An excerpt from Sheng Keyi’s new novel, The Womb
Sheng Keyi is a contemporary Chinese novelist, lives in New York City and Beijing. She has ten novels include Northern Girls, Death Fugue, Wild Fruit, The Womb, and several short story collections. Her works have been globally acclaimed and translated into English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Swedish, Spanish, Russian, etc., with write-ups and reviews by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Guardian. In addition, her novel, Northern Girls was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012.
Translated from Mandarin by Bruce Humes. Sheng Keyi is looking for a publisher for the English version.
With the mindset of someone preparing to put up a last-ditch fight, Snow decided to switch hospitals and submit herself to another examination. Earlier doctors had all said that the problem probably lay in that abortion years ago. Post-operative cases of infertility were not the norm, but neither were they rare. The doctors chided her for not having delivered then, during her first pregnancy, at the advanced age of thirty-three. You’d have thought they were scolding a wayward child for sloppy homework. They criticised her rashness. Punishment followed such rashness – sometimes quickly, sometimes later, but inevitably. Given her age and irregular menstruation, it would be much more challenging to get pregnant now than a decade earlier.
In spite of the bleak prognosis, Snow insisted on ingesting Chinese herbal concoctions until she grew disgusted with her growing resemblance to a medicine repository. She ceased medication and let Nature take its course.
A number of well-intentioned but pointed comments by the doctors left her suffering in silence. The memory of those days never receded, remaining in painfully sharp relief. They were always with her: how she had sought him out, how his attitude had pierced her, how she had secretly borne the massive hurt. After nine months had passed, she thought to herself if the foetus had survived, it would have been born by now; five years later, she imagined what it would be doing then at the age of five. She felt that the child was biding its time in an unseen space. Its life had not terminated.
This wasn’t a nice feeling. Someone had told her that only when you actually give birth to a baby can it replace the unborn one and be forgotten. She was grateful to the financial editor for his tolerance and understanding. As for the question of raising a child, he wasn’t particularly concerned. It had its good sides and bad. If he had been a bit keener, she might have made a greater effort to see a doctor, and perhaps her ability to conceive might have improved. But he was busy with his daily reading and writing, and when he did occasionally encounter small children, he’d elicit a smile or two and leave it at that.
The couple occasionally shared cheerless moments, especially when the boisterous clamour of children reached their ears from next door or the park. At these times they felt their childlessness more keenly. Their lives seemed like a bitterly cold winter’s day in the midst of a snowstorm, as if they were inside huddled hopelessly in front of an unlit fireplace, so poor that they couldn’t even afford kindling to light a fire.
Each was aware of this, but avoided touching on the matter. The financial editor would sidestep the topic by chatting about something, or suggest seeing a film, and rescue them from tumbling into the pit. Later on, Snow came to realise that this was a tell-tale sign of his own uneasiness. In reality, he yearned for a vexatious ankle-biter to spice up their life. He was actually more sensitive than she about anything to do with children. Whenever they passed a playground or a children’s clothes shop, he’d quicken his pace as if trying to escape a noxious odour.
This is why she decided to go to the hospital again. Behind a rosewood desk sat an old practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, with long whiskers on his upper lip and chin. Snow placed her arm on the soft arm rest, bringing it level with her heart. The goateed doctor took her pulse with spider-like fingers, his eyes closed the while. His eyelids and whiskers trembled slightly as if in a trance. Then he had her stick out her tongue and reveal the whites of her eyes, before summarising a slew of results indicating imbalances such as yin deficiency and xue re, or blood heat.
As he wrote the prescription, he enquired about her income and family. His practice depended entirely on payments from patients, he explained, and he was not eligible to receive payments from state-funded insurance. When he learned that she was a university professor, he erased and altered some ingredients. Seven sets of medication cost 2000 yuan. She’d undergo at least one cycle of twenty-one sets, and treatment might require six months, depending on its efficacy.
She took the prescription and left the hospital feeling low, not because of the exorbitant fee but because she had again discovered that all the doctors said more or less the same thing. This thoroughly discouraged her. She figured that her case fell into the “difficult to treat” category. For the most part, her doctors could only stumble about, feeling their way, or worse, administer treatment to a horse they knew full well was already dead.
The doctor at the abortion clinic had warned her of the potential consequences. She just had never imagined that she personally would become one of those statistics. Occasionally when she was deeply troubled and introspective, she wondered what her world would look like now if she had ignored everything and had the baby. It was undeniable that there were plenty of much poorer women who raised children on their own. If she had been forced to choose another path, she might have been able to navigate a better journey. But what could have presented more hardship than her march from a small village to self-financed studies culminating in a PhD? It was precisely for this reason that she had opted to abort; choosing to deliver a child – as an unmarried woman back then – would have meant losing her job, and all the rewards for which she had struggled.
After her marriage she covertly poured her energy into resolving her infertility. She affected not to care, and the financial editor was very accommodating. In the first few years they remained close, shouldering the burden together and standing tall; but gradually they became distracted by a sense of gloom. The editor’s engagements multiplied. The traditional liquor-fuelled gatherings of older men commenced, and he revelled in delivering his witticisms there.
Present at these drinking sessions were always one or two pretty young girls. They smiled innocently at the old men with their bellyfuls of wisdom. By the time she learned that the financial editor had picked one of those blossoms, it was too late: they had already become a pair, one inside the other’s belly. It wasn’t important where he had encountered his flower – at a seminar, or perhaps at one of the drink fests – and Snow wasn’t keen to investigate. The result was that on the other side of the river there were two flowers, a mother flower and her little flower, and on this side of the river there was just one aging willow tree.
Alone on his sampan, the financial editor drifted in the middle of the river. Should he row towards the bank where his flowers were blossoming, or should he return to the bank with the old willow, where his loyalty ought to lie? She didn’t call out to the opposite bank, or withdraw from the dock; she remained welcoming. She could see Mother Flower in the space she had once occupied, in exactly the same state. Observing that flower was like observing herself. Helping her was like helping herself.
In fact, she had no intention of forcing Mother Flower to pluck Little Flower from her belly. She held no grudge against Mother Flower; it was the question of the financial editor that preoccupied her. She believed that their spirits had communed and that they trusted one another. They had often conversed, pressing intimately against one another, their souls fusing and illuminating one another day by day. She had difficulty accepting that their past had transformed into the illusory image of a moon in a rippling lake.
But given that her barren womb had not borne a single fruit, she felt that she had no right to demand anything of the financial editor.
All along, she sensed that she owed him something. Now she understood. She owed him a good harvest, a full granary. She owed him the lush soil and fecundity that a swathe of land should possess. She owed him a fleshy, substantial fruit. Her only point of discontent was that he had lied; he should not have left her in the dark. It was all those lies that had permitted Mother flower to sprout her little bud. How many times had he deceived them both, enabling Little Flower to grow in her mother’s belly for four months, all the while convincing each woman that he was their man? Yes, that was her grievance — his lying and cheating. It was intolerable, and she intended to clarify matters.
When he finally confessed to the affair, he behaved like a detail-obsessed old scholar defending his failed textual critique. He was deeply remorseful concerning the flawed citations, the confusing statistics and absurd conclusions posited in the work. In the past, he had always been rigorous and meticulous, researching each aspect from multiple points of view in order to guarantee accuracy and eliminate any possibility of error. He attributed his problematic critique to momentary negligence. The figures and viewpoints that he had cited originated on the Internet and were unreliable. He had had the opportunity to correct them, but he had fooled himself into believing that the casual reader would not notice such slip-ups.
Ironically, it was actually a colleague of Snow’s – just such a “casual reader” – who noted and reported the financial editor’s suspicious conduct. She saw him and Mother Flower in Tanzhe Temple outside the capital, doing the sort of thing only lovers do.
So they had gone to Tanzhe Temple in Beijing’s Western Hills – but why? Certainly not in order to burn incense and pray for Snow to have a baby boy. Nor would it be to entreat Buddha to bless the marriage of which Snow was still a part. When Snow had first asked him about the visit, he flatly denied it. Absolute nonsense, he scoffed. Why would he run off to a Buddhist temple to court a lover?
“Do you believe other people, or the man who sleeps in your bed?” he had fired back. This silenced her. She was inclined to believe him, especially since her informant was a female colleague she didn’t know well, a gossip who enjoyed stirring up trouble.
However, the next time someone told her of a dubious outing, she became convinced that the earlier report had been accurate. If he hadn’t tried to fool her then, she wouldn’t have become so angry later. His lie not only insulted her intelligence, but it mocked her self-respect. She could understand that he might waver when tempted; but she could not understand why he, a highly intelligent man, would commit the classic error of plugging his ears while stealing a ringing bell — and expect others to feign deafness as well. He should realise that Snow wasn’t the sort of woman one should deceive. All he needed to do was to indicate his intention, and she would have given her genuine blessing, removed all obstacles, and opened the way for him. In the past she had done so with others, and she and her ex had remained good friends.
He explained how he had marched, step by step, into a deep pit from which he could not extract himself. As with most affairs, one need undergo an initial struggle with one’s conscience, together with several sleepless nights of tossing and turning. Once this phase has passed, the “problem” is overcome. Initially, he was able to strike up a conversation with Mother Flower. Then words came more easily. But later, his whole being ached if they hadn’t spoken. Then it became so that he could no longer find relief by conversation alone: they had put their bodies to use. This physical act was a greater pleasure, and memories were stored within the flesh. They abandoned themselves to a rhythm that they naively believed they controlled.
He described it in this way, because he wanted to prove that he wasn’t the sort to fool around aimlessly. This appeared to be a revolution of the soul and flesh, and it unnerved Snow. She had hoped that it was not serious, and was prepared to tolerate the affair. She had assumed that – such a revolution of the soul and flesh having already occurred between man and wife – there were no munitions left for further revolutions. She had forgotten the adage that even when a man is old enough to lose his teeth he will still want to have another bite, and that even if he’s toothless he’ll still find a way to make revolution with his hands, mouth and tongue, his toes and his knees.
She listened to him drone on, and understood the joy that he could not conceal. Admittedly, he spoke contritely in conveying his contentedness and pleasure. But this too made her suffer. She would have preferred that he communicate his excitement directly, the emotional ecstasy plastered all over his face as he told of his intoxication, instead of adopting the implausibly tragic tone of someone who has accidentally smashed a precious vase.
Eventually she realised that it was no one particular aspect that she couldn’t bear. It was the entire matter that was unbearable. This sentiment overwhelmed her, as if there were an agitated beast trapped inside her, alternately hissing and snapping, and throwing its weight about while clawing wildly. She put her hand to her chest, and felt as if she were going to collapse. But she didn’t want to show any sign that he had wounded her.
“Since things have already come to this, go ahead and do as you like,” she said nonchalantly. “I will go along with whatever works for you.”
He regarded her with a sense of alarm, as if he could not quite believe what she had just said. He had not imagined that it would be so easy. He had formed a fist and prepared to strike, but in the end his adversary was just a lightweight scarecrow. When he threw his punch, it was he who lost his balance.
The scarecrow continued to enquire about Mother Flower, urging him to cherish her. After all, she was pregnant with a married man’s child and taking a great risk. Snow appeared thoroughly understanding, as if this flower had accomplished something that she herself could not, and a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders.
After this discussion he felt emboldened to disappear for a few days, and when he returned it was to discuss the division of their assets. He had made up his mind that their apartment would be sold and the proceeds split evenly, each of them also receiving half of their cash savings. Furniture, household appliances and miscellaneous items and knick-knacks would all revert to her. During the early days of their marriage his income had been higher, but once she began holding painting exhibitions hers exceeded his, so they were pretty much even, and this division of assets could be considered sensible and fair. However, if she wished, she could keep the apartment and he could withdraw their savings and move out. Although the savings were a little less than the value of the apartment, it would speed things up. He found all these options entirely reasonable. Other alternatives that he didn’t find palatable, he wouldn’t mention at all, naturally.
He didn’t devote much thought to sentimentality or nostalgia. He was filled with joy about his new life, and even hummed to himself on the way to their apartment, everything already settled in his mind. Upon arrival he found that she wasn’t home, and noticed that some of her clothing was missing. There was a note on the coffee table:
I’ve gone to Japan for a few days. Let’s discuss our assets when I return. Everything will work out. Don’t worry.
“Everything will work out.” Did this refer to him and Mother Flower? Or just to him? Or to her alone? Or perhaps to the two of them together?
“Don’t worry.” About their shared property? About her emotional state? Her safety while travelling?
He wasn’t sure what she meant, but he didn’t intend to lose any sleep over it. And he was confident that her little jaunt would help smooth the resolution of this situation, so he prepared to await her return ten to fifteen days hence.
In fact, she hadn’t gone away at all. From a hotel window opposite, she could spy the main entrance to their residential complex, and observe the timing of his comings-and-goings. She could even hear him whistling that cheerful tune. When he climbed the stairway she detected a new spring in his step, he stood taller than before, and he abandoned his former arrogance to offer greetings to others with a friendly smile. Observed from this space where she could not be seen, he revealed himself in a different light.
She had no plan to do anything specific. She had just felt like getting out, cooling down, and seeing how things progressed. But that changed, and at a given moment, she found that she wished to direct a piece of theatre. Initially, she had no idea what the plot might be, just as some authors write a novel: the characters move here and there, and then they suddenly escape the author’s control. They develop their own ideas, toy with terminating someone’s life, or doing something kinky. For whatever reason, they veer away from their original trajectory, new opportunities arise, and they become inspired.
Snow had paid cash to get the low-down on Mother Flower, and within three days had sussed out where she resided and worked, that she was a northerner, still under thirty, edited an English publication, and lived in a rented flat. On the weekend Snow obtained a few photos of the financial editor and Mother Flower walking together and eating Japanese food. His habit of placing an arm around his partner’s waist while strolling, and his demeanour while dining, remained unchanged. From the look of things, no one would ever sense that he had another woman.
When Snow realised that there was no place for her between them – that she might as well not exist – she was shaken. The two of them even attended the solo exhibition of that New Mexico artist — the female painter whose blossoms resemble a vulva — whom he had first learned about from Snow! To show off, he must surely have passed off her words as his own when explaining the works to Mother Flower. Snow found this galling.
Once she had absorbed this intelligence, she really did leave for Japan. Every day she bombarded social media with shots of tourist sites, appetising dishes and cultural highlights, and always made sure to include grinning emoji as if she were having a grand time. Each day featured images of a different city. She chronicled her journey happily, but just to show an appropriate degree of regret at enjoying herself without her husband she bought him clothes, ties and an electric toothbrush. She even uploaded some of their old photos evoking earlier happy times. No one could tell that, in fact, her life had been shattered.
It was her fifteenth day in Japan when she got his WeChat message. When would she return? He didn’t mention their assets or anything, as if he were posing typical questions to his wife on a business trip. She could sense that those words contained anticipation and worry too. He was nostalgic for their time together, and he needed her. She flashed a devilish smile.
She returned home one week later. He had cooked dinner and was waiting for her. And there was wine too. In the past, they had often enjoyed a drink together.
She radiated the fresh, rejuvenated look of someone just back from a trip abroad. “Oh, is this our last dinner?” she teased, immediately gaining the upper hand.
“However you interpret it is fine with me.” He uncorked the bottle and poured the wine. Glug-glug it sounded, splashing against the sides of the fashionably deep wine glasses. “Consider it a celebration for a traveller returned from afar.”
“What a nice surprise to be treated like this,” she smiled. “Of course, courtesy should be reciprocated. I brought you some presents too.”
Once again, they enjoyed dining and exchanging gifts, as if Mother Flower had never appeared. Snow talked of her Japan trip, and made cultural comparisons. She even mentioned the art exhibitions, the Edo Period ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and Yayoi Kusama’s installations. It was as if she had forgotten any trouble between them. She behaved as formerly, and pretended not to notice his forced smile. As one glass of wine followed another, he found no opportunity to say anything. It seemed that she intended to use this chance to say all that she would ever say.
He surmised that she really was treating this as their last dinner. At several points he wanted to speak but held himself back, trying not to interrupt her.
The wine bottle grew dry-eyed and it was almost time to turn it upside down. He prepared to make his pronouncements. But she had been busy. The table was cleared, dishes washed, floor swept, hands washed and dried. Now it was time for him to admire the clothes she had bought him, and try them on.
The clothes she selected for him always suited him perfectly. She had a natural instinct for size, weight and length. When she bought clothes she never measured beforehand, but always knew immediately whether the clothes would fit – and she wasn’t wrong this time. He put on the charcoal-grey suit, knotted the tie with crimson blossoms against a navy-blue background, and he looked like a new man. For the life of him he couldn’t work out what she was up to. He had committed such a punishable offence, yet here she was being so normal and sweet. This must be how a woman persuaded her man to come back, he thought.
Several times he was on the verge of interjecting something but held himself back, until finally deciding not to say it at all. If things continued like this, she would get the message that he had returned by her side, and the storm had subsided. They would grow old together after all.
For ten days or so after her return, he didn’t go out once. They didn’t discuss the distribution of their property either. One night they engaged in a round of mute but passionate carnal relations. Except for the grunting and panting appropriate to the act, not a word passed between them in the darkness. She was confident that he had had a change of heart.
He didn’t realise that she knew the things he yearned to express but suppressed in his heart. But she had known even as she was leaving for Japan – before he had any inkling – that all of this was going to take place. She was the scriptwriter and director, and the plot would proceed according to her plan.
Little Flower must not be allowed to blossom. It must wither and die in its mother’s belly.
It had happened on the third day after Snow had left for Japan. That afternoon Mother Flower had a sudden miscarriage and ended up in a hospital. He rushed to her bedside, only to find a sole flower, utter sorrow written across her face. He stroked her deflated belly for a long time, speechless. He couldn’t think of a single word to console her. If she were his wife, he could perhaps say tenderly, “It’s alright, we’re sure to have another!” But he couldn’t say this to her, because he hadn’t imagined a next time.
His wife’s face sprang suddenly to mind. With the uprooting of Little Flower, the invisible cord that had joined him to Mother Flower was severed. He realised that his feelings for her had undergone a sea-change. Part of his heart had re-awoken and returned to his wife’s side, while the part that remained here was motivated by something closer to sympathy. With the disappearance of Little Flower, her mother’s attractiveness to him was mightily reduced.
He rationalised that the expectation of Little Flower had dazed him, and cast an obscuring veil of sentiment over his judgement. He must have lost his senses to have considered abandoning such a superb wife. She was capable, talented and reasonable. Except for the lack of a child, they had no other issues; he even thought she was the world’s most suitable partner. If he hadn’t got himself into this mess he wouldn’t have realised that the person he most cherished was his wife, and now he realised that he could overlook the lack of a son or daughter. As with so many married men, he had only arrived at an understanding of family and spouse via an extra-marital affair. These bouts of stormy weather were man-made, and the little vessels called marriage were often broken in their fury.
Thus, he congratulated himself on not having begun the final negotiations with his wife, and grateful that she had travelled abroad. Inadvertently, this had given him precious extra time and space to reconsider, and in which to decide to do an about-face. He was blissfully unaware that her sightseeing trip to Japan had been expressly undertaken in order to manufacture evidence on the ground. Of course, she wasn’t at the scene and had no need to do anything personally. This world doesn’t lack any number of people just waiting for a wad of bills to smack them in the face, provided they do someone else’s bidding.
It’s not that she hadn’t struggled with the morality of it. An image of her proud rival — then an expectant mother — swayed before her. Snow sought and finally found a persuasive reason to justify her actions. Since Mother Flower was at peace with herself and had no qualms about ignoring a wife’s existence, why should she pity Mother Flower or take her feelings into consideration at every turn? This was just a battle of the wombs.
Yes, a battle of the wombs — this is precisely how she characterised the family crisis that had just concluded.
Two months later, on their wedding anniversary, he takes her out to an elegant Western restaurant on the fashionable Bund overlooking the Huangpu River, in the former Shanghai International Settlement.
She suspects that he had also brought Mother Flower here because the place oozes romantic ambience. The waiters, accoutered in full black tie and dinner jacket, are the epitome of refined service. A piano can be heard, and a circle of soft, warm light shines on the centre of their table. The silverware sparkles. The other patrons, all foreign and mostly couples, speak in hushed tones. It is clearly an ideal venue for amorous socializing.
She feels a bit out of place, but gradually the joy of victory overshadows her reticence. She has not only won the uterine duel, but has reclaimed all the territory unwittingly ceded to her rival too. From the outset it hadn’t been Snow’s goal to win back the financial editor; it was to wreak revenge for his infidelity by crushing the Little Flower that brought him such delight. Perhaps she has also been motivated by something that she isn’t prepared to admit: envy of another’s more fertile womb.
No, it’s not envy. I just wanted to make him lose a little something. When she is honest about her intention, the darkness in her heart surprises her. But she has persuaded herself. Back then when she was cast as Mother Flower, she had submitted to an abortion and suffered defeat. Now she is a wife, and another Mother Flower threatened her family. If she didn’t take action, she’d be the loser again, and that would be tantamount to accepting her fate passively.
“Have you handled that matter?” she asks gently after he orders. She has given this real thought. If she doesn’t enquire about Little Flower, that would seem odd. Now is the right time. “Does she intend to give birth and look after the child on her own? Single mothers are quite common now,” she points out. “People can accept them nowadays.”
“My dear, that all ended long ago. I should have told you earlier, but I thought you probably knew, and I didn’t want to raise it again.” He adds in a whisper, gazing at his wine glass, “I don’t want to leave you.” He looks up bravely, seeking her eyes. “While you were in Japan, I convinced her to get rid of it.”
Her jaw drops. He assumes that she is startled by this development, and in reality she is astonished by his claim. She had assumed that the storm had passed and that their marriage would continue to sail on a steady course toward the future. But now she feels the waves crashing against their little boat again, and it makes her dizzy.
“After I read your note, Snow, I kept thinking. Yes, I did something wrong. But did that mean there would never be a way to correct it? Was I really going to rip apart our beautiful marriage? I couldn’t sleep for nights. I felt very confused.
“I went to talk to her about it. I told her, ‘I’m not worthy of fathering this child. I have nothing to give it. I can’t leave my wife’. ”
He recounts all this in a low voice, calmly and with a convincing cadence. Only now does she fully appreciate his ability to tell a lie. Snow listens and observes carefully like a panel member judging a performance.
“So she asked me, ‘Then what’s to be done?’ ”
“I said: ‘I’m the one responsible for this. And I’m not going to just walk away and pretend it didn’t happen’.”
“Fortunately, this was a problem that could be solved with money,” he says. “So I told her I’d give her 50,000 yuan in compensation. She demanded 100,000, and in the end I gave her 80,000.”
He snorts scornfully, “It was like a business transaction, wasn’t it?”
When he has finished he looks solemnly at his wife. “You don’t know how good it feels to have you at my side again, Snow. We can survive this. I’ll treasure our affection even more.”
The more realistic the tale he recounts, the more ludicrous. Her respect for him is shrinking so fast that soon Snow feels that he is an insect crawling on the floor. “And then I almost made another, bigger error. It’s all my fault,” he says sincerely. “In the future when I see another woman, I’ll keep my distance. They’re all creatures hungry for money.”
“And who in the world makes so many people keen to feed creatures money?” she laughs caustically. “The rich feed the rich, and the poor feed the poor. But then again, if you don’t feed people with money, what do you feed them? It seems the only free thing in this world is marital relations.”
The waiter arrives with the soup. One hand balancing the tray, the other neatly in place behind his back. A second pair of white-gloved hands positions the bowls on the table.
By this time her eyes are fuzzy with tears. An icy wave sweeps over her, caused by a more hopeless sense of sorrow than that of simply knowing of Mother Flower’s existence. From the day Snow met him until this moment, she has always felt that while he wasn’t exactly noble, he certainly wasn’t base. But the ease with which he has fabricated these falsehoods about his affair, just at the moment that they are supposed to be starting anew, and his slandering of Mother Flower and the insult to his unborn child, have brought him to an unfathomable low.
She’s unwilling to treat this as a husband’s white lie. She doesn’t count herself among those women who rationalise, “I don’t give a damn if he treats other women like scum, as long as he’s good to me.” That’s like when other people give your husband a smack or two for his dodgy behaviour outside – and in your heart you know he’s just a rat – but you continue to prize him like a pristine rabbit, just because he doesn’t shit in his own burrow. After all, a husband isn’t a coin. How can a wife only care about the side he elects to show her, and ignore the other, sleazy side? If a woman loses her appreciation for her man, then she can’t continue to love him, far less sleep next to him.
Now she begins to wonder: just how many lies has he actually fed her over the years? His retelling of the hospital scene just now has been flawless. If she didn’t know the truth about Mother Flower’s ‘abortion’, she might well fall for his spiel. The way he speaks is so touching, his voice so sensitive. If he didn’t previously frequent such places, how does he fit so seamlessly into these surroundings?
This is the first time she has set foot in this sort of place. When single, she hung out at cafés and libraries. She was hard at work on her studies, and never made the acquaintance of the class of people who patronise venues like this. Yes, it has plenty of atmosphere, but she feels out of her element. She has never before set eyes on some of the dishes, and has no idea how one is supposed to eat them. The goose liver pâté served in a wine glass — is it to be mixed with wine, and drunk?
All around them are sophisticated foreigners. It makes her feel as if she has just arrived from the countryside, and as a result, she can’t really relax.
But the sad part is yet to come. For the moment she is almost relieved that his performance has distracted her from the reality of her situation.
“Try this clam chowder,” he urges.
Try this clam chowder.
No doubt he once ordered this identical soup for Mother Flower. She feels that this moment is just a facsimile of that scene, and in his mind’s eye he might even be seeing Mother Flower’s face. Snow grows more and more ill at ease. This isn’t just due to the surroundings; it is because her self-esteem is under constant attack. She is already imagining how when they climb into bed later that night, he will inevitably try the same moves that he once made with Mother Flower. Even if today weren’t their wedding anniversary, following a romantic dinner like this, that would be the next item on the agenda. She feels resentful, as if he has already made his demand.
“You really shouldn’t have brought me here,” she says. “This place is for empty sweet talk.”
He is perplexed. “But I chose it specially. You said you like western cuisine.”
“I never said any such thing.” He is confusing her with Mother Flower. And he is still infatuated.
“What’s with you?” he asks. “Do you mean to spoil the atmosphere? Since the moment we arrived, you’ve been itching for a fight. To be able to sit together and celebrate our wedding anniversary, after all that has happened, is no easy feat. Can’t you tell that I’m doing my very best to put our family back together again?”
” ‘Spoil the atmosphere, ‘itching for a fight’, ‘sit together and celebrate’. Now that you feel you’ve got your feet back under the table, you start to criticise others. Did I ruin you and her ‘ambience’? I’ve made things easy for you, haven’t I? Do you really believe that just because I don’t argue with you, I’m just an over ripe persimmon that you can squeeze as you like? Did you really believe that since I couldn’t conceive, I’d forever be in debt to you? That because of that, I would tolerate your behaviour? How can you know so little about women?”
“Okay, okay. If you have anything else to say, we can talk about it back home. Let’s enjoy our dinner first,” he says, in an attempt to lower the temperature.
She raises her wine glass and drains it in one go as if to seal her words. She sits silently, conveying that her dinner is now over. It isn’t his words that have provoked her; she is angry about her own womb problem. She doesn’t know why she has suddenly transferred her wrath onto his affair. It isn’t as if her being unable to have a child had forced her husband to go and knock up Mother Flower. There was no cause and effect.
She is still angry about her own traumatic abortion years ago. She doesn’t hate the man involved. She can’t say exactly where the fault lies. If she blames herself, that is simply too unfair, too cruel. At any rate, that tragedy still plagues her life, like a ghost stalking her for an unpaid debt. It has even enticed her to do away with a young bud, and thereby to commit a second act of murder. Her husband may die without any knowledge of her evil, but she can’t put her own conscience at ease.
She can imagine Mother Flower’s grief at losing her Little Flower. Especially when she was preparing to become a wife, only to be abandoned. Naturally, Snow doesn’t buy that rubbish about him fobbing her off with 80,000 yuan. Snow can tell from the photos that she is no gold-digger; she is a flower blossoming under the bright sun with no such ambitions. She is well-educated, but too easily mesmerised by the older man’s knowledge and wit. Snow is more convinced than ever that the great majority of young women would probably make the same mistake with a married man — whether for a shorter or longer period — and then either step into the shoes of their rivals, or find themselves brutally eliminated from the competition. How many young women are at the hospital at this very moment, enduring inexpressible pain, as they queue for an abortion?
As Snow sat in her Japanese hotel room, and the crucial moment in her self-directed drama drew near, Mother Flower’s image surfaced repeatedly. Snow fluctuated between resolve and doubt. She made up her mind to abandon her scheme several times, but as soon as she imagined the financial editor together with his flower unimpeded, and the pair’s intimacy that left no space at all for her, her heart hardened again. One moment she was herself, the next she was Mother Flower, then the two were one.
Just when she had made her mind and hastened to contact the agent whom she had commissioned to execute the scheme, her mobile fell into the toilet! She hadn’t realised how badly her hand was trembling.
When she got the news that Mother Flower was in the hospital, her brain exploded.
People often toss and turn in their sleep as they plan revenge, but when the day dawns sanity returns, and they reject their wild thoughts. But it seemed that Snow’s thoughts remained in the darkness, never seeing the clear light of day. Only after everything was concluded did she return from the shadows. She could hardly believe that the deed was done. Briefly she reverted to the innocent flower who had lost her own little flower all those years ago, and she wept silently for her loss.
She couldn’t believe that Little Flower’s blood was on her hands. No matter how you looked at it, she had sullied herself. “Sullied” was an understatement. She was a sinner, a murderer, a madwoman.
Just as she was presiding over her own trial, tormenting her soul, she received another piece of news. The executor of her scheme reported that before he could put the plan into action, Mother Flower had been involved in an accident. He saw an ambulance take her away, and he went to the hospital where he confirmed that she had miscarried. This didn’t make Snow feel any better. She felt as if she had willed the miscarriage, and that it was the result of her curse.
Armed with this knowledge, she endeavoured not to permit the financial editor to note any flaw in her veneer. Her performance was a key prerequisite for her husband’s return, and she wanted to obtain the highest possible score. Her main goal was, after all, not actually to win him back, so she was not influenced by other factors. But the more closely she observed herself, the more horrified she felt. When she looked in the mirror, it wasn’t to confirm her beauty; she wanted to check whether she had transmogrified into something hideous. She was afraid of waking to find her mouth dripping blood, her face covered in some monstrous beast’s hair.
Thinking back on it now, it is she who is the genuine actor. How movingly she has performed! After her return from Japan and their “last dinner” at the apartment, through to this celebration of their wedding anniversary, her acting technique – graded scene-by-scene – has proven far superior to his. The longer he remains on stage the more unconvincing he seems, whereas her performance gains in flesh-and-blood authenticity. This is doubtless the real Snow. She is playing herself: one version of her observes, while the other acts. Sometimes they perform individually, and at other times they observe simultaneously.
She senses she has entered a dark passage, a part of the stage backdrop. She isn’t sure whether she should continue her performance, or return to reality. She wonders, if she tells him the truth now about her scheme, how would he react? If he also possesses a latent dark side, its explosion could be extremely destructive. After all, her admission would negate all his previous perceptions of her. If he discovered that his gently assertive wife was in fact such a schemer, that his mild, forgiving, big-hearted wife was actually a cunning fox, he might throw her out the nearest window, or throw her out and follow right behind.
Standing stiffly and holding an empty tray, the waiter waits patiently for the financial editor to sign the credit card receipt. As he lowers his head toward the table, she notices a few strands of grey in his sideburns. They are both in their forties, she thinks with a twinge of sadness. What on earth has driven them both to such rash acts, to turn their backs on what was a fairly comfortable situation, and to fabricate all this friction out of nothing really? What mysterious decree had robbed her innocent uterus of the right to bear a child, and kickstarted this endless chain of events?
© Sheng Keyi