This translation was first published in Interzone 243, Nov/Dec 2012, and reprinted in Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, ed. Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2016. We are grateful to the author and translator, and to Tor Books, for allowing us to reprint it here.
The translation and story in Chinese are presented for the 2017 fund drive by Samovar, the sister magazine of Strange Horizons, specialising in speculative fiction in translation, which we publish bilingually. Samovar was made a reality by last year's fund drive and, just like Strange Horizons, is wholly supported by voluntary donations.
Summers in Shenzhen Bay last ten months. Mangrove swamps surround the bay like congealed blood. Year after year, they shrink and rot, like the rust-colored night that hides many crimes.
To the east of the mangroves, north of Huanggang Port between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, is Shazui Village, where I’m staying for now.
I’ve hidden here for half a year. The subtropical sun is brutal, but I’ve grown even paler. The five urban villages, Shazui, Shatou, Shawei, Shangsha, and Xiasha—or literally, “Sand Mouth,” “Sand Head,” “Sand Tail,” “Upper Sand,” “Lower Sand”—form a large, dense concrete jungle at the heart of Futian District. The names of the villages often give one the illusion of living in the mouth of some giant, mythical monster named “Sand” which, while separated from the head, remains alive.
Big Sister Shen tells me that this used to be a sleepy fishing village. But with the economic reforms and the opening up of China, urbanization brought construction everywhere. To get more compensation when the government exercised its eminent domain powers, villagers raced to build tall towers on their land so as to maximize the square footage of the residential space. But before they could cash in, real estate prices had risen to the point where even the government could no longer afford to pay compensation. These hastily erected buildings remained like historical ruins, witnesses to history.
The villagers built a story every three days, she says. Now that’s what you call the Speed of the Special Economic Zone.
I imagine these buildings, growing as fast as cancer cells, finally settling into the form they have today. Inside the apartments it’s always dark because there’s so little space between the buildings that tenants in buildings next to each other can shake hands through the windows. The alleyways are narrow like capillaries and follow no discernible pattern. The stench of rot and decay permeates everything, sinks into everyone’s pores. Because the rent is cheap, every kind of migrant can be found here, struggling to fulfill their Shenzhen dream: the high-tech, high-salaried, high-resolution, high-life, high-Shenzhen.
But I prefer this lower-end version. It makes me feel safer.
Big Sister Shen is a good person. She’s originally from the Northeast. Years ago, she bought this building from a native family that was moving overseas. Now she lives the life of a happy landlady. With the rent rising daily, her net worth must be in the tens of millions, but she still lives here. She took me in despite the fact that I had no identity papers, and gave me a small booth to practice my trade. She even prepared a fake file for me in case the police ever show up. She never asks me about my past. I’m grateful, and I try to do a few favors to repay her.
From my booth at the door of the Chinese medicine shop, I sell a combination of body films and cracked versions of augmented-reality software. Body films are applied to the skin, where they display words or pictures in response to the body’s electrical signals. In America, they use the technology as a diagnostic tool, monitoring patients’ physiological signs. But here, it has become part of the street culture of status display. Laborers, gangsters, and prostitutes all like to apply the films to prominent or hidden parts of the body so that, in response to changing muscle tension or skin temperature, the films can show various pictures to signal the wearer’s personality, daring, and sex appeal.
I still remember the first time I spoke with Snow Lotus.
Snow Lotus is from humid, subtropical Hunan, but she decided to name herself after an alpine flower. Even at night, her pale skin glows like porcelain. Some say that she’s Shazui Village’s most famous “house phoenix”—a prostitute who works out of her home. I often see her walking and holding hands with different men, but her expression is always composed, with no hint that anything sordid is going on. Indeed, she exudes an allure that makes it impossible to look away.
Shazui Village is home to thousands of prostitutes at all price levels. They provide the middle- and lower-class men of both Shenzhen and Hong Kong with all varieties of plentiful, cheap sexual services. Their bodies are like a paradise where the tired, dirty, and fragile male souls can take temporary refuge. Or maybe they are like a shot of placebo so that the men, after a moment of joy, their spirit restored, can return to the battlefield that is real life.
Snow Lotus is not like any of the others. She’s Big Sister Shen’s good friend, and comes often to shop at the Chinese medicine store. Every time she passes my booth, her perfume makes my heart skip a few beats. I always try to restrain myself from following her with my eyes, but I never succeed.
That day, she tapped my shoulder lightly from behind. “Can you help me fix my body film? It won’t light up,” she said.
“I can take a look.” I had trouble hiding my rising panic.
“Follow me,” she whispered.
The dim stairs were as narrow as intestines. Her apartment was nothing like what I had imagined. The color scheme was light yellow, decorated with many homey, warm details. There was even a balcony that allowed one to see the open sky. In Shazui, this was a real luxury.
She led me into her bedroom, and keeping her back to me, she slid her jeans down to her knees, revealing a pair of blindingly white thighs and black, lacey panties.
My hands and feet felt cold. I swallowed with difficulty, trying to moisten my dry throat.
Snow Lotus’s elegant finger pointed to her panties. I was still not ready. My heart was full of fear.
“It won’t light up,” she said. She hadn’t taken off her panties. She was just pointing to the octagon-shaped film depicting a bagua that was applied right above her tailbone.
I tried to disguise my disappointment. Carefully, I examined the film with my diagnostic tools, doing my best not to pay attention to her smooth, silky skin. I tweaked the thermal response curve of the capacitance detector. “It should be okay now. Try it.” I let out a long-held breath.
Suddenly, Snow Lotus began to laugh. The almost-invisible hairs around the curve below her waist stood up, like a miniature patch of reeds.
“How am I supposed to try it out?” She turned around to look at me, her tone teasing.
I believe that no straight man in the world can resist that look. But in that moment, I felt insulted. She was treating me as just another customer, a consumer who exchanged money for the right to make use of her body. Or perhaps she thought that this was how she’d pay for my services? I didn’t know from where my childish anger came, but without saying another word, I took out a heating pad and held it against her waist. After thirty seconds, the yin-yang symbol in the middle of the bagua lit up with the character for “East,” glowing with a blue light.
“East?” I asked, not understanding.
“That’s my man’s name.” Snow Lotus’s expression was back to being calm and composed. She pulled up her jeans, turned around, and saw the question on my face. “You think a prostitute should have no man to call hers?
“He likes to take me from behind. I put the film here to let all my customers know that they can mount me if they’re willing to spend the money, but there are some things that they cannot buy.” She lit a cigarette. “Oh, how much do I owe you?”
I felt a sudden, inexplicable sense of relief.
The man named East is Snow Lotus’s husband, and also her pimp. His business involves traveling between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, smuggling digital goods. Others tell me that he’s addicted to gambling. Most of Snow Lotus’s earnings are lost by him at the gaming table. Sometimes he even forces her to service some older Hong Kong customers with … special desires. But even so, she still wears his name on her waist, declaring that she belongs to him.
This is such a cliché that it reminds me of many old Hong Kong gangster movies. But that’s just daily life in Shazui.
Snow Lotus is unhappy. That’s why she often comes to Big Sister Shen for help.
Like many in Shazui, Big Sister Shen also has multiple jobs. One of them is shaman.
Big Sister Shen claims to be a Manchu. Some of her ancestors were also shamans, she says, and so she has inherited some of their magical powers, enabling her to speak to spirits and to predict the future.
One time, when she was a little drunk and in a talkative mood, she described the great empty deserts of the far north, where one’s breath turned to ice, and where her ancestors had once performed magical ceremonies dressed in ferocious masks, dancing, twirling in the blizzard, drumming and singing, praying for spirits to take over their bodies. Even though that was a hot day, with the temperature hovering near forty degrees Celsius, everyone in the room had shivered as she told her story.
Big Sister Shen never allows me to enter the room where she performs her magic. She says that because I don’t want anything, my heart isn’t pure, and so I will harm the atmosphere for the spirits.
An endless stream of customers comes to seek her services. They all say that she has real Power—one look, and she can tell everything about you. I’ve seen the people who leave her room after the magic sessions: their faces are filled with a dreamy look of satisfaction.
I’ve seen that expression many times: young women carrying their LV Speedy bags, wealthy urbanites on the hunt for beautiful women at the V Bar of the Venetian, politicians who appear on TV every night for the six-thirty Shenzhen News—all of them wear that same expression on their faces, a very Shenzhen expression.
They are like the johns who come to Shazui every day. They go to the Chinese medicine store for some extra-strength aphrodisiac and then reappear with a confident smile. But I know that the aphrodisiac contains nothing but fiber, and it has no effect except causing them to shit regular.
In this city, everyone needs some placebo.
Snow Lotus comes to Big Sister Shen again and again. Each time she leaves as if enlightened, but soon after she returns, her face full of unhappiness. I can imagine the kind of troubles that someone like her must endure, but I can’t help wanting to know more. I have many technical ways to satisfy my curiosity, but they all require that I set foot first in Big Sister Shen’s room. I know that the only way is to become a disciple.
“I need the aid of spirits,” I tell Big Sister Shen. I’m not lying.
“Come in.” Big Sister Shen has seen countless men. She can spot a liar from a mile away.
The room isn’t big and it’s dimly lit. On the wall I can see paintings of shamanistic spirits, the chaotic brushstrokes probably the result of a drug-addled brain. Big Sister Shen sits in front of a square altar covered by a red flannel cloth. On top of the altar are a mask, a cowhide drum, a drum whip, a bronze mirror, a bronze bell, and other ritual implements. An electronic prayer machine begins to recite sutras. She puts on the mask, and through the hideous eyeholes, I can see an ancient and alien light in her eyes.
“The Great Spirit is listening,” she says. Her voice is low and rasping, full of an indisputable sense of dignity.
I can’t resist her power. There’s a story locked away in the darkest corner of my memory, but it has never ceased to torment me. Sin is like wine. The more it is hidden from sunlight, the more it ferments, growing more potent. Suddenly, I startle awake. My subconscious has been playing a trick on me. It’s not curiosity about Snow Lotus that caused me to step into this room, but the inner desire to be free of repression, to seek relief.
“I’m from outside the Fence. I was an engineer.” I try to control my breathing, to steady my voice.
I’m from outside the Fence. I was an engineer.
Back in 1983, before I was born, a barbed-wire fence 84.6 kilometers long and 2.8 meters high was built to divide Shenzhen into two parts. Inside the Fence is the 327.5 square kilometers of the Special Economic Zone, outside is a wilderness of 1600 square kilometers. They say that the purpose of the Fence was to provide some relief for the border checkpoint between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Before 1997, when Hong Kong was ruled by Great Britain, there used to be many waves of illegal border crossings.
The Berlin Wall never truly fell.
The Fence and its nine checkpoints separated not only people and traffic, but also different systems of law, welfare, tax benefits, infrastructure, and identity. The area outside the Fence became Shenzhen’s “mistress.” Because of its proximity to the Special Economic Zone and its vast tracts of undeveloped land, it attracted many labor-intensive though low-value-added industries. But every time “outside the Fence” was mentioned, a Shenzhener’s first thought was of the deserts in Hollywood westerns: a poor, backwards place, where the roads were always under construction, where running red lights had no consequences, where crime was rampant and the police powerless.
But history always surprises us with similarities. Shenzhen also had its own version of the taming of the West.
In 2014, the government’s decision to finally tear down the Fence received unprecedented opposition. Shenzheners living inside the Fence believed that they would be overwhelmed by migrants from the other side and suffer increased crime. But those living outside the Fence opposed it even more. They felt that they had been abandoned by those inside the Fence back when the Special Economic Zone grew, and now that development had run into a wall due to the scarcity of developable space, they were now being exploited for their only resource: land. If unopposed, increased rent and prices would drive the low-income population out of their homes. Young people even dressed up in Native American garb and tied themselves to the Fence to prevent it from being torn down.
The factory where I worked was one of the electronics manufacturers affected by the change. Every year, we relied on orders from Europe, America, and Japan for augmented reality gear components to earn foreign currency. At the same time, our margins were being squeezed by the declining value of the dollar against the yuan. If commercial rent and wages also rose, then there would be nothing left for profit. The owner announced at an all-hands meeting that everyone should be prepared for layoffs.
I was a mold engineer. I wanted to do something to make as much money as I could before I was let go. Everyone thought that way.
Our clients gave us prototypes for unreleased products so that we could design the molds ahead of actual production. Following strict NDAs and security procedures, RFID chips embedded in the prototypes sent out signals at 433 MHz, and communicated with dedicated receivers through a proprietary over-the-air protocol. If at any time a prototype left a designated area, an automatic alarm would sound. If the prototype weren’t returned to the designated area within 300 seconds, the machine would activate a self-destructive mechanism. Of course, if that were to occur, the factory would lose all international credibility and be blacklisted by clients and get no more business.
Throughout the Pearl River Delta, experienced and crafty buyers solicited secret prototypes at high prices. Getting their hands on such prototypes and reverse engineering them would bring these shanzhai electronics manufacturers tens of millions in profits. These days, getting rich unethically was easier than running an honest business.
I had lined up everything: a willing buyer, a price, a way to deliver the goods, and an escape route. But I still needed one more thing, a helper, someone to divert the attention of the crowd and lure away the security guards. I couldn’t think of anyone better for the job than Chen Gan, who was also from my hometown.
I understood Chen Gan. He was a shy young man. His wife had just given birth to their second daughter, and he was worried about how he would be able to afford his first daughter’s elementary school tuition. As a migrant, he could not have his household registration in Shenzhen and had to pay an extra fee for his daughter to go to the regular school. Without that money, he would have to send his daughter to a different school, a low-quality place set up for the children of migrant workers. He would often look at a picture of his little girl and say that he didn’t want her to repeat the path he had walked.
I made a deposit into his bank account: not too much, just enough to cover the extra fee for the school.
For the Chinese, what reason could be more compelling than “for my child”?
At the agreed-upon time, I heard the sound of loudspeakers outside my building. I knew that Chen Gan was already playing his role. In the middle of the yard, he had covered himself in gasoline and held a lighter in his hand. He declared that if the owner didn’t pay him enough severance, then he would light himself on fire. As security guards rushed anxiously into the yard with fire extinguishers, no one paid attention as I took the emergency stairs up to the roof, clutching the stolen prototype.
I was one of only five individuals in the factory authorized to touch the prototype. Taking advantage of opportunities afforded by my duties, I had tested the RFID trigger mechanism several times. The logs appeared to only record the latitude and longitude of the device, but not the altitude. This hole allowed me to devise an effective method of delivery to the buyer.
On the roof, the wind blew strong and cold, like the moment before the first drops of rain. Almost all the workers in the factory had congregated in the yard to watch how the self-immolation drama would end. If the owner gave in to Chen Gan’s demands, tomorrow, hundreds more would be waiting for him, doused in gasoline.
But I’d known the owner for three years. He was the sort who would encourage Chen Gan to go ahead and use the lighter, and then he would light a cigarette from the smoldering pile of ash.
A dragonfly-like remote-controlled helicopter approached from afar, humming, and landed on the roof. Following directions, I tied the prototype to the bottom of the helicopter. Unsteadily, it began to rise. I anxiously watched this fragile machine, on which the lives of two men, and perhaps of even more, depended.
The maximum communication distance between the RFID chip and the receiver was about sixty feet. The roof was already close to that limit.
The helicopter hung in the air as if waiting for more direction. I didn’t know how the buyers intended to deal with the self-destructive mechanism or if they were going to crack the communication protocol and substitute in a false signal to fool the device. That was all beyond what I could control.
For a moment, I thought the helicopter might never leave. But it did eventually leave the roof, and then disappeared into the grey sky.
Calmly, I rode the elevator down and squeezed myself into the gaping crowd. I made sure that Chen Gan saw me. He nodded almost imperceptibly, gave me his trademark shy smile, and dropped the lighter.
The security guards were on him immediately and wrestled him to the ground.
It was time to leave, I thought.
I got on the intercity bus to Dongguan. But before the bus had even started its engine, my phone began to vibrate insistently. Given what I knew about the owner, I never would have had much time. But I hadn’t expected to be caught so quickly.
Maybe it was the closed-circuit cameras, or maybe Chen Gan sold me out. But I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted him to be all right, to live long enough to see his daughter go to school.
I threw away my phone, got off the bus, and got on the bus going the opposite direction, inside the Fence, into Shenzhen. Instinctively, I knew that was the safer direction.
This was how I came to be in Shazui Village.
For the last half year, I’ve tried every which way to find out news about Chen Gan, but have heard nothing. I thought I was sufficiently indifferent, indifferent to the point that I could abandon my useless conscience. But often I would awaken in the middle of the night, breathless. In my dreams, Chen Gan, smiling his shy smile, would burn and turn into a pile of ashes. Sometimes I would even dream of his two daughters, crying, burning with him, also turning into ash. I knew that I could no longer hide from myself.
“Please, tell me if he’s all right.” My face is full of tears even though I don’t remember crying.
The wooden shaman mask glowers at me with its round eyeholes, orange light reflecting off the surface. The face is that of an angry goddess. Through the eyeholes I can see a strange glint in her eyes: blue sparkling flashes, very high in frequency.
Suddenly I understand. The mask is nothing more than a fucking well-made disguise for a pair of augmented reality glasses.
All this time, I’ve thought that Big Sister Shen is just a fraud pretending to be a medium and making her money by telling her clients what they want to hear. But she actually has real power. Guessing conservatively, her information privilege level must be set to at least level IIA or above, giving her the power to access an individual’s private file based on facial recognition.
But even so, without professional grade analysis filter software, how can she glean any useful information out of that torrent within such a short time? It would be like finding a needle lost in the sea. I can only credit her shaman genes, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man being able to tell how many matches are in a box with a single glance.
The lights behind the eyeholes flash faster. My heart accelerates.
“He’s doing well.”
Hope rekindles in my heart.
“At least there, he no longer needs to worry about money.” Big Sister Shen points towards the sky. Then she adds, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I suck in a deep breath. Even though I was expecting it, now that the fear has settled into reality, I still feel a deep helplessness. The whole world seems to have lost focus, and nothing can be relied on.
I know that in this world, there’s only one thing I can do to try to atone, even if it will provide only illusory comfort for my conscience.
“I want a working bank account number for Chen Gan’s family.”
Money was once my placebo. Now I no longer need it.
It’s dark by the time I leave Big Sister Shen’s room. I look around at Shazui, where lights are just being turned on behind windows. People are bustling every which way, filling the air with hope. But my heart is like a dead pool of water. I open my hand. Emptiness.
My subconscious has played another trick on me. I did indeed install the bug below the rim of the altar. I thought I was there for Chen Gan, but in the end I couldn’t forget about Snow Lotus.
I smile, a Shenzhen-style smile.
Snow Lotus doesn’t look well.
Her face is pale. She’s wearing large shades that cover her eyes and half of her face. Without speaking to anyone, she goes straight to Big Sister Shen’s room.
I put on my headset and turn on the receiver. After a static-filled moment, I hear the sound of the electronic prayer machine.
“He hit me again.” Snow Lotus’s voice is tearful. “He said that I haven’t been turning enough tricks. He needs more money.”
“This is your own choice.” Big Sister Shen’s voice is calm, as if she’s used to hearing this.
“I should go with that Hong Kong businessman.”
“But you don’t want to leave him.”
“I’ve been with him for ten years! Ten years! I was once a girl who didn’t know anything, and now … I’m nothing but a cheap whore!”
“You want another ten years just like these?”
“Big Sister … I’m pregnant.”
Big Sister Shen is quiet for a moment. “Is it his?”
“Then tell him. You’re bearing his child. You cannot be a whore anymore.”
“He’ll tell me to abort it. This is not the first time. Big Sister, I’m getting old. I want to keep this child.”
“Then keep it.”
“He’ll kill me. He will.”
“He won’t.” Hearing your own voice from the air as well as the headset is a very odd sensation. I’m standing at the door to the room, watching a surprised Snow Lotus turning to look at me. Her face is as smooth as porcelain, except for her swollen, bruised right eye. My fists are squeezed so tight that the nails puncture my skin.
Here’s my plan. Even though it’s against my original aim, I have to admit that it’s the most likely to succeed.
Her husband is addicted to gambling. He’s also like every other gambler under the sun: superstitious. We need to allow him to make a connection between his child and good luck. For my child. My heart feels a tinge of bitterness.
Every morning, Snow Lotus will mumble a string of meaningless numbers as if talking in her sleep.
Her obsessive husband habitually seeks inspiration for his bets from anything: whether it’s the colors of the Teletubbies, or the phone number on advertising brochures. Then he’ll discover that she’s mumbling the winning lottery numbers from the day before.
Snow Lotus will tell him that she had a strange dream: she dreamt that a beautiful rainbow-colored cloud floated out of the east and drifted into her belly.
After seven days of this, we’ll come to the best part of the show.
My professional skills will finally come into use. I’ll arm Snow Lotus with wireless earbuds and augmented reality contact lenses. But the key will be a special black unitard. At first glance, it looks like regular long underwear, but specially designed fibers will deform and harden when electrically charged, resulting in precisely defined areas of tension and force, strong enough to stop a bullet.
With the addition of an array of electrodes and a communication chip, I can turn the unitard into a remote-controlled puppet suit, allowing me to pose the wearer into any position.
“Why do you want to help me?” Snow Lotus asks. She still thinks that men are only interested in her body.
“For karma.” I laugh. Big Sister Shen often says this to her customers. With the remote control, I direct the unitard-wearing Snow Lotus into various sexy poses.
“Without any clothes, I can pose even better.”
I lower my head, pretending not to hear. I continue to fiddle with the controls. Suddenly, like a warm cloud descending from the sky, two soft, pale arms are wrapped around my chest. Her voice is against my back, fills my chest, my heart, my lungs, flows up my spine into my eardrums. The voice seems to come from the bottom of my heart, and also seems to come from very far away.
“Thank you,” she says.
I want to say something, but in the end I say nothing.
Big Sister Shen and I are seeing what Snow Lotus is seeing.
After the dim stairs, we come to the familiar, pale yellow apartment. The man named East is sitting in front of the TV, watching horse races in Hong Kong, cursing all the while. Snow Lotus walks into the kitchen, preparing to make dinner.
The picture suddenly becomes still. Then a man’s two arms are wrapped around her breasts, like the way she had held me.
“Don’t,” she says.
The man does not answer. The picture suddenly shakes, and now her face is close to the faucet, her head lowered into the sink. The faucet is on, and the water rises, covering the vegetables and the fruits before draining into the overflow hole with tiny bubbles. Now the picture begins to shake rhythmically. Then comes the heavy breathing, sighing, and the occasional moaning.
I can turn off the video and audio feed, but I don’t. I observe all this almost grimly, experiencing a mixture of anger, jealousy, and disgust churning slowly in the pit of my stomach until they merge into a single feeling. I struggle to imagine what Snow Lotus is feeling, especially since she is making not a sound, not a single sound, while all this is happening under the gaze of two outsiders.
Finally, she finds some relief. She closes her eyes.
In the semidarkness, blurry patches of light penetrate her eyelids and tremble lightly. A hand is on my shoulder. It’s Big Sister Shen. She sees and knows all.
We wait until midnight. I can hear even, rhythmic snores coming from next to Snow Lotus. I lift her left hand, indicating that I’m ready. She clears her throat in response.
Now begins the fake séance.
I manipulate the puppet suit and lift her legs high up; then, I make her torso rigid and drop her legs, using them as a lever to lift her upper body off the bed. Then I let her body drop, bouncing her legs even higher. Switching thus between potential and kinetic energy, the rigid body of Snow Lotus soon behaves like a coin striking hard ground, quickly bouncing and making a frightening ruckus against the bed.
“What the fuck is the matter with you? It’s the middle of the night!” The man, rudely roused from slumber, feels for the bedside lamp and turns it on. Then, with another great noise, the man named East is bounced off the bed onto the floor.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” His curses are full of fear and shock.
As she continues to bounce, Snow Lotus’s body seems to no longer be restrained by gravity. She is like a puppet pulled up by invisible strings. Up, down, up again, she springs from the mattress. For a moment, she seems to be floating in air. The yellow ceiling comes closer, and then recedes, like some kind of breathing membrane. The edges of our vision show signs of barrel distortion as the membrane relaxes.
“That’s enough.” Big Sister Shen puts a stop to my madness. Our goal isn’t to scare this man away. I have to admit that controlling Snow Lotus’s body is addictive, as though it compensates for something subconsciously.
The amplitude of the bounces lessens. Snow Lotus’s body is once again quietly lying in bed. I relax the fibers in the puppet suit. Now she is spread out like a floppy corpse.
Just like we planned, she begins to cry. Babbling incoherently, she describes her nightmare and the strange news.
“It … it says that if we take care of it, it will repay us, like with those lottery numbers …”
“Who is it?”
The man gets up from the floor. His face is wooden, as though he has been overwhelmed with too much information. He holds in his hands a fruit knife that he grabbed from somewhere. Approaching Snow Lotus, he caresses her belly, and then lifts his head to gaze into her face. Under the warm glow of the lamp, this seems like a happy scene from a soap opera. Next will come the promise to welcome new life, followed by the deep kiss of love.
The glimmer in his beautiful pupils suddenly turns cold, dark, like a pool of black water.
“The doctor told me that my sperm is no good.” Slowly, he rubs the flat of the knife across her belly. “Now tell me, whose bastard is this. Then, get rid of it.”
“It’s yours.” Snow Lotus’s breathing is now very rapid. Her voice trembles on the verge of tears.
“You think you’re the Blessed Virgin Mary? You fucking whore!” He slaps her, hard. The picture tilts. The dressing mirror shows two silhouettes. The composition is perfect in the dim light.
“It’s yours,” she repeats, her voice weak.
The knife is now right in front of her face, the thin, sharp edge glowing with a cold light. I can longer sit and watch. I lift Snow Lotus’s hands, grab his wrist and the knife handle, and turn the knife around, pointing it towards his own chest. He’s unprepared for her speed and strength, and doesn’t know how to react.
Snow Lotus’s entire body leans forward, pushing the tip of the knife towards her husband’s chest.
“Stop!” Big Sister Shen yells. But I’m not doing anything. It’s Snow Lotus. I don’t even have a chance to restrain her.
The knife, with all of Snow Lotus’s weight behind it, sinks into the man’s skin, through muscle and ribs, through his heart. Crimson liquid oozes out of the wound and spreads, like wild flowers. He looks up, gazing past Snow Lotus, as though he sees an existence even darker, further away, until the last light of life disappears from his pupils.
The picture stays still for a while. Stunned by the sudden turn of events, we don’t know what to do. Snow Lotus suddenly begins to run. Everything in front of us is shaking violently. She runs towards the balcony, towards that patch of open night sky.
This time I don’t miss. Before she leaps into nothingness, I restrain her. Snow Lotus stops like a frozen flower and falls heavily against the floor. Angrily, she screams, struggles, and finally howls in desperation.
Death is the best placebo.
In this instance, I agree with this view.
Sirens shatter the dawn in Shazui Village. Accompanied by the police, Big Sister Shen and I walk through the crowd and duck into the police car. Snow Lotus is sitting in the back of another car, handcuffed. From the side, her porcelain cheeks are lit alternately by flashes of blue and red. She does not lift her head.
Eyes lowered, the roar of the engine in her ears, her silhouette trembles, blurs, and then disappears in the distance.
I recall the first time I spoke with Snow Lotus, and I begin down the long road of regret.