Qiu Yiping, a thirteen-year-old middle-school student, was secretly in love with her thirty-five-year-old cousin with the whimsical name Xuwu. An orphan whose parents had died long ago, he was a scientist researching hot-air balloons. Qiu Yiping hadn’t seen him in the past, but in the last year Xuwu had often visited her village to test hot-air balloons and had become close to Qiu Yiping’s family.
Whenever her cousin came to the village, Qiu Yiping grew so excited that she couldn’t even concentrate on her classes. As soon as school was out, she rushed home and went to the mountain to the east to look for her cousin. He was tall, wore glasses, was a little humpbacked, and walked a bit sluggishly. He didn’t look at all bright.
The mountain on the east was called Tomb Mountain; it was more than a thousand meters above sea level. Generally, Xuwu launched his hot-air balloons from halfway up the mountain and let them float along its contours and above Yiping’s village. Everyone in the village would come out to watch this rare sight. Each time, Yiping swelled with pride.
Her cousin had stayed overnight with her family only twice—both times because it was raining hard. Ordinarily, he slept in the wicker basket below the hot-air balloon, where he kept the things he needed for daily use. Day and night, Yiping yearned to soar into the sky in the hot-air balloon with her cousin, but he had never invited her to go along. He said, “It’s dangerous.” She didn’t believe him. She thought he looked down on her and was weary of her pestering him.
On the mountain, her cousin sometimes took off his coat and wore only a sailor’s shirt. He curled up like a shrimp and repaired the hot-air balloon’s heater. Sometimes he did nothing at all but just sat there looking at the sky. No matter what her cousin was doing, Yiping liked to be beside him; she would even like to be with him for a lifetime.
The hot-air balloon was red, the color of the sun setting at twilight. Many times, Yiping thought that her cousin looked at the hot-air balloon as though he were looking at his sweetheart. Yiping had heard her parents say that he hadn’t married and that he didn’t have a girlfriend, either. Could it be that the hot-air balloon was his girlfriend? When Yiping pondered this in the middle of the night, her eyes glinted in the dark, and she felt warm all over. She made up many stories about girlfriends her cousin had had in the past: She was sure he had had girlfriends in the past. She yearned to be with him at night on the mountain, viewing the moon and stars. But that was impossible, for her parents and the neighbors would all say she was “shameless.”
It was Sunday. Qiu Yiping had gotten up early and hastily done the housework—washed and dried the clothes, prepared food for the pigs, fed the chickens, swept the courtyard, and cooked the breakfast. Then she had gulped down two stewed potatoes and slipped out of the courtyard. She started running toward Tomb Mountain, because she was afraid her family would stop her.
When she had climbed halfway up the mountain, she saw that her cousin was still asleep in the wicker basket. He had covered one side of his face with the quilt, and he looked very funny. The sound of Yiping’s footsteps awakened him, and he suddenly sat up, hastily reaching out for his glasses.
“Oh, I overslept. I was really tired out before daylight.” He said, embarrassed, “You can’t imagine, Yiping. I ascended to the top of the mountain and then even higher. Even higher! All of a sudden, I saw her. She was flying past like a big bird. My God!”
“Who? Who was flying—flying past like—like a big bird?” Yiping began stammering.
“You don’t understand. You don’t get it.” Her cousin waved his hand, revealing his annoyance.
“Let’s not talk about it anymore,” he added.
He was wearing a blue-and-white-striped sailor shirt as he stood at one side and washed his face and brushed his teeth. He looked like a bittern. After he had cleaned up, he took some bread out of the basket and cut it into several small pieces, dipped them in ketchup, and ate slowly. He offered some to Yiping, but she turned him down. She didn’t want to make a pig of herself!
Seeing that her cousin’s mind was elsewhere, Yiping thought he had pretty much forgotten her existence.
“Cousin, let me ride in the hot-air balloon just once! Just once!” Yiping begged.
“How could I do that?” He was immediately on his guard. “If your parents found out, they would break my neck! And what would the other villagers say? … Don’t be silly.”
“We could keep them from seeing. I could run out quietly in the middle of the night. No one would know. Didn’t you say just now that when the big bird flew past, you didn’t get a good look at it? If you teach me how to operate the hot-air balloon, I can take care of it and you can get a good look at the bird!”
When Yiping said this, she really had no idea how her cousin would respond, but she was desperate, so she chanced it.
Her cousin seemed touched by what she had said. He stared at her and asked, “Do you really think so? What the hell. Is this possible?”
“Sure it is! Of course! Really!” Yiping shouted.
Her cousin carefully folded the bread-wrapping paper and put it away. He looked at the chestnut tree next to him as if he had something on his mind. Then he said very slowly: “Yiping, sit down.”
Yiping sat down nervously on the rock. She was blushing.
“Do you know about Venus?” he asked.
“Yes. I’ve seen her at twilight.” Yiping relaxed.
“She’s what I saw before daylight! At that time, it was dark in all directions, but she was radiant. She seemed to be green colored. I reached out my hand and I could almost touch her, but a force pulled me away, and so I was separated from her. I really regret that. Why didn’t I jump over then? At worst, I would have died! It was a great opportunity that not everyone can have—and I missed it. What’s wrong with me? When I landed here, it was almost dawn. I suddenly felt weary of the world and fell asleep. I was completely out. Did you come to help me, Yiping?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Do you think I can succeed?”
“Yes, you will,” Yiping said in a small voice. But what she thought to herself was: “I hope you don’t succeed. You should land with me.”
Something crossed the cousin’s mind. He frowned and asked Yiping: “Recently, have people in the two nearby villages said anything about me?”
“Yes. Someone said that you’re looking for your tomb. Is that true?”
“Hahahaha! Haha!” Her cousin began laughing uproariously.
“Of course I fly around Tomb Mountain because I want to find a suitable burial place. This whole matter must be connected with Venus, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.” Yiping shook her head, and her face clouded over.
They fell silent. Both of them looked at the sky and they looked at the village below the mountain.
When they parted, they agreed that Yiping would slip away from her home at midnight and Xuwu would meet her at the foot of the mountain. When Yiping went down the mountain, her cousin shouted behind her: “Yiping, you must take an afternoon nap because if you doze off later, we’re both done for!”
“I know, Cousin! I won’t doze off!” Yiping answered excitedly.
She ran home and immediately picked up a bucket and went to fetch water. She went once, and then once more, until the two water containers were full. When she sat down to rest, Auntie Li dropped in.
“Is your cousin a man or a bird? He flew over my head, and I was so scared I fell down! It was too eerie, wasn’t it? A big guy flying back and forth over your head! I’ve lived a long time, and nothing like this has ever happened in our village before.”
Yiping was entranced. She looked at Auntie Li and laughed out loud.
“What’s so funny? Huh?”
When Auntie Li left, Yiping noticed that she also had a smile on her face. What on earth was Cousin up to? What did he want to communicate to the villagers?
After Yiping ate, she cleaned up the kitchen and went to bed. She planned to take a long, long nap.
She closed her eyes and counted. As she counted, she grew excited again and forgot how far she had counted. So she started again. She started over again several times to no avail. She looked at the clock. More than an hour had passed when she decided to get up and go to the field and pick beans.
As she picked beans, she looked at Tomb Mountain. One moment, it seemed that she saw a small red dot climbing to the mountaintop. When she looked more carefully, she saw nothing. Probably the sun had been shining in her eyes. While Yiping was thinking about her cousin’s dangerous behavior, she heard people talking behind her.
“That Xuwu—he’s risking his life.”
She turned around and saw that no one was there. Who had been talking?
Yiping was busy the entire afternoon with the beans—washing them and drying them. Finally she got everything done.
When the sun set, she ran out of the house and looked carefully at the sky. She looked and looked, but she didn’t see Venus. There was no star at all in the sky. When she was about to enter her courtyard, Auntie Li appeared. She blocked the way and wanted her to answer a question.
“Xuwu has been staying in our village for such a long time: Does that mean he wants to marry you?”
Very uneasy, Yiping pushed her away and dashed into her courtyard.
Yiping didn’t go to bed until late. Before she went to bed, she opened the back door.
Every now and then, she shone her flashlight on the clock. When it was almost midnight, she got dressed and sneaked out. As she stood at the courtyard gate, she looked back once. Her home looked dark blue. How could this shabby adobe home be dark blue? Ordinarily, it was that not-quite-yellow, not-quite-gray color. Was it because of the moonlight?
Yiping walked very fast, almost like jogging. After a while, she reached the foot of Tomb Mountain. At night, this mountain looked very large, as though it wasn’t a mountain but was the whole world. But her cousin wasn’t waiting for her at the foot of the mountain. Yiping was worried and afraid: She heard her heart thumping against her chest. After waiting a while, she decided to climb the mountain. She thought, maybe Cousin forgot what he had said and was simply waiting for her where they usually met.
As she climbed the mountain, she heard a strange bird calling several times. She was so afraid that she felt death was approaching. She said to herself, “I’m not afraid to die.” After she said this three times, she felt more courageous. She was proud of herself too.
Finally, she saw her cousin sitting on a rock next to the hot-air balloon. His head was drooping; it seemed he didn’t realize she had arrived. Could he have forgotten their plan?
“Cousin, let’s get going!” Yiping shouted.
“Ah! You’re here!” He was startled. “No need to hurry. Sit down for a while first.”
Yiping sat on another rock. She was shaking all over.
“The time in the sky and the time on earth aren’t the same,” her cousin said slowly, one word at a time.
“Show—show me how to—to operate the balloon, OK?” Yiping said, her teeth chattering.
“I’ve set it on automatic. You don’t have to do much. When she gets close, we have to be ready. If I do make up my mind and jump over, you must begin landing immediately. It’s easy. All you have to do is pull the switch.”
Xuwu spoke rapidly. Yiping wasn’t very sure of what he had said. She blinked, and her emotions surged.
They sat in the large wicker basket, her cousin holding the joystick, and the hot-air balloon began slowly leaving the ground. Yiping was frightened and didn’t dare look down. She wanted to get control of her feelings. Her cousin started talking nonstop.
“Yiping, you can’t imagine the encounters I’ve had in the sky. People think that hot-air balloons can’t fly very high, but this is just what ordinary people think. I’ve told you that I actually encountered Venus—and not just once, either! In that moment and that place, I assure you if someone had been helping me then, could I have flipped over onto it? What do you think? She was dark green. I sensed that she had a hairy surface. Could it be a kind of moss? I really regret that I missed the opportunity. What’s wrong with me—always having twenty-twenty vision only in hindsight? Yiping, I know that the villagers don’t appreciate what I do, and yet I really long for their understanding. These people are all my relatives. My parents grew up here; later they moved away. It was a scandal, but I bet you never heard it from your folks! And so when I came to this village last year, it was like coming back to my real family. You must think this is strange— Why do I sleep on the mountain? I don’t know why: I just have to shut myself away from the villagers so that I can sleep in peace. The villagers are all my relatives—Auntie Li, Uncle Huang, Uncle Li, your parents. They keep coming into my dreams.”
Suddenly, his words were interrupted. Yiping felt acutely dizzy. She thought the basket must be bumping against the mountain. This was the end. In a feeble voice, she shouted, “Help!”
When she opened her eyes, she realized that this wasn’t the end. The hot-air balloon was descending; she could already see the rooftops in the village. Those rooftops were the dark-blue color that she’d seen earlier when she ran out—unearthly but lovely.
“Cousin, we’re descending. Aren’t you going to pursue Venus?” Yiping felt a little disappointed.
“I miss my relatives so much! You can’t understand this feeling for you’re too young. See: Uncle Li has walked out! He’s going to the toilet; he has diarrhea. Our village is a multisurname village, made up of refugees who came from many places. They established this village. You must know this.”
Yiping didn’t know anything about this. She looked hard but she couldn’t see Uncle Li. Between two houses, next to a bamboo fence, it seemed there was a shadow slipping across. But the hot-air balloon was floating too fast with the wind, and she couldn’t get a good look.
“Cousin, let’s go up! Why do we have to stay so close to the village? I’d like to see Venus. There’s nothing to see in the village. Look, you’ve swerved again: We’re still floating near the rooftops. What are you really looking for??”
“Me? Didn’t you say the other time that I’m looking for a burial place?” Xuwu laughed out loud. “I see your papa. He got up and he’s chopping firewood in the dark. He’s always like this. The year I came down with cholera, he carried me on his back to the county hospital.”
“Don’t we have any way to ascend? I’d like to go up to a place several thousand meters high.”
“That’s impossible. Haven’t I told you? I have only low-grade fuel. At most, my hot-air balloon can climb five hundred meters … And I’m also not very interested in heights. In this deathly still night, my heart is close to this village.”
“Has … it … always … been … like … this?” Yiping said in a lingering tone.
Glancing at her cousin, she saw him snickering. Yiping realized that there was an enormous distance between the two of them. She grew dizzy and grumbled, “Where did you come from?”
Her cousin didn’t answer at first. After a while, Yiping heard his voice; it was intermittent and seemed to be coming from the ground.
“Here’s Auntie Li; she’s sticking her head out the window … Now she’s walking into another room. She’s thinking about me … She’s my relative. Oh, you mustn’t lean out; you’ll scare her … Here’s some thick smoke: It’s your mama cooking breakfast in the dark … ”
Yiping couldn’t see anything because her eyes were filled with tears that had suddenly gushed up. She quietly and repeatedly asked her cousin: “Should I cry? Should I cry? … Should I … ”
“Go ahead and cry, go ahead,” her cousin said.
His voice was still coming from the ground. Was it possible that he was no longer beside her?
Yiping stretched her hand out to the right—she was startled when she felt nothing but air! At the same time, she heard a dull sound: The wicker basket had turned upside down on the ground, and she had rolled into the paddy field next to it.
It was already light in the east. Yiping scrambled up. She was covered in mud like a clay figurine.
Her mama stood in the field and called her: “Yiping! Yiping! What’s wrong with you?!”
Yiping washed herself with water from the field and then went home. She covered her face with her hands so that her mama couldn’t see her face.
“I was dreaming! I was dreaming!” she said as she walked.
“Oh, so you were dreaming. That’s really dangerous.” Her mother sighed.
As soon as she got home, Yiping took a shower and washed her hair. After that, she went into her bedroom and bolted the door.
Not until she sat down on her bed did she remember what had just happened. Had the hot-air balloon flown away while she was rolling into the field? When she climbed out of the paddy field, she hadn’t seen the hot-air balloon. It appeared that her mama hadn’t seen it, either! So had her cousin flown the hot-air balloon away? Yiping felt weak all over, but her eyes were dry; she wasn’t crying. She also remembered that when she was in the basket her cousin’s voice had come from the ground. He had said, “Go ahead and cry. Go ahead.” So the hot-air balloon must have flown away by itself. Had her cousin jumped to the ground before she had? Yiping felt her face was burning hot. She was so ashamed! She wished she could find a hole to hide in.
She didn’t know how much time passed before she heard a voice next door in her parents’ room. It was Auntie Li.
“He didn’t come this morning. That’s the way he is. When you make a point of waiting for him, he doesn’t appear. He plays hide-and-seek with you. I can’t stand his always flying over my head. It’s scarier than a big horsefly!”
“He’s almost finished with his experiments. I guess he’ll leave soon,” Mama comforted her.
“Really? But I don’t want him to go either. Isn’t this strange? The year of the big snowstorm, he slid into the well but survived. He’s really lucky.”
Sighing, the two women went to the hall. Yiping wondered why they were sighing.
At twilight that evening, the sun was just setting, and Yiping was standing in the garden looking at Venus. Venus wasn’t green, but was chrysanthemum yellow.
“Do you see her?” Her cousin’s voice—distant and feeble—came from the mountain over there.
Yiping looked down, a smile on her face. With all her might, she looked at that mountain. She seemed to faintly see a white dot swaying in the bosk. The sky darkened quickly. When she looked at the sky again, Venus had really turned green.
Longtime Conjunctions contributor Can Xue’s most recent novel published in English is Frontier (Open Letter). She 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.