Ms. Wen sat in a dark room pondering the structure of the universe. Then she stood and opened the window, whereupon all kinds of obscure shadows wandered in. The room turned half light, half dim. Poo, poo, poo … came the noises from the shadows. Ms. Wen felt herself sinking; the ceiling and four walls were scattering in all directions. Ms. Wen wasn’t suspended in the air, however. Rather, she stood firmly on Mother Earth, all kinds of things clustered tightly around her. She didn’t feel she was tied up, though; instead, she felt pleasantly free.
“You’re on the second floor facing southwest. It’s the room with an apple on the windowsill. It’s a medium-sized room with simple furniture and a typewriter.” The voice came from a tape recorder.
“Thank you for telling me where I am. But who are you?” Ms. Wen was puzzled.
“I’m your friend. You don’t have to know my name because we’re in touch with each other only inside this building. This has nothing to do with the outside world.”
These words must have been recorded in advance. How odd! Now she was going to do some deep-breathing exercises. Each time she inhaled, the shadows also rapidly flew into her nostrils, and her body sank continuously and slowly. During this process, Ms. Wen always wanted to know where she was—where was she in this “cosmic building”? Was she facing west? But the recorder wouldn’t respond to her questions very often. So she was puzzled most of the time. It was OK to be puzzled, but she did long to be oriented. The answer would come from the recorder sooner or later. When it came, it always happened unexpectedly, and it made her feel fantastic. She loved what was going on inside “the cosmic building.” The walls and ceiling had scattered—wasn’t that true? The voice from the recorder made it clear that she was in a “medium-sized room” located “on the second floor” “in the southwest part of the building.” These descriptions couldn’t indicate any place outdoors. But she also kept sinking; she couldn’t remain inside a room. It was really hard to decide where she was. How wonderful to be in this delicate uncertain state! Maybe she was simultaneously in both the south and the north, but the announcement was always clear, making her feel that she could depend upon this reality.
Years earlier, Ms. Wen had looked forward to this kind of exercise. She had looked forward to being in a large building of uncertain design and groping her way into a strange room. But this had come about only in her old age. She had now done this many times. The more she exercised, the more the building expanded—that is, there were more and more strange rooms and floors. It was almost impossible to figure out which room or floor one was in, or where the corridor led, or where the entrance could be found. Once, she had groped her way to the end of a corridor. As she hesitated to take the next step for fear of stepping into emptiness and falling, the corridor turned again. And so she involuntarily entered a windowless room that was terribly small—only one square meter. The moment someone closed the door behind her, it was unbearably stuffy. She wanted to leave, but the more she struggled, the smaller the room became. The four walls pressed in on her, and she dozed off in terror. She slept standing. Finally, at dawn, she heard the voice from the tape recorder say, “This room is in the southwest corner of the seventh floor. It’s a storeroom.” Just then, Ms. Wen discovered that she was standing in the corridor; on her right was the staircase going down.
There was no elevator in this building; Ms. Wen found it exciting to climb the stairs late at night. Once, she recalled that she had alternately climbed and rested until at last she had climbed twenty-five stories. The twenty-fifth was apparently the top floor; the corridor extended in all directions. It was like a gigantic tower. The faint light glimmering above seemed about to be extinguished. When she steeled herself to open the door to the roof garden so that she could go outside and look around, she found that there was no roof garden. Instead, there was a staircase continuing to go up. A little afraid, she closed the door and turned around, intending to go down the stairs. But she couldn’t find the down staircase. No matter which direction she took, when she reached the end of the corridor, she came to the up staircase, as though being forced to continue to climb up. Ms. Wen sat down on the wooden bench in the corridor to nap for a while. A noise awakened her: someone was coming down the stairs with slow, heavy steps. It was an old man, wearing a tartan duck-bill cap. He walked over to her, and—looking into her eyes—he said, “It’s always heartwarming to run into old friends in foreign countries.” She knew she had answered him, but she didn’t remember what she had said. They walked to the end of the corridor, and as they rounded a corner, they exited the building. Ms. Wen looked back. The only thing behind her was an average-sized six-story concrete building. The roof was slanted and covered with ornamental tiles. The old man left in a taxi. Ms. Wen wanted to go back inside and look around, but someone had closed the main door and was locking it from the inside.
That building was on the same street as her home: it was a place for senior citizens’ activities. But not many elderly people went there for recreation. After Ms. Wen retired, she had asked her neighbors about this. They had told her, “It’s really stuffy inside, not suitable for elderly people.” But after going there just once, Ms. Wen was captivated by this building—especially the room for chess and card playing. That spacious room had an unusually high ceiling. Usually, only two or three people were playing chess. By afternoon, no one was there. And so Ms. Wen made a habit of going there in the evening. It was a few months later that the metamorphosis of this building occurred. A wall and ceiling disappeared. When Ms. Wen looked up, the stars were visible. There was a design in the starry sky. She heard a deceased cousin laughing beside her: “This pastime belongs to you alone.” These words gave her goose bumps all over, but they also heightened her curiosity. From then on, she went to the senior citizens’ recreation center every few days. Later, this became stranger and stranger. The oddest thing was the time this six-story building turned into a bungalow shaped like an octopus. In the center was an immense hall, surrounded by numerous endless walkways. On either side of the walkways were rooms that looked like offices. Ms. Wen experimented: each walkway tempted her to take an infinitude of walks, but after walking for a while, Ms. Wen became afraid. Then she returned to the hall in the center. A transformed building was so dangerous and yet so alluring! The most interesting thing was: when she walked on the concrete walkway, she could hear a shadow play being staged somewhere. It was just like those she had seen as a child—striking the gongs, beating the drums, acting and singing. It was so exciting. Still, Ms. Wen didn’t like to walk straight down without looking back. This was not only because she was afraid, but also because she thought doing this was beneficial.
A former colleague ran into Ms. Wen coming back in the evening, and began talking with her.
“Ms. Wen, you enjoy exploring by yourself,” she said.
“Um. What do you think of this structure?” Ms. Wen felt cold sweat running down her back.
“I can’t evaluate it. That’s too risky. You’re really a brave explorer. I admire you! Wasn’t this senior citizens’ recreation center constructed just for you?” The colleague’s tone was enigmatic.
“But in the daytime, other people also go in,” Ms. Wen argued.
“Others? They don’t count. They just go in, chat for a while, and then withdraw.”
After they parted, Ms. Wen was astonished to realize that this colleague really understood the situation. Maybe she was also paying attention to the same thing? If so, could one say that this senior citizens’ center had been built for this colleague too? This ordinary six-story gray structure attracted no attention at all on this street. Every morning, a janitor opened the main door and cleaned all the rooms, as well as the corridor and staircase. Because this building had only one staircase and twelve apartments, the janitor wrapped up her work by noon. The main door stood open. The female janitor, wearing a rat-gray uniform, always waited until late at night to lock up. The next day she reopened it at dawn. Ms. Wen wondered why she would rush over here late each night to lock up. Ever since her colleague had pointed out that this building had probably been constructed for her—Ms. Wen—Ms. Wen had grown more suspicious. Could the janitor be leaving the door unlocked for her? This thought horrified her.
In the last few years, Ms. Wen had become more and more composed. She thanked the sinking exercise for this. That was because as soon as her body sank downward, her thoughts rose—as free as a bird flying in the sky. At such times, her misgivings about the janitor also disappeared, even though she had met her once late at night and been subjected to her questioning. The more she performed the sinking exercise, the more adept she was—almost reaching the point that she could sink or rise just by thinking about it. At the beginning, she had done this by herself, and the exercise had also been restricted to the room she was in—usually the one for chess. Later, after all the walls and ceilings had scattered, when she came and went and whirled freely in midair, it seemed the whole building became transparent and was an extension of her body. She carried this intangible building everywhere she went. In other words, the very existence of this building depended upon her. When she wasn’t thinking about it, the building disappeared, and when she gave it all of her attention, the structure once again appeared clearly. This pastime was great fun. One time, she even ran into her son Feng in the corridor. Her son was wearing mountaineering clothes, as if he were going far away. “Feng, were you looking for me?” “Yes. They said that you were climbing up. I too want to enjoy the scenery up there, and so I came here. But how high is it? I can’t see it.” “Who can see it all of a sudden? You can experience it only while you’re climbing. Let’s turn to the right. There must be a roof garden in front of us. Oh, this side is the left, this side the right.” “In this kind of place, Mama is still hanging on to her senses. That’s really impressive.” Before she realized it, Ms. Wen had walked out the main door with her son. That’s all Ms. Wen could remember. Later, her son admitted to her that he had been terrified by the height of this transformative building, and had wanted to give up. Then he took hold of Ms. Wen’s arm as they went down. After this, Feng didn’t bring up this incident again. Maybe he thought it better not to speak of it.
The senior citizens’ recreation center was Ms. Wen’s secret, but it also seemed to her that everyone knew this secret. Besides her two sons, some retired colleagues—affecting a casual manner—also asked her about it. Ms. Wen thought a certain kind of structure is closely related to everyone’s life, and that structure always had to be embodied in some real objects—buildings, for example; otherwise, there would be no way to see it or visualize it. Had she discovered the structure of the senior citizens’ recreation center, or rather had the structure kept sending her messages, luring her to be part of it? Perhaps once this kind of thing happened to someone, he or she would naturally draw people’s attention. And so Ms. Wen now sensed that she was enthusiastically surrounded by people. Everyone seemed to expect something of her. Even the vegetable vendors in the market were talking about her. “She transformed an ordinary building into a thing resembling fate.” “People say that if a building went through infinite changes, this must have been caused by someone’s physical force.” Ms. Wen just happened to hear these comments. These two people were purposely talking loudly; obviously, they meant for her to overhear them. The vegetable vendors’ feedback heartened Ms. Wen. New hopes kept surging from her heart. If the structure was revealed in everything in the world, she could speak from it at any time to anyone she wanted. Yes, she had to continue with this, because it was connected with happiness. Ever since last month, as soon as she stepped into the starry sky, a roof appeared above her. She felt perfect. She wanted to transmit the profound mystery of euphoria to other people. That is, one could enter into different things and become the thing itself. Of course, this involved having some skills; she would be happy to pass these skills on to others. She would share her experiences: how to discern directions by touching the walls, the doorknobs, the staircases, and so forth. And how to determine the scope of her movements according to the height of the ceilings and the length of the corridors.
Going to the senior citizens’ recreation center to meditate had become Ms. Wen’s privilege. This began as a casual visit to the building after she retired. One day, after eating dinner and tidying up the kitchen, she went out for a walk. She remembered that she had run into a retired school principal. He had said that she “looked healthy.” Then she had passed the senior citizens’ recreation center and noticed that the door was open. The lights were still on in several rooms. Curious, she walked in. She went first to the ping-pong room; the two ping-pong tables stood quietly under the light. No one was likely to come here. And so she withdrew and walked into the chess room. On the chess table was a drawing of a person’s head. The drawing was blurred; perhaps it wasn’t a picture of a person, but the contours of a granite cliff. Ms. Wen sat down and looked at it, and wondered which old person would paint like this. As she kept looking, she went into a sort of trance. In her trance, she felt faintly excited. She heard a tiny disturbance on the ceiling; it came in fits and starts—sometimes vehement, sometimes quieting down. What kind of animal was making this noise? Ms. Wen climbed up on the table, intending to find out what this was. She had no sooner stood on the table than someone opened the door. Zhong Zhidong, a retired electrician, stood at the door. Embarrassed, Ms. Wen got down from the table.
“I came to have a look because the lights were still on,” Zhong Zhidong explained.
“Apparently I’m not the only one concerned about the senior citizens’ recreation center,” Ms. Wen said.
“Naturally. We’re always concerned about this center,” Zhong Zhidong said firmly.
Zhong Zhidong left soon. Ms. Wen sat down at the table again. The noise coming from the ceiling had stopped. Ms. Wen looked again at the drawing. This time, she saw that it was a drawing of a building. The method of drawing was quite distinctive: looked at from various angles, the structure of the building was quite different from the number of its stories. At first, she thought it was a drawing of the senior citizens’ center, and then she thought it was a drawing of the building where she had taught. Finally, she saw that the structure drawn on this piece of paper had thirty-three stories; it was much like an office building in the city center. Her interest aroused, Ms. Wen didn’t want to leave anytime soon. Inside herself, she began feeling almost as energetic as she had when she was young. She wanted to engage in activities in this building. Of course, just then she had no idea exactly what activity she would engage in. For a while, she went upstairs, and then came downstairs, then went up again, then down again. While she was walking up and down stairs, she found that the entire building was pressed to her heart, making it exquisitely private. It was as though someone were asking her amiably, “Turn left or right? How about going to the room on the south side of the eighth floor … ” She certainly heard the voice of the person making the inquiry, and she responded casually. She felt comfortable both physically and mentally. Then came the metamorphosis. How many exciting scenes had she experienced? Ms. Wen asked this inner question out loud.
Late at night, Ms. Wen walked out of the senior citizens’ recreation center with great satisfaction. On a night like this, the transformation of the starry sky and the city depended upon her will and her passion. She stopped next to a newspaper kiosk, gazed at a dark shadow approaching slowly, and said distinctly, “Once more.”
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.