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04.02.19
The Inside Story
Jing Street, where I live, is a long, narrow street with many coffee shops and teahouses. Sitting in my third-floor study, I can see inside the “Island” coffee shop across the street. This small shop does a good business; it’s almost always packed. I frequent this shop, too. I secretly call Hoh Dao, its owner, “Mr. Perfect.” He’s probably more than sixty years old—a lean, clean-shaven person with a kindly face. It was four years ago that he opened his shop on Jing Street. From the first time I laid eyes on him, he fascinated me. People say that he’s a widower, but from his trim looks, including his stylish dress, he seems to be a man with a family. Without a doubt, he’s devoted to his work. The ones who patronize his shop are regular clients; we all call him “Papa Hoh.” We heard that he lives rather far away; to reach Jing Street by bus, he has to transfer. Still, his little shop is open every day. He has two assistants; these boys often arrive later than he does. The shop opens punctually at 9 a.m. every day, including holidays.

     “Hoh Dao has no other hobbies. Running the coffee shop is his recreation.” An old neighbor on Jing Street said in a rather disparaging tone.

     “It’s a great hobby. I can understand Papa Hoh,” I said.

     Most of his customers were young people; now and then a few old folks stopped in. Because they saw one another often, everyone was well acquainted, nodding to each other. People loved going there. It was known for its freshly ground coffee, cordial service, warm lighting, and even classical music. Sometimes I even brought my work to the shop when it wasn’t too busy. I liked working in this atmosphere. Papa Hoh was supportive of this. “Enjoy yourself,” he said, “That’s the best way to work.” I thought to myself, he was the sort of person who could influence others. Just look at his smile, and at his keenly perceptive gaze …

     The year after Papa Hoh opened this shop, I fell seriously ill. After going home from the hospital, I had to stay in for a long time. My old nanny came to see me once a day and brought me food. When I had almost recovered, I heard footsteps outside my door one day, and then someone knocked on my door.

     It was Papa Hoh holding a bunch of roses. I almost wept.

     As he took a seat, he said rather awkwardly, “Zhuoshan, you don’t mind my inviting myself over, do you? I’ve been really concerned about you. Your old nanny told me that you’re almost well, so I thought it would be okay to visit.”

     “Not at all. I’ve wanted to invite you over, but you’re so busy that I felt embarrassed to ask. Thank you, Papa Hoh. Aside from my old nanny, you’re the only one who’s been concerned about me. And yet I’ve never helped you with anything.”

     “Nonsense. You help me a lot by coming to my little shop frequently. I like young people like you—your devotion to your work inspires me to work hard, too. Sometimes I feel as if I’m not sixty-two years old, but forty-two. I’m talking too much, aren’t I? That’s the way old people are.”

     He was smiling slightly as he talked. He smelled of coffee—such a good smell! I silently called him “Papa Hoh” several times.

     We talked for almost an hour that afternoon. Papa Hoh told me that when he was young he dreamed of being a pilot, but he’d never been able to realize his wish. He had had other jobs, and finally after retiring, he had bought this coffee shop. “I’m fascinated by this work,” he laughed.

     “We’re all fascinated by you, Papa Hoh. You’re such a handsome man.”

     “No, no, I’m not.”

     After he left, my old nanny’s son—Yixin—came in.

     “My mother is going out of town tomorrow, so I’ll bring your food,” Yixin said.

     “Thank you. That’s good of you, but I no longer need to have food delivered. You can see that I’ve recovered. I’ll go back to work early tomorrow morning.”

     “Oh, Zhuoshan, I have to! My mama told me to. You know she likes you a lot. Besides, I’ve been looking forward to doing this! I saw Papa Hoh leave your place just now, and I was so excited! Zhuoshan, say it’s okay. Since you have to go to work in the morning, I’ll come at six in the evening. Okay?” He was almost begging me.

     Yixin’s unexpected persistence was a little surprising—what was wrong with this kid?

     “Sure.” I went on, “Yixin, can you tell me why Papa Hoh made you excited?”

     “Because he isn’t an ordinary person: he’s Papa Hoh! The reason I have to come here tomorrow is that I want to talk with you about him! He’s an enigma! Oh, I can’t keep it to myself: I’ll tell you and get it over with. Papa Hoh raises a golden peacock in his suburban home!”

     The moment he told this secret, Yixin regretted it. He slapped his face and said he talked too much. He’d better leave right away. He told me not to expect him to talk about the golden peacock again tomorrow, for he was just running off at the mouth. He said he had wanted to show off his close relationship with Papa Hoh, so he had simply invented something bizarre to talk about.

     Later, I felt he had thrown my mood into complete disorder. My intuition told me that there was a story behind these two persons’ visits today. And perhaps it was Yixin’s idea to deliver food to me tomorrow. Why had these two come to my home? Was it because I had a serious illness that linked my life with theirs? And what was the golden peacock all about? Some other young people had talked of this golden peacock: it’s said to be an extremely rare breed with no more than ten or so of them in the whole world. This peacock, whose entire body flashes gold, lives in the southern forests; it cannot be domesticated. Perhaps Yixin deliberately fabricated the story in order to get my attention. Why would he want to talk like this? And in the end, what was his relationship with Papa Hoh?

     Late at night, I looked across the street, and to my surprise saw that lights were still on upstairs from the coffee shop. What was this about? Hadn’t Papa Hoh gone home? This was unprecedented. After a while, I looked again: the lights were still on. Before long, I fell asleep in confusion.

     When I got up the next morning, I felt refreshed. I made my own breakfast, straightened up the room, and went over to the “Island” coffee shop.

     As always, Papa Hoh was busy behind the counter. He nodded at me and followed me to a table. He said I had just recovered and so I shouldn’t drink coffee. He suggested tea, instead.

     “If someone fixes his eyes on me, does that mean he wants my life to intersect with his?” He looked down as he said these nonsensical words.

     “Papa Hoh, are you speaking of Yixin?” I asked.

     “Your old nanny’s son? No, not him. He’s still very young.”

     In this instant, it was hard for me to grasp what Papa Hoh was saying. This was absolutely unlike his ordinary manner.

     My green tea soon arrived: it was first-class Dragon Well tea. It was refreshing. But sitting there, I felt something was a little unusual, as if Papa Hoh and I were establishing a certain connection over a certain matter, yet it wasn’t completed. I looked in all directions. The regulars were enjoying their coffee just as usual, and the two waiters were as attentive as usual. The only one who had changed was Papa Hoh. His face showed anxiety, and now and then he looked at his wristwatch. I recalled that he hadn’t slept all night. It seemed that something big was happening in his life. Ah—I hoped nothing bad was happening to him. The golden peacock that Yixin had mentioned crossed my mind. That lucky bird would protect him.

     Just as I was about to go home, an ashen-faced Yixin rushed into the shop.

     “Papa Hoh! Papa Hoh! …” he said in a rush.

     Then the two of them hid behind the counter, staying there for a long time.

     I’d better just leave. As soon as I got home, I rushed over to the window and looked out, but I didn’t see anything unusual.

     Yixin didn’t deliver food at six in the evening. I waited a while longer, and he still didn’t show up. I guessed this had something to do with Papa Hoh. At a little after seven o’clock, I went out to a restaurant for supper.

     I saw my colleague Xiaonan in the little restaurant. He greeted me with a smile, and I went over and sat next to him.

     “Tell me about your experience,” he said.

     “Experience? I haven’t experienced anything. Do you mean my illness?”

     “Don’t pretend. I’ve heard people talking about it. If you don’t want to tell me, just forget it.”

     Setting his bowl and chopsticks down, he left in a huff.

     As I ate, I thought back to everything that had happened yesterday and today, but I couldn’t think of any clues. I’d been sick, Papa Hoh had come to see me and chatted with me. He’d given me roses. Then Yixin had come and told me that he would deliver my food today. In the morning, Papa Hoh had acted different. Yixin had rushed in, and the two of them had hidden behind the counter. Then there was Yixin’s broken promise. Xiaonan had been right: one clue might connect all of this trivia. And then perhaps I would see what had happened to me. But how was I supposed to ferret out the connection among them? This could occur only if I stepped into someone else’s life. But I wasn’t the kind of person to do that.

     I still hadn’t calmed down even after leaving the restaurant. I strolled around, heading slowly toward the pet market. For some reason, I saw an image of the golden peacock in my mind’s eye. Was it creating confusion in Papa Hoh’s life? Or maybe this animal is what had excited Yixin? What rumors had my colleague Xiaonan heard? Did others know about this, too? Was I the only one in the dark?

     The pet market didn’t have many kinds of birds; still, it did have two peacocks. But they were ugly and malnourished, and their tails nearly bald. I asked the owner if he had seen golden peacocks. He glanced at me and said haughtily that these two were golden peacocks. He went on to say that animals were like people: ugly ducklings could turn into swans. As he talked, I felt a warm current in my chest. I thought of Papa Hoh, and just then I felt he was a relative of mine—closer than an actual relative. Why had I felt love for Papa Hoh the moment the pet shop owner said this? Could it be that golden peacocks were really the key to this enigma?

     After I recovered, my old nanny no longer came to my home. But Yixin sometimes visited.

     Yixin always looked dejected. As soon as he came in, he dropped into the rocking chair. Rubbing his temples, he said he was dead tired. He was a clerk at the Rose Inn. I asked him if he was exhausted because the inn did such a good business.

     “Shit!” he exploded. “It has hardly any customers! I want to quit and go home, but I can’t. I’m tangled up in that matter.”

     When I asked him what had made him so tired, he didn’t answer.

     Two more months passed, and Yixin looked more and more wan. Not until I questioned him closely did he tell me the reason—Papa Hoh’s golden peacock.

     Yixin said that Papa Hoh actually did raise a golden peacock, but one could say that this golden peacock was nonexistent—it was this contradiction that was almost making Yixin sick. This had been going on for about two months.

     Pressing a little more, I asked him what this was all about.

     “Let me tell you—the peacock that Papa Hoh raises is so vigilant that even Papa Hoh can’t get close to it. It’s an unusually proud golden peacock. Papa Hoh had a hut built in his backyard especially for this peacock. It has no other peacock as a companion, because—from Papa Hoh’s observations—it finds other peacocks repugnant. Even Papa Hoh can look at it only from far away through a telescope. He describes it as the rarest of this rare breed. The most fantastic thing is that it actually came into his home by itself! After entering the house, it made its way into the kitchen range and wouldn’t come out. Papa Hoh couldn’t do anything about it. Three days later, he asked someone to build the hut; then he placed bird feed in the hut. This worked. At midnight, the golden peacock went into the hut. Papa Hoh raised it painstakingly for three and a half years. He said it was a male, but it never seemed to be in heat. Sometimes it spread its feathers before dawn. At such times, it was a spectacular sight—its golden fireballs flew to the sky from its tail; it was just like setting off fireworks! It always spread its feathers on the lawn in front of the hut where it lived, not any other place. Last year, the peacock disappeared occasionally, but not for long. Two or three days later, it would return as if nothing had happened. Papa Hoh had his work, and so he couldn’t go out to look for it. He could only wait. This year, though, the golden peacock has gone missing several more times—beginning with twice a month, and now twice a week. I’ve been close friends with Papa Hoh for a long time. Once near his home, I happened to notice him looking at the golden peacock through his telescope. I was startled. After that, Papa Hoh and I formed a relationship that was much closer than a friendship. Because of the golden peacock’s existence, he and I became inseparable. To make a long story short, things have recently deteriorated. The golden peacock has been missing for more than a week. It can’t be found anywhere. I’ll be honest with you—please don’t laugh at me. I’ve often thought the golden peacock might be a person who changed into a peacock, and the reason it disappears is that it changes back to its original self. So last time when I saw Papa Hoh go to your home, I thought you were that bird! You won’t be angry with me, will you? And so I didn’t deliver food to you after that. I shouldn’t have deceived you. I’m so sorry.”

     “It doesn’t matter, Yixin. Tell me more,” I consoled him.

     “Oh, I don’t want to say any more. You know the ending, anyhow. The golden peacock has disappeared. Papa Hoh and I can’t be without it. We’ve felt as if we were in hell these last few days. Can you understand this?”

     His gaze was stiff, as though he were mentally ill. I couldn’t bear to question him any longer.

     I got up and brewed a pot of tea for Yixin. When I handed him a cup of tea, my hand came in contact with his ice-cold right hand. I was startled. I quickly came to realize that I had become his and Papa Hoh’s accomplice. Of course. When I was sick, hadn’t Papa Hoh come to see me and brought me roses? Now, wasn’t this impudent Yixin thinking of me as their bird? The world has many riddles. People who concentrate on the same riddle naturally feel close to one another. I was deeply moved by the fact that Yixin actually thought I was the incarnation of the golden peacock! He was the one who had personally witnessed the golden peacock setting off fireworks! I asked why he had been strolling in Papa Hoh’s neighborhood at midnight. He said it was because he was bored, and he didn’t want to go on living when he felt bored. I was stunned: this guy took life so seriously!

     “Why do you think I’m that bird?” I asked, my voice quivering.

     “Because Papa Hoh went to your home, didn’t he? And because it could be anyone.”

     I thought he was just saying whatever came to his lips, but the next moment his words seemed eerie. How come Yixin, my old nanny’s son, seemed possessed by the devil?

     He left. I walked over and carefully inspected the rocking chair where he’d been sitting. I smelled a bird’s scent. And some tiny feathers were on the cushion.

     Why was it he? Why not Papa Hoh? Exactly what kind of person was Papa Hoh? Was the story of his golden peacock true or false? If it was false, then why was Yixin behaving so crazily?

     The roses that Papa Hoh had brought me were standing in a water bottle on the windowsill. Each rose was full of life, as if they would never wither. They seemed to be explaining everything that had happened, but I couldn’t understand.

     I couldn’t fall asleep, probably because of Yixin.

     A voice whispered constantly: “Go to hell, Zhuoshan!”

     That voice was a little familiar, but it definitely wasn’t Yixin’s nor was it Papa Hoh’s. As I said, these two had become my relatives. Now I had a younger brother, a bird man, and also a kindly father—maybe a devil, but still my father.

     I turned on the light and looked at the clock. It was four o’clock. I couldn’t sleep, anyhow, so I might as well go out for a breath of fresh air and a walk.

     As I got dressed, I unconsciously glanced out the window: I couldn’t help but shiver, for the “Island” coffee shop’s door was wide open.

     I went downstairs and walked into the coffee shop. Only one light was on, and Papa Hoh was behind the counter doing his accounts. Sitting at a table inside was a young woman. Unmoving, she was staring at a cup of coffee and a rose in a vase. Who was she? Was she Papa Hoh’s mistress? Or someone who’d been jilted? I was about to leave when Papa Hoh shouted at me.

     “Zhuoshan, can’t you sleep? Let’s talk for a while.”

     He came out from the counter, and led me over to the young woman’s table.

     “This is Cherry Jin. She’s my young friend. She was jilted. She feels jilted every night.”

     When Papa Hoh introduced her, something occurred to me.

     Cherry Jin didn’t seem to have heard. Her face was expressionless.

     Papa Hoh went off to make coffee. I glanced at the pale face before me. I was scared. I stood up and said sorry, and quickly made an excuse to go over to Papa Hoh.

     “Papa Hoh, is Cherry Jin’s lover your bird?”

     When I asked this, I was shaking nervously and locked my eyes on Papa Hoh.

     “That’s right. It’s the bird. Isn’t this beautiful?” he said.

     “So you’re the one who hid it?” I asked, gasping for breath.

     “No, Zhuoshan. Didn’t Yixin tell you? It didn’t let me get close to it. Okay, Zhuoshan, let’s have some coffee.”

     Cherry Jin was still sitting there, not moving. Papa Hoh whispered to me, “She sees it.”

     I didn’t know if I was hallucinating or not. I thought the girl was smiling a little, and then she donned her mask again. Was it possible that she could see that mysterious bird only when she sat here? Was the rose a prop? Aiya, Papa Hoh, Papa Hoh … I looked at him through a blur of tears.

     Then the girl stood up and left the coffee shop as if she were sleepwalking.

     As soon as she left, I relaxed. Papa Hoh nodded, indicating I should drink the coffee. I swallowed a mouthful. Ah, it was wonderful!

     “Papa Hoh, you’re a charmer. I love you,” I said impulsively.

     “Shush!” He held a finger to his mouth.

     As I drank my coffee, I listened attentively, but I heard nothing. I thought, maybe this is because there’s too much noise in my world. Papa Hoh looked serious, and I thought he was hearing the sound that he wanted to hear. He sat here, his back straight, full of vitality. He seemed much younger than I. I was ashamed and a little restless.

     “Cherry Jin walked to the footbridge. There, she saw the …” Papa Hoh murmured.

     I heard a sharp sound from the back room. Papa Hoh and I stood up at the same time, but Papa Hoh told me to stay where I was. He went into that room and didn’t reemerge. It was light outside, and I saw Cherry Jin walking past on the street. She looked young and exuberant.

     I’d better leave without saying goodbye to Papa Hoh.


 



On my way home after I got off work, I ran into Cherry Jin. She shook my hand warmly. I saw a rose in her wide-open coat pocket.

     “What are you looking for?” I asked as I looked into her eyes.

     “I don’t know. You need to ask Papa Hoh about this kind of thing. But in general, when a young girl goes out at midnight, she’s looking for love. Isn’t that what you’re doing, too?” She winked at me.

     “I’m not sure …” I said, at a loss. “I love Papa Hoh, but I don’t understand him. This sort of love is blind.”

     “I love him, too. He’s someone who can motivate people to search for love. Don’t you think he’s too serious? He holds a whip.” She giggled.

     “That’s an accurate description,” I said earnestly.

     Cherry Jin parted from me, taking another road. I was staring at her unrestrained receding figure and recalling the way she looked that night in the coffee shop. At the side of the street, a woman was calling back her baby’s soul. As she walked, she called the baby’s name forlornly. Was Papa Hoh perhaps also collecting souls for us? At night, people like us needed this. The coffee shop was a beacon in the dark sea. Papa Hoh didn’t sleep at night and still ran the coffee shop energetically in the daytime. How could he manage? What stuff was he made of? And even more important: Had his golden peacock come back?

     This evening, Papa Hoh’s coffee shop was crowded. I noticed many more tables set up inside. At first, I had meant to cool my close relationship with Papa Hoh a little. But I couldn’t help myself. I went downstairs.

     “Zhuoshan, how are you doing? Shall I set you up with a girl?” Papa Hoh asked.

     “No, thanks. I’m not in the mood. I’ll just take a cup of coffee, please,” I said.

     “What’s wrong with you? Look around. All the people here are couples.”

     Papa Hoh frowned at me, so I gave in.

     The girl he led over to me was pretty. She was holding a peacock feather. She placed the feather in a vase on the table and sat down.

     “Are you a peacock princess?” I asked.

     She nodded her head slightly.

     A strong scent came from that feather, making me feel sleepy. Luckily, the coffee came just then. I invited the girl to have some coffee with me. Oh, how pleasant this was! We smiled at one another.

     “You don’t seem used to this scent.” She said quietly, “But this was a gift from Papa Hoh. I’m carried along by it.”

     “What?” I lowered my voice in amazement. “Are you telling a story?”

     “Naturally. People who come here all tell their own stories. I think you’ll gradually get used to this. But you must invite me to have coffee often.”

     “Get used to what?”

     “The scent. You must have smelled it often.”

     I nodded. I felt even sleepier. The lights in the shop were turned down. I sensed the girl moving closer to me. She said there was something under the table, so I felt with my foot. I felt several times without finding anything. My eyelids were closing, but I heard the girl scream, “I definitely won’t give in!”

     I woke up with a start. She asked if I wanted to leave with her, and I nodded.

     It was warm outside. On a night like this, one’s fancy could run wild. She and I walked out of Jing Street and crossed two other streets. Finally, we stopped at Cobbler Street, a street full of old houses being torn down. The old walls around the mansions were toppling. From some corner, the girl found a hoe and ordered me to dig into that blocked-up wall. I said I didn’t feel like doing that, and she got angry and brandished the hoe crazily. Rumbling, the wall collapsed. Luckily, she and I had just enough time to get away. We were covered in ash. After the dirt slowly fell away, the strong scent of the bird feather assaulted us again in the warm south wind. I sensed gigantic birds standing all around us, but I couldn’t see them.

     “Is it the golden peacock?” I asked hurriedly.

     “You fool!” she said.

     I heard her footsteps going away.

     A small girl walked out of the mansion. She was carrying a lantern.

     “Why didn’t you catch up with her? It’s too late now,” she said.

     “But who is she?”

     “You shouldn’t ask this. I’ll show you the way home.”

     Carrying the lantern, she walked ahead. She led me out of the ruins, then disappeared.

     Now I was alone. The street lights had been turned off, and darkness swallowed me. I jumped a few times, wanting to make some noise. But my feet hit the ground with no sound. Damn!

     I had to rely on memory to find my way home, but without a reference point, my memory was useless. Okay then, I would just walk aimlessly. I’d get home eventually.

     “Zhuoshan, why are you eager to leave? Let’s just enjoy the dark.”

     The one who had spoken, of course, was the peacock princess. She was next to me.

     “Great, princess. Is it true that all you have to do is think of Papa Hoh’s bird, and you turn into it right away?”

     “Very clever! You get it really fast. Stroke my feathers,” she said.

     I stroked those coarse feathers and wondered why they weren’t giving off golden light.

     “I know what you’re thinking. But it’s true: I am the bird.”

     “Then, is Yixin also the bird?” I asked.

     “Yes. Are you happy now?” she said.

     “Happy? I don’t know. I feel a little feverish. Oh, I see it. It’s on the roof over there. It really is the bird! I’m truly happy! So are you another bird?”

     “No, I’m simply the one on the roof.”

     “But now it has disappeared … I felt it. This is a tail! What a wonderful scent! So close!” I felt feverish all over.

     I had no sooner said this than I realized I was standing on Jing Street.

     When I passed the coffee shop, I saw many people inside. It was two in the morning, and they still weren’t going home. I noticed again that these young people were craning their necks to look at that wall. Could it be that they were seeing the same scene that I had seen earlier in the evening?

     When I went upstairs, I smelled the bird scent in the corridor.

     Standing in front of the window and staring at the “Island” coffee shop, I was filled with love for Papa Hoh.

     “Zhuoshan, have you found love yet?”

     It was actually Papa Hoh. He sat down in the rocking chair and closed his eyes, saying he wanted to rest for ten minutes.

     “The peacock princess—do you like her?” he said.

     “I can’t say for sure what I feel for her …”

     “Why would you have to say for sure? Everyone loves her.” When he said this, I really felt passion for that girl, and my face flushed. But why hadn’t I felt any affection for her before?

     “I have to go back. They’re waiting for me.” He stood up and shook hands with me. His hand was like ice. “These kids have exhausted me tonight.”

     As soon as he left, I looked at the rocker, but there was nothing in it. Nor was there a bird scent. He had said he was exhausted. Could it be that he was the real golden peacock? As I was wondering that, I sensed a bird scent coming from my armpits. So it definitely was he. He had poured all of his energy into our young bodies. I fantasized that a few hundred years ago, his ancestors had lived here. Back then, there was no city here. It was a large forest. … Otherwise, why did all of us love him without exception? Why were we all fascinated by him? He had come from the forest. Would he go back there one day?

     It was past midnight, and I fell asleep at last. But before long, I awakened again with a start. I got up and looked out the window. I saw that the “Island” coffee shop across the way was dark. It seemed Papa Hoh had gone home. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t dark. Something inside was sparkling!

     I dressed and went downstairs. Reaching the shop’s entrance, I looked through the glass door.

     “Zhuoshan, you worry too much. I’m sleeping in the shop tonight. I couldn’t sleep and got up for a walk.”

     Opening the door, he invited me in.

     The moment I took a seat, I was engulfed by a bird scent. I was trembling happily all over.

     “What was giving off light in the shop just now?” I asked.

     “Light? It couldn’t have been I. What do you think, Zhuoshan?”

     “I thought it was you, Papa Hoh.”

     Papa Hoh didn’t turn on the light. I heard him groping for something in his pocket.

     “A bird’s egg.” He told me, “I’m hatching a little peacock.”

     Oh! The scent of a warm feather! And the murmurs blown over the street by the south wind! This was definitely not a dream, but the most beautiful moment.

     “Papa Hoh, how did you come to be among us?”

     When I asked this incoherent question, he was laughing. It was a soundless laugh. I could feel it.

     “I used to live on Jing Street. A long time ago, I sold tea eggs here. Later, I had a predestined relationship with a peacock. This wasn’t at all odd, for I had always been fond of birds and flowers.”

     “Papa Hoh, maybe it isn’t appropriate for me to sit here.”

     “Don’t be silly. I opened this shop precisely for young people like you.”

     Papa Hoh told me to go home and get some sleep, for it would soon be light.

     —Which I did.

     I didn’t wake up until the next afternoon. I was still excited.


 



I ran into Yixin at an abandoned temple in the suburbs. His hair was a mess and his face dirty, but he seemed in good spirits.

     “Zhuoshan, I’ve found it. It’s in the hole in the wall over there … and it hasn’t come out. It has only shown its head. It’s definitely the peacock. Definitely. It hasn’t given out light yet, because it isn’t ready.” He looked fanatical.

     “I guess this one is your ‘it’—am I right? Congratulations!”

     “Want to see it?”

     “Would it welcome me?”

     “In fact, what it likes most is being seen by people. But it doesn’t want to be watched close up. Never mind, you can use my telescope.”

     I crouched on the ground and pointed Yixin’s telescope at the wall more than thirty meters away.

     Indeed there was something inside the hole, but what was protruding certainly wasn’t a peacock. It was simply an ordinary broom.

     “Yixin, how can it be a broom …”

     “That’s right. It’s just like a broom! You must stay calm! This is no ordinary broom. It sweeps a new frontier for people who look at it, and it makes you feel fresh all over.”

     “But what I want to see is the golden peacock.”

     “It is the golden peacock. Aren’t you satisfied? If you aren’t, then just don’t look at it.”

     Yixin took the telescope away from me and didn’t let me look any longer.

     “Yixin, you’re so deep. I can’t keep up with your thoughts.”

     “Of course you can’t.” He lifted his head arrogantly. “I worked really hard for a long time before I finally got it. Too bad you’re still unable to appreciate its magic.”

     “Okay, let’s talk about it then.”

     “We need to lower our voices a little. It will be unhappy if it hears us. It came here from Gold Village because it believed it belonged to our city. I heard this from Papa Hoh.”

     “Is it because I’m just an ordinary person that I can’t see it?” I asked, puzzled.

     “You’ve seen it already; you just have to change your perspective. Before you came, I observed it for a long time. It came out once and spread its tail for me. It was an unforgettable experience.”

     As he spoke, tears glistened in Yixin’s eyes. Oh, Yixin—my old nanny’s son. But who was he, really?

     He walked slowly toward the wall. I wanted to catch up with him, but he stopped me with a gesture.

     “Stay here. Your time hasn’t come yet,” he said.

     I saw him walk to a place not far from the opening in the wall. I saw a strong wind suck him in. This was unimaginable—how could such a small opening draw him in? But he had been sucked in, no question about it. I couldn’t keep from walking over there. But the opening had disappeared without a trace. The wall was barren, as if saying, “You came too late.”

     “Yixin!!!” I screamed.

     “Why are you shouting for him?” Cherry Jin sneered. She walked over from the side of the wall.

     “Sooner or later, your friend will come out by himself,” she said after thinking for a moment.

     “Papa Hoh whipped me,” I answered.

     “You’re just as lucky as your friend. You should be aware of that. Are you interested in going to my home for a while? It’s nearby.”

     “Sure.”

     Her home was near the temple. It was in an old building.

     It was dark inside. She turned on all the lights.

     Many traps made of coarse rope hung from the ceiling. There must have been at least ten of them. Because people upstairs were jumping, the rope traps kept swaying.

     “Don’t stare at them. I use them for exercising,” she said with a smile.

     “Are you always so surprisingly strong?”

     “Huh? Surprising? Do you mean that I don’t sleep at night? Some birds don’t sleep much, either.”

     “I’m ashamed of myself, Cherry Jin.”

     “Don’t be silly, Zhuoshan. You can also get stronger. People like us—I mean Papa Hoh, you, me, and Yixin—we’re the strongest ones in this area.”

     I stood up and took my leave. She smiled at me affectionately. I smelled the faint scent of the feather again.

     From the road, one could see the whole city lying prone under the sky. The dusk began to hide its secret. I thought, at this moment perhaps a shadow is moving slightly. When I reached out to touch it, I was startled to come into contact with a warm body.

     I returned to my home on Jing Street and saw again the scene of the “Island” coffee shop. It was crowded as usual. But the customers quickly sat down in orderly fashion. My home had now become an annex to a giant birds’ nest.

Longtime Conjunctions contributor Can Xue’s Love in the New Millennium is one of thirteen books longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. Published in 2018 by Yale University Press, it was translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. Can Xue was short-listed for the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature for 2016 and received the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover (Yale University Press). Her story in Conjunctions:65 Sleights of Hand is from her novella Story of the Slums.
Karen Gernant, professor emerita at Southern Oregon University, collaborates with Chen Zeping in translating contemporary Chinese fiction. Among their translations are Can Xue's Blue Light in the Sky (New Directions), Five Spice Street (Yale UP), Vertical Motion (Open Letter Books), and Frontier (Open Letter); as well as Zhang Kangkang's White Poppies and Other Stories (Cornell East Asia Series) and Alai's Tibetan Soul (MerwinAsia).
Chen Zeping has published widely in his field of Chinese linguistics. In collaboration with Karen Gernant, he has translated several contemporary Chinese writers into English, including Can Xue, Zhang Kangkang, Alai, Yan Lianke, and Lin Bai. He has taught in the United States and Japan and is also a professor at Fujian Teachers' University.