The following excerpt, the opening passage of Frontier, introduces the central character, Liujin. Note the the crisp, unadorned quality of Can Xue’s prose and the fine membrane between the ordinary and the surreal.
Frontier is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.
— Joseph Schreiber
IT WAS LATE. Liujin stood there, leaning against the wooden door. The ripe grapes hanging on the arbors flickered with a slight fluorescence in the moonlight. Blowing in the wind, the leaves of the old poplar tree sounded lovely. The voice of someone talking blended with the rustling of the poplar leaves. Liujin couldn’t hear what he was saying. She knew it was the man who had recently been coming here late every night and sitting on the stone bench near the courtyard gate. At first, this had frightened Liujin and she hadn’t dared to go outside. Time after time, she had peeped out the window. Later on, realizing that this bear-like old man was harmless, she worked up the courage to approach him. He had good eyesight: even in the dim light, his eyes were as penetrating as sharp glass. He was busying his hands twisting hemp. He didn’t like to talk with people; his answers to Liujin’s questions were always vague: “I’m not sure . . .” He wasn’t one of her neighbors; where did he come from? Although he didn’t talk with her, he seemed to enjoy talking to himself. His words kept time with the sound of the wind and the leaves. When the wind stopped, he stopped. This was really strange. Tonight, his voice was louder, and pricking up her ears, Liujin made out a few words: “At noon, in the market . . .” Liujin tried hard to imagine the scene in this indoor market: piece goods, gold and silver jewelry, raisins, tambourines, foreigners, and so on. But she had no clue what the old man meant. Even though it was late, a woman was actually singing piteously and plaintively on the other side of the street; the woman seemed to be young. Could she be singing for the old man? But he apparently wasn’t listening; he was talking to himself. These days, Liujin had grown accustomed to his voice. She thought the old man looked a little like the poplar tree in the courtyard. The poplar was old, and so this man must be old, too. Liujin asked: Are you twisting the hemp to sell it? He didn’t answer. Sleepy, Liujin went off to bed. Before she fell asleep, she heard the young woman’s song turn sad and shrill. When she arose in the morning, she saw that the old man had left without a trace—not even a bit of hemp had been dropped on the ground. He really was a strange person. When she inquired of the neighbors, they said they didn’t know of such a person. No one had seen him. This made sense, for people generally didn’t go out so late. Liujin knew that she went to bed later than anyone else in the little town: she had formed this habit a long time ago. Still, what about the young woman singing? Judging by the direction the voice came from, she seemed to be from Meng Yu’s family. That family bought sheep from the pastures, slaughtered them in the market, and sold the fresh meat. With the strange old man showing up in her yard, Liujin no longer felt desolate and lonely in the autumn nights. She felt a vague affection for him, but she preferred not to explore the nature of this emotion.
She had lived by herself in this small enclosed area for five years. Before she was born, her parents had moved here from a large industrial city in the interior. Five years ago, her elderly parents went back to their hometown with many others, but she didn’t. Why had she stayed? Why hadn’t she wanted to go to the big city? She had some impressions of the city from her father’s descriptions of it. These impressions were mostly misty, not very reliable; she had tried hard to synthesize them, but without success. And so when her parents packed their bags and prepared to leave this small frontier town to go back to their old home, she began to feel dizzy. She was even unsteady when she walked. Late at night, for several days before they left, she heard the cracking sound at the riverside: with her bizarre sense of hearing, she knew the sound came from the poplars. These explosions came at intervals until the wee hours. In response to this inauspicious sound, a vague notion gradually occurred to Liujin. When she suggested that she stay behind, her father merely raised his right eyebrow. This was the way he expressed himself whenever something confirmed what he thought. “You’re an adult. It’s your choice.” All of a sudden, Liujin realized that he and Mama had been waiting for her to suggest this: she really was an idiot. So she unpacked her suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. True, she was thirty years old: why did she have to live with her parents? When the train started, her parents didn’t lean out the window. She didn’t know what they were thinking about. But when the last car was about to vanish from view, she suddenly saw clearly the big city in the distance. To be precise, it wasn’t a city, but a large white cloud floating in midair, with mirages in the mist. She even saw the apartment in the tall building where her parents lived. She didn’t know why their window was so dark in the strong light. How had she recognized it? Because her mother’s old-style pleated skirt was hanging in front of the window. On her way back, she walked steadily. She was returning to the home that now belonged to her alone. She trembled a little in excitement.
At first, Liujin wasn’t used to living alone. She sold cloth at the market. Every day when she left the noisy market and returned to the isolated little house, it was dark. For several days in a row, a tiny white wagtail strode hurriedly into her house; the little thing cried out briefly and sharply, as if looking for its companion. After quickly patrolling around inside, it left with a despondent cry. Liujin heard it fly to a tree, where it continued chirping. Had it experienced some tragedy in its life? Sitting under the lamp, she thought about the man who had recently been coming often to the market. He wore glasses, and when he picked up the cloth to look at it, his glasses almost touched the material. Liujin found this amusing. He seemed out of place in the market. He wasn’t like the other shoppers, and he didn’t bring any shopping bags, either. He was dressed like a farmer from the frontier. Of course he wasn’t a farmer; one could see that from the expression in his eyes. He always looked at cloth, but never bought any. Nor did he glance at Liujin. The way he touched the homemade cloth brought about an almost physiological response in Liujin. What kind of person was he? “I’m just looking,” he said, as if imploring Liujin. “Go ahead and look as long as you like,” she replied stiffly. All of a sudden—she didn’t know why—she felt empty inside.
One day, although it was late, the white wagtail hadn’t returned to its nest. It was circling beside a thorny rose bush, singing sadly. Acting on a hunch that something had happened, Liujin walked into the courtyard. She saw the bespectacled man from the market talking with a young woman under the streetlight. Suddenly, the woman screamed and ran away. Looking dizzy, the man leaned against a power pole, closed his eyes, and rested. The wagtail sang even more sadly, as if it were a mother who had lost her daughter. Approaching the man, Liujin said softly, “Tomorrow, I’ll take out a few more bolts of new cloth with a snow lotus pattern. It’s like . . . snow lotus, and yet it isn’t.” When the man heard her talking to him, he relaxed a little and said “Hello.” He turned and looked at her courtyard. Just then, she noticed that the wagtail had disappeared. Without saying anything else, the man left. The way he walked was funny—a little like a horse. Liujin had heard others call him “Mr. Sherman.” Maybe her encounters with him at the market weren’t accidental. Otherwise, why had he appeared in front of her house today? She also remembered the way the young woman had stamped her feet impatiently; at that time, the wagtail was chirping non-stop. Later, Liujin ran into this man in front of her house several times and greeted him properly, calling him “Mr. Sherman.” He always stood there—a little as if he were waiting for someone, for he kept looking at his watch. Liujin wondered if he was waiting for the young woman. Why had he chosen this place? How strange.
With Mr. Sherman showing up, Liujin had more energy. She worked hard tending her garden. Whenever she had a day off, she went into full swing. She planted many chrysanthemums and salvia along the wall—near the thorny rose bushes that were already there. There were still two poplars, one in the front and one in the back of the courtyard. Now she planted a few sandthorn trees: she liked plain trees like this. She also fertilized the grapes. On one of her days off, Mr. Sherman entered her courtyard. Liujin invited him to sit under the grape arbor. She brought out a tea table and placed a tea set on it. Just as they were about to drink tea, the wagtail appeared. It walked quickly back and forth, its tail jumping with each step. It kept chirping. Mr. Sherman paled and craned his neck like a horse and looked out. Finally, without drinking his tea, he apologized and took his leave. Liujin was very puzzled. It was this bird—perhaps it was two or three birds, all of them alike—that particularly puzzled her. Liujin realized she hadn’t seen the young woman again. What was going on between her and Mr. Sherman? Just now as he was sitting here, she had noticed that his right index finger was hurt and was wrapped in a thick bandage. He was dexterous in picking up his teacup with his left hand. Maybe he was left-handed.
By and large, Liujin’s life consisted of going from her home to the market and from the market to her home. On an impulse one night, she walked out and took the street to the riverside. The water level was low, and the small river would soon dry up. The sky was high. She walked along the river in the moonlight. There, she saw the corpses of poplars. She didn’t know if the four or five poplars had died of old age or if they had died unexpectedly. Their tall, straight trunks were ghostly. At first sight, her heart beat quickly. It was hard to muster the nerve to walk over to them. She startled a few willow warblers: their sharp cries made her legs quiver. She turned around and left, walking until she was sweating all over; then finally she looked back. How could the dead poplar trees still be right before her? A shadow emerged from the poplar grove and said, “Ah, are you here, too?” The sound startled her and almost made her faint. Luckily, she recognized her neighbor’s voice. The neighbor wasn’t alone. Behind him was another shadow. It was Mr. Sherman, and he was laughing. As he approached, Mr. Sherman said to Liujin, “When one sees dead trees like this, one shouldn’t run away. If you do, they’ll chase right after you.” The neighbor chimed in, “Mr. Sherman’s telling the truth, Liujin. You haven’t experienced this before, have you?” Even though she was standing in the shadows, Liujin felt her face turn fiery red. Had these two been hiding here long? How had she happened to come here just now? She recalled sitting at the table earlier writing her mother a letter, and being unable to go on writing because her mother’s words kept reverberating in her ears: “. . . Liujin, Liujin. There’s no way for you to come back to us. You’d better take good care of yourself.” Did Mama want her back after so long? She stood up and listened closely for a while to the wagtail’s lonely singing in the courtyard. When she had rushed out the gate, she forgot to close it. Perhaps these two men came here often to study these dead trees, but it was the first time she had ever come here.
“Look, the others are flourishing. It’s only these few trees: Did they commit collective suicide?”
When Mr. Sherman spoke again, his glasses were flashing with light. Liujin looked over at the trees and saw the moon brighten. The other poplars were so beautiful and vivacious that they seemed on the verge of speaking. Only the few dead ones were spooky. Her neighbor, old Song Feiyuan, rammed a shovel against a dead poplar trunk. Liujin noticed that the tree trunk remained absolutely still. Old Song chucked the shovel away and stood dazed in front of the trunk. Mr. Sherman laughed a little drily. Liujin suddenly recalled how wild this neighbor was when he was home. That autumn, this old man had gone crazy and dismantled the rear wall of his house. Luckily, the roof was covered with light couch grass, so the house didn’t collapse. In the winter, he warded off the cold north wind with oilcloth.
“Brother Feiyuan, what are you doing? These trees are dead,” Liujin tried to calm him down. A sound came from the river, as if a large fish had jumped up out of the water.
Liujin was three meters away from the men as she spoke to them. She wanted to get a little closer, but whenever she took a step, they backed up. When she straightened again after bending down to free a grain of sand from her shoe, they had disappeared into the woods. A gust of wind blew over her, and Liujin felt afraid. She turned around to leave, but bumped into a dead tree. After taking a few steps around the dead tree, she bumped into another one. She saw stars and shouted “Ouch!” She looked up and saw that the dead tree trunks, standing close together, were like a wall bending around her and enclosing her. Apart from the sky above, she could see only the dark wall of trees. Frustrated, she sat down on the ground, feeling that the end of the world was approaching. It was really absurd: How had she come here? Fish were still jumping in the little river, but the sound of the water was far away. She buried her head in her hands. She didn’t want to see the tree trunks. She thought it might be her neighbor Song Feiyuan playing tricks. This had to be an illusion, yet how had he and Mr. Sherman caused her to produce such an illusion? She strained to consider this question, but she was too anxious and couldn’t reach a conclusion. Suddenly aware of a strong light, she moved her hands and saw lightning—one bolt after another lit up her surroundings until they shone snow-bright. The dead trees that had closed up around her had now retreated far into the distance. The branches danced solemnly and wildly in the lightning. She stood up and ran home without stopping.
Recalling these events, Liujin felt it was quite natural that the old man had come to her small courtyard. Perhaps it was time for—for what? She wasn’t sure; she only felt vaguely that it had something to do with her parents who were far away. She remembered that the year before he left, her father had also twisted hemp. In the winter, he had sat on the bare courtyard wall: he had watched the activity on the street while twisting hemp. Not many people were on the road then, and there were even fewer vehicles. Father twisted the hemp unhurriedly, and—a hint of a smile floating on his face—gazed at the people passing by. “Dad, do you see someone you know?” Liujin asked. “Ah, no one is a stranger. This is a small town.” Liujin thought to herself, Since every person was familiar, then Father must be taking note of something. What was it? Liujin walked into the courtyard and went over to the wall where her father had often sat. Just then, she heard the sorrowful singing of a bird. The bird was in a nearby nest; perhaps it had lost its children, or perhaps it was hurt, or perhaps nothing had happened. Or was it a pessimist by nature? From its voice, she could tell that the bird was no longer young. Maybe, back then, Father had sat here in order to listen to it. This seemed to be the only spot where one could hear it. What kind of bird was it? She guessed that the nest was built in the poplar tree in back, but when she walked a few steps away, she couldn’t hear the bird. When she returned to her original spot, she could hear it again. If Father had made a companion of it in the winter, it must be a local bird. Could it be an injured goose? If a wild goose had been injured, how could it build a nest in a poplar tree? It did sound a little like a goose. Geese flying south sometimes sounded like this. Whenever Liujin heard geese at night, she couldn’t hold back her tears. It was clearly a cry of freedom, but it sounded to her like the dread that precedes execution. “The sound is directional. You can’t hear it unless you’re in just the right place,” the old man addressed her suddenly and quite distinctly. The hemp in his hands gave off soft silver-white light. “Where did you come from?” Liujin walked over to him. He lowered his head and mumbled, “I can’t remember . . . Look, I am . . .” He broke off. Liujin thought, What kind of person has no memory? Is there a category of people like this? He is . . . who is he? She wanted to move closer to him, but she felt something pull at her right foot and nearly fell down. She was greatly surprised. After regaining her balance, she thought she would try once more—but this time with her left foot. She staggered and ended up sitting on the ground. The old man sat there twisting hemp, as if he hadn’t noticed. Liujin heard herself shout at him angrily, “Who are you?!”
Though it was late at night, a column of horse-drawn carts ran past. This hadn’t happened for years. Liujin had heard that the city was growing, but she’d had no interest in looking at those places. She heard it was expanding toward the east, but the snow mountain was to the east. How could the city expand there? Had a corner of the snow mountain been chopped off? Or were houses being built halfway up the mountain? Liujin had seen snow leopards squatting on a large rock halfway up the mountain: they were graceful and mighty—like the god of the snow mountain. Later, she had dreamed several times of the snow leopards roaring, and at the time, rumbling thunder had echoed from the earth. But even now, she wasn’t sure what snow leopards sounded like. Because it was the weekend, she resolved to watch the old man all night, and find out when he left and where he went. After the sound of the horse-carts disappeared, he stood up. From behind, he looked like a brown bear. He crossed the street and headed for Meng Yu’s home. Meng Yu’s window was lit up. After the old man went in, the young woman, who was singing again, began to wail sadly and shrilly. Liujin heard loud noises coming from the house: Was something going to happen? But after a while it grew quiet and the lamp was also extinguished. After standing there a little longer, she went back to her house and fell asleep. She didn’t know when daylight came. The night seemed long, very long.
— Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping
Published with permission from Open Letter Books
Can Xue is a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow.” She learned English on her own and has written books on Borges, Shakespeare, and Dante. Her publications in English include, The Embroidered Shoes, Five Spice Street, Vertical Motion, and The Last Lover, which won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.
Karen Gernant is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. She translates in collaboration with Chen Zeping.
Chen Zeping is a professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Teachers’ University, and has collaborated with Karen Gernant on more than ten translations.