
"If you don't tell me, I'll go ask Baijia and Guangming."
"What do you want from me?" She took a sheet of plastic and wrapped a flashlight in it. "It's time to go. Don't make trouble for me here. I'll tell you everything on the way."
We took the flashlight and the sweet potatoes and went out onto the muddy road. The clothes that had just roasted dry in front of the stove were soaked through within minutes. For a while before she spoke, there was no sound except for our shoes in the mud and the hiss of rain. She said she didn't know what had made her fall for me. She said that maybe it was my curly hair, which made me look a bit like a foreigner, or maybe it was something else. She thought for a while and said that maybe it was the way I smelled. We'd always been told that the capitalist class stunk . . . So maybe my body odor carried some trace of that scent. I must have been right about the handkerchief, I thought. She must have been smelling my sweat on it.
We went by the village of Niutangao and the tall sycamore that stood at its entrance. Xiao Chi asked me: "Do you remember the day I left?"
"Do you remember how I looked out the train window and waved?"
"You were waving to your mom and dad."
"I begged them to let me stay in the city. They couldn't help me. I was waving at you."
"I couldn't tell."
"Are you kidding me? I even called your name. I told you to write me. I could tell you didn't hear me, so I said it again and I saw you nod. I saw you wave back at me. Don't lie to me."
"Then why did you wave? Why did you nod your head?"
"I saw you! If you won't admit it, that's fine. I'm not going to keep talking."
I hadn't nodded or waved at her, but I finally said: "Fine, fine, fine."
She'd ended up in the countryside, waiting for her first letter to arrive. She had run out to check the mailbox every day to see if there was a letter from me. Baijia and Guangming got letters, but she received none.
A single letter was all that she wanted. Even though food was sparse, she would have given up a meal in exchange for a letter. Baijia and Guangming waved their letters in front of her face, so she could see the names of their female classmates. While they read their letters, she went outside and looked at the trees on the ridge, imagining that I was somewhere out there. She finally gave up and took the bus down to town. She wrote a letter to herself and signed my name. She apologized, as me, and told herself she was beautiful. In the letter she wrote, I proposed to her. She wrote her name at the top of it, then went back and wrote "Dear" in front. If I had just sent the first letter I wrote, she probably would have gotten it around the time she wrote her own. But I never sent it. All those letters had piled up under the bamboo mat on my bed. If I hadn't been so stupid . . . She started riding the bus to town to send herself letters. Every trip, twisting on mountain roads and bumping over muddy roads, she got violently carsick. The scenery of the mountains was as beautiful as that essay in the newspaper had described it, but she could barely see it. Eventually she gave up. She held the letters she had written to herself and cried. Finally, she burned them. She told herself that she would stop missing me.
When she arrived in Guli, Guangming and Baijia had been taken to live in Captain Wang's home. Captain Wang sent Xiao Chi to live by herself in a concrete hut a short distance away. It was, he said, better for a girl to stay by herself. The hut was a simple concrete box, dark and cold inside. That first night, she had stayed awake under the mosquito net, shivering. She thought she heard footsteps outside and went to the window, but didn't dare to look out. She wished she had a man to sit with her, to hold her hand. She decided that she would marry the first man who came to save her. She didn't care how old he was or what he looked like. The sound of footsteps came again, nearer now. She was lightheaded with fear. She yanked the door open and ran out of the hut - straight into the footsteps. A voice said: "Settle down. I'm here to watch your door."
Everyone working on the production team was assigned a job. If they were digging, everyone had a patch of earth to dig. When they finished digging their own section, they sat down and watched the other workers dig their patches. On her first day, Xiao Chi had been handed a hoe and given a section to work. She had never held a hoe before. By the end of the first day, her hands were covered in blisters. The next day, she was given the same tool and another patch to work. The blisters ripped open on the shaft of the hoe, drenching her hands in blood. The pain was so horrible that she felt as if she were working with a knife that she was holding by the blade. She couldn't complain; she would be criticized by the other workers. The whole point of coming to the countryside was to experience the hardship of the poor farmer. At first, some of the other workers would give her a hand. She fell behind again and again. Finally, most of them stopped offering to help. But one person continued to help her, even when the other workers laughed at him. He was the same one who had come to her door that night and kept watch. She was thankful for him. She thought that Chairman Mao had sent a man to look after her on the production team.
One day he came into her hut and told her that he wanted to get serious with her. She shook her head. Even though he had helped her and protected her, she turned him down because she was still in love with me, and she didn't want to marry a man from the countryside and be stuck there forever. She always used me as an excuse, saying she was in love with a man in the city. She even showed him the letters that she had written to herself with my name on them. But he said: "If he really loves you, why doesn't he come here to see you? Why is he just sending these letters?" He wasn't discouraged by her refusal. He kept helping her. He carried water for her, chopped wood, and washed clothes. He went to the market in town and brought her back brown sugar.
Two days before my letter arrived, a heavy rain had begun to fall. When she went back to her room after work, tired and hungry, all of the firewood was soaked. She filled the stove and tried to light a fire. The stove belched white smoke, but the fire would not stay lit. Tears began to stream down her face. It was hard to separate the tears of pain from the tears caused by smoke in her eyes. Just as she was about to give up, the man came to her hut and helped her light the fire with a drop of kerosene from the lamp. She looked up at him with amazement, as if she had just seen the birth of fire itself. She stood up and fell into his arms. It wasn't that amazing, really: he had merely used kerosene to light some wet firewood. But she hadn't thought of it herself. From then on, she always used kerosene and a match. She'd once cried and sweated over the wet firewood. Learning the method was a blessing.
Maybe it was fate that my letter arrived right after that night. If it had come only a few days earlier, maybe she wouldn't have fallen into his arms so easily. If I hadn't forgotten to put a stamp on the envelope, if I had sent the first letters I'd written . . .
The sky was just lightening when we arrived at the Bala People's Commune. The minibuses outside the Revolutionary Committee office were waiting, driverless. From a PA above us, announcements intermittently echoed down the muddy roads. We sat down on the stairs outside the office. I asked: "Who is he?"
"I don't want to tell you yet."
"Is it Baijia? Guangming?"
She shook her head.
"He's a farmer?"
She shook her head.
"Do I still have a chance?"
"No, I've already . . ."
"Already what? Slept with him?"
She frowned. She said: "That's none of your business."
"I'm not going back. I'm going to stay here with you. I'll join the production team."
"Forget it. I told you to sign up. You said you didn't want to go to the countryside."
I felt a lump in my throat. My tears came freely, mixing with the rain on my cheeks. She said: "You're still a child. What are you crying about? It won't help. All my tears couldn't bring you here." That only made me cry harder. It made me feel better, though. She turned her back to me. "There are lots of girls in the city," she said. "I'm sure you can find someone better than me."
"I only want you."
"You can't have me. I can't just split myself in two. You have to go. I need to get to work." She left me there, holding the bag of sweet potatoes. I called after her, but she kept walking until she disappeared into the rain.
Are you getting tired of this story yet? Let's take a break. Sorry, I forgot to bring cigarettes. I didn't know you smoked. Order a pack, it's fine. As long as you're listening, I'll keep going. Order another plate of fruit.
When I got back to the city, I took all the unsent letters from under the bamboo mat on my bed. I put them in envelopes and put two stamps on each envelope. The way I did it, I put one on the back and one on the front. Even if one stamp fell off, the other one would still be there. I went out and mailed all the letters. A little over a week later, I got a parcel from Xiao Chi. When I opened it, I saw all of my letters, unopened. I fell asleep holding the letters that night and woke to the sound of myself calling her name. My heart was broken. I stood facing in the direction of Tianle. I saw a light on the horizon and imagined it was Xiao Chi's kerosene lamp and the fire in the stove. I imagined I could see the smoke rising from the chimney of her concrete hut.
I went to the warehouse and sat on a bench in the hall. I thought back to the night that Xiao Chi had climbed up on the bench and twirled off her skirt. I thought about her big, beautiful legs. If I had seized my chance, if I had taken her in my arms, I wouldn't be here now. I was filled with regret. Now the chance was gone and she hated me. I looked at the bench that she had stood on, and it seemed to glow as if illuminated by a spotlight. I saw her stepping up onto the bench. I called out: "Chi Fengxian." The only response was the bark of a dog. I turned on my flashlight and saw a stray dog, filthy and sick, cowering below one of the benches. I lifted the dog up and held her against my chest. I carried her back to my dormitory at the zoo and fed her sugar water and rice. The dog seemed to improve, and her breathing, which had been shallow and labored, began to strengthen. After a few hours, she had the energy to lick my hand. I brought medicine from the zoo's veterinarian and took some of the meat that was meant to be fed to the tiger and the bears. After a few weeks, the dog's coat was glossy again. After that, she followed me everywhere. When I went around the zoo, doing my chores, she was with me. I called her Xiao Hua, after my dog that had died and been hung from the tree.
But this dog had appeared after I called Xiao Chi's name, so I started calling her Xiao Chi. Whenever I called her name, she ran to me. If I felt sad, I'd talk to Xiao Chi. When I missed Xiao Chi, I had the dog, at least. I scrubbed her clean every night and let her sleep in bed beside me. Now when I called Xiao Chi's name in my sleep, Xiao Chi was there. The dog healed my broken heart.
Autumn came, and the zoo was covered in fallen yellow leaves. Every day when I got off work, I was met by Director He's cousin, He Caixia, who'd been given a job as the zoo's accountant. If she was sure nobody else was looking, she'd steal over to my side. "That curly hair," she'd say, "is it Soviet revisionism or American imperialism? I'm guessing it was American imperialism your mother preferred. You aren't the child of landlords at all, are you? You're the son of American imperialism. You'd better listen to me, or I'll turn you over to the Red Guards." While she spoke, one hand would be in my hair and the other would be between my legs. She would grab me so hard that I felt sick to my stomach. I used to walk away completely shaken. The only things I had to look forward to after work were my dog and talking to Zhao Jingdong, another one of the workers at the zoo.
Zhao Jingdong didn't talk much, but he sure could listen. He was a great audience for a story: he'd laugh in the right places, slap his thigh when something was really funny, sigh sympathetically at the appropriate moment - all the things you'd expect of a good listener. He also knew how to keep a secret. I was always worried about that, since I'd gotten myself into so much trouble telling the wrong things to the wrong people. I told him the story of Director He and my mother, how I'd found them together, and the story never went beyond him. He was like a vault.
He taught me something, too: if you wanted to be a good friend, you had to be a good listener. One night, I sat up and told him the story of the warehouse and Xiao Chi taking off her skirt. He responded: "A girl drops her skirt right in front of you and you reject her ? Well, that's gotta hurt, right? She had to be disappointed. Maybe you've heard about the Widow He, who works at the zoo. I've heard lots of stories about her trying to seduce certain men who ended up turning her down. Nobody wants to be turned down, right? Even if what they're asking is unreasonable."
Zhao Jingdong kept telling me that I should go visit Xiao Chi: "Make some time. Go see her. At the least, you're comrades, right? It's because of what you said that she ended up all the way out there, so you should show some concern. You should show her you're still thinking about her." He kept saying it: go see her, go see her. It was like a buzz in my ear. Eventually I saved up the money to take the trip, and I planned to use my sick leave to get time off work. When I told Zhao Jingdong, he seemed even more excited than I was. He asked me over and over again how far Tianle was from the city. Finally, he came to my dormitory room and spread out a map marked with an arrow pointing from the city to Guli. The way he'd marked the map, it felt like Xiao Chi was a military objective. He went out again and came back with three jars of braised pork and five bundles of dried noodles for me to give her. He saw me off at the train station and went back home with Xiao Chi the dog.
A cold wind blew against the windows of the train as it left the city. After a few kilometers, the train passed into mist, which then covered the windows. Anyone looking at the train as it rumbled by would have seen its color darken and take on a hue like raw steel as the sunlight shrank down to a red ball on the horizon.
The next evening, I arrived at Guli. Everyone in the village seemed to be gathered under the lanterns at the commune hall. They were standing around a low stage. When I got closer, I could see two figures kneeling on the stage with old shoes hanging around their necks - it was Xiao Chi and Yu Baijia. Xiao Chi's hair was in disarray. Her face was cut, and there was blood on her lips. Yu Baijia had clearly been beaten, too. His left eye was swollen shut and ringed with a black bruise. I finally realized that it was Yu Baijia who had protected Xiao Chi. It was Yu Baijia who had played Prometheus in her cement hut.