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Can Xue

It's difficult for us to imagine the concept of being self-taught these days, but when Chinese author Can Xue (real name Deng Xiaohua) lost her chance for further education after elementary school during the Cultural Revolution, she turned to reading literature. She read fiction, poetry, classical Western literature and Russian literature. She studied reading and writing English. And she began to write in the mid-1980s.

Can Xue, which mean "dirty snow that refuses to melt", was born in South China in 1953. Because her parents were condemned during the Cultural Revolution, and sent for re-education in the countryside, Can Xue was raised by her grandmother. Before taking up writing, she was a tailor by trade. Her first collection of short fiction was published in 1985. Since that time she has been publishing short stories, essays, novels and literary criticism. She has mentioned Kafka, Borges, Cervantes and Dante as influences on her writing.

Considered experimental by some critics, Can Xue's works are not easy reads; they explore a dream world, a "beautiful soul world," that Xue considers much bigger, deeper, and more important than the realistic world.

The most important thing is that I write from the unconscious. In China, from ancient times until now, there's never been a woman writer who has written in my style. Some male authors and critics have become angry. Most male and some women writers take offense to my irrational style. This is my main difference from other Chinese writers, said Can Xue in a 2002 interview with Laura McCandlish of the MCLC Resource Center.

We are honored to be able to publish Can Xue's short story "Red Leaves" in Belletrista. The story is from her collection Vertical Motion, recently published by Open Letter Books. Our review of the collection can be read here. For more on Can Xue, visit MIT's excellent Can Xue website.

Red Leaves
by Can Xue
Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

The first light of morning had just streamed through the sickroom's window. Teacher Gu lay on the bed with his eyes closed. The cleaning woman was spraying disinfectant in the room. She had arrived particularly early today, as though coming not to clean but to disturb him. Gu knew he couldn't go back to sleep, for each time this happened, his thoughts leapt up in the midst of the strong smell of Lysol. One red leaf floated in the air above the forest of his thoughts—a forest that was totally bare, for it was winter now. Gu had been pondering a question for several days: did a leaf start turning red from the leafstalk and then the color gradually spread throughout the entire leaf, or did the entire leaf gradually turn from light red to deep red? Before falling ill, Gu hadn't observed this phenomenon, probably because he missed the chance every year. In front of his home were hills where maples grew. But it was only after he fell ill that he had moved there.

After the cleaning woman left, Gu bent his legs and lightly massaged his distended belly. He thought: Perhaps one's body is most vibrant when one's disease reaches its last stage. His poor liver, for instance, must have reached this stage. A tragedy had occurred last night in this large ward: a terminally ill patient had rushed with a roar to the balcony and jumped. After that, the ward was as still as death, as though no one lying there dared utter a sound. Was it because someone had died that the cleaning woman had come so early to disinfect the room? He thought this was unreasonable. The person hadn't killed himself because his condition had worsened and his pain was unbearable. He knew he was improving after going through chemotherapy. The next day he would have been moved out of the ward for serious cases. Who could have guessed that he would do this? This guy was really good at choosing an original approach.

After staying in the hospital for a long time, Gu was more and more content with his situation. In private, he even praised the hospital as "fascinating." He was a taciturn patient, accustomed to being moved around along the corridor connecting the white structures. Actually, he could walk slowly by himself, but the doctors insisted that he use a wheelchair. He sat in a wheelchair, and a big fellow pushed him carefully to the treatment room. Gu thought this arrangement was actually to prevent him from escaping. At first, he thought this was suspicious, but later he grew accustomed to it and even understood it a little. The next time he was in the wheelchair, he imagined that he was a general making a leisurely inspection of a battlefield littered with corpses.

He was resting with his eyes closed when he suddenly heard the cleaning woman say: "As the man jumped, he was shouting Mr. Gu's name." When he opened his eyes, he saw the cleaning woman turn and leave the room. Her words agitated Mr. Gu. For some reason, all at once his hearing became extremely acute: Once again, he heard two people talking on the top floor. They walked downstairs arguing about something. As they made their way from the ninth floor to the seventh floor and then to the sixth floor, their voices grew louder, as if they were quarreling. They stopped on the sixth floor. They then lowered their voices, and the quarrel turned into a discussion. They sounded like two cats mewing softly. Gu's room was on the fifth floor. The two persons would have to descend only one more floor and they'd be at his door. But they didn't. They stood up there and kept talking. Their language became completely distorted. The more he heard, the more it was like cats meowing. The word "catmen" appeared in his mind, and he even imagined that many "catmen" were in this hospital. They hid in dark corners and sometimes emerged to confide their loneliness, just as they were doing now. The right side of his belly throbbed a few times, and he heard the fluids gurgle there. He closed his eyes and saw the red leaf again. The edge of the leaf had thickened and was imbued with a bizarre fleshy sensuality. Gu felt something flicker in his head. One of the "catmen" suddenly gave a loud shout before his voice became inaudible. The door opened. Breakfast had arrived.

Gu wasn't hungry and didn't want to eat. Lei, the patient next to him, urged him: "Eat a little. If an incident like that is repeated tonight, you'll need some energy to deal with it." Lei was in the last stages of his disease. He'd lost his hair long ago and had only a month or two to live. After thinking it over, Gu reluctantly drank a few sips of milk and rinsed his mouth with water. Holding back his nausea, he lay down again. He noticed that Lei was in high spirits as he ate his egg. This person?? How come? He wanted to talk with Lei about the "catmen," but he felt too weak to talk. Last night, why had the accountant Zheng shouted his name as he jumped? It was a little like toying with him. At this point, he subconsciously raised one hand, but then he heard Lei saying:

"Mr. Gu, don't ward it off with your hand. Let it fall on your face. Maybe it will be hypnotic."

"What?!" He was shocked.

"I'm talking of the small leaf. Look, it fell onto your quilt. Ha!"

Sure enough, there was a withered leaf on his quilt. It had come in through the window. When he twisted the leaf lightly, it crumbled into powder. The powder stuck to his hand, so he shook it off. Then he wiped his hands clean with a handkerchief. His eyes half-closed, he leaned against the pillow and heard the consulting doctors enter the room. Under the doctors' questioning, Lei appeared unusually happy and answered their questions loudly. He declared that he had "conquered the disease." Through the slits of his eyes, Gu observed the disgusted frown of the physician in charge. Gu thought, "Lei will die soon. Perhaps tonight?" Suddenly, Lei uttered "Ouch" and Gu opened his eyes.

He saw several doctors pressing Lei down onto the bed. He resisted vehemently, but they still bound him to the bed with strong tape. He was yowling through it all, and it looked as if his bulging eyes might jump out of their sockets. The doctors pulled out handkerchiefs to wipe away their perspiration and appeared to breathe sighs of relief. For some reason, they didn't approach Gu, but went to the two beds on the west side of the room. After they had asked questions for a while, they left the ward. Their unusual behavior made Gu's brain alternately tighten and turn blank. After a while, Lei vomited blood. It fell onto his face and then streamed onto the pillow. The blood was blackish-red. He no longer struggled, nor could he struggle. Now he could move only his mouth, eyes, and nose. No. His ears, too. Gu noticed that his ears were moving, making him look as cute as an animal.

"Lei, let's just take it easy" Gu found something to say.

"You---------idiot!" he said.

Gu fell silent. The right side of his belly pulsed again, and he patted it. It throbbed even more. With waves of heat gushing in, he began feeling feverish. In the west part of the room, wardmates—a man and a woman—compared notes on cemetery reservations. Their meticulous, earnest attitude made Gu shiver with cold. Feeling partly hot and partly cold, he touched those spots and said softly, "This isn't like my body." He secretly intended to slip out after a while and look for those "catmen." Ordinarily, he didn't dare leave the ward, because as soon as he left, Lei would push the call button and he'd be hemmed in by nurses.

Gu got up stealthily, and making his way along the wall, left the room. At the doorway, he looked back and saw Lei glowering at him. This suddenly struck him as quite funny, and he almost laughed. At this time, the corridor was empty, and he stole over to the staircase and quietly went upstairs. As he climbed the stairs, he held his paunch with both hands and imagined that he was a kangaroo.

When he reached the sixth floor, he heard the "cat language." But where were the "catmen"? No one was on the sixth floor corridor except for two nurses making their rounds with medications. After a moment's rest, Gu continued climbing up. On the seventh floor, a worker delivering water was pushing his small cart. He stopped at the edge of the corridor and sat on the stairs to smoke a cigarette. Gu wondered how he could smoke near the wards. The person patted the floor next to him and invited Gu to sit down and have a cigarette with him. Surprised, Gu accepted his cigarette and a light. The cigarette was very strong. Gu had never seen this brand before; perhaps he had rolled it himself. Then he noticed that the cigarette case was plastic.

"You know how to roll your own cigarettes," Gu commented admiringly.

"My buddies… We have the right tools…" he answered vaguely.

After finishing the cigarette, Gu thanked the worker, and stood up intending to continue up the stairs when he suddenly heard the worker beside him make a cat sound. It was very harsh. But when he glanced at him, he looked as if nothing had happened. No one else was here. If he hadn't made the sound, who had? Gu changed his mind; he wanted to see if this person would do anything else.

He waited a while longer, but the worker didn't do anything; he just put his cigarette butt in his pocket, rose, and went back to the water cart. He pushed the cart into the ward. Gu subconsciously put his hand into his own pocket, and took out the cigarette butt and looked at it, but he saw nothing unusual. In a trance, he twisted and crushed the butt. He saw an insect with a shell moving around in the tobacco threads. The lower half of its body had been charred, but it still didn't seem to want to die. Nauseated, Gu threw the butt on the floor, and without looking back, climbed to the eighth floor.

Everything was in a hubbub on the eighth floor corridor, where there were a lot of people. Probably someone's condition had worsened, for a cart of instruments was being pushed into the ward. After resting for a moment, Gu started up to the ninth floor—the top floor.

When he had almost reached the ninth floor, he looked up and was so startled that he nearly fell down the stairs. A person clothed all in black and wearing a ferocious opera mask stood there, looking as though he were waiting especially for Gu.

"Hello, Mr. Gu!" he said in a loud voice, as harsh as a chapel gong.

Gu sat on the floor, gasping for breath and unable to speak. Suddenly, he felt tired and his belly began aching. It seemed that no patients were on the ninth floor, so the corridor was empty. Gu wondered which room the "catmen" were in. Was this masked person a "catman," too?

"I was your student!" the masked person said loudly. "I'm Ju--the one who jumped into the icy river to save someone. Have you forgotten?"

"You're Ju? Take off your mask and let me look at you. So you didn't disappear, after all!"

He took off the mask, and Gu saw the pale face of a middle-aged man who was a stranger to him. How could he be the Ju who had jumped into the icy river to save another person and then disappeared? That was a warm-hearted boy. Something was wrong with this middle-aged man's eyes; there was a film on them—probably cataracts. But never mind: Gu felt quite emotional about encountering a student he had liked in the past.

"I've been looking for you all these years, and not long ago, I finally ran into someone who knew where you were. He said you were hiding out here. This place is really concealed!"

Ju took Gu's arm and said he wanted to go into a room to talk. They went into a ward and sat on the beds. It was dark with the blinds closed. Gu started coughing because of the dust raised from the bed. Puzzled, he wondered how long it had been since someone had stayed in this room. Ju sat on the bed opposite him. When Gu looked up to take stock of him, this middle-aged man seemed to have turned into a flimsy shadow. Gu watched him writhing as he lay down, lifted up the dusty quilt, and covered himself. Gu started coughing hard again.

"I'm so lucky," he said, "to be in the same room with the teacher I loved and respected. Please sit on my bed and put your hand on my forehead, okay? I've been dreaming of this for a long time."

When Gu placed his right hand on Ju's forehead, his own body trembled as if an electric current were running through it. It was plain to see that this person really was Ju! Back then, he and Ju had been chasing a red leaf up to the cliff, talking along the way. Seen from the top of the cliff, their high school had looked like blackened scars on trees. It was that day that Gu had told Ju of his own unmentionable disease.

When someone knocked a few times on the door, Gu wanted to get up and open it, but Ju held him back.

"Who could it be?" Gu said.

"Ignore it. It's those doctors. They knock a few times to confirm that no one is here and then they leave."

Sure enough, Gu heard several persons' footsteps going down the stairs.

"Don't you find it hard to lie down in all of this dust?" Gu asked Ju.

"It's wonderful here, Mr. Gu! Would you put your hand on my forehead again? Ah, thanks so much. It's so peaceful here that three roosters are running over."

Gu strained to recall what they had talked about back then and finally remembered. Ju had also divulged his own unmentionable disease. He told him there'd been a hole in his chest since birth and his heart protruded from that hole. He could see his own heart beating. Ordinarily, he covered the hole with gauze and then taped it in place. He confided to Gu that he didn't feel this disfigurement was a major handicap, and he also added innocently, "Look, don't I get along well?" Later, he jumped into the icy river and didn't emerge. So was it just on a pretext that he had come to the hospital? Was the real reason that his life was also nearing its end?

"When I lived next to the maple forest, where were you?"

"I? I was in the forest!"

Ju suggested that Gu lie down, too, and so Gu did. When he covered himself with the dusty quilt, a thread of pleasure germinated in his heart. He heard a sound from his fifth-floor room: a group of doctors and nurses were looking for something there. Ah, were they looking for Lei? They said that Lei, who had been tied to his bed, had disappeared. Not only this, but Lei had also pulled a prank: he had tied a piglet onto the bed. He was really devilish! Gu heard not only the doctors' conversations but also the very familiar meows coming from the fifth floor corridor. Gu thought the meows were coming from a "catman." That "catman" was with him day and night. Could Lei be a "catman"? Or had those "catmen" set Lei free? Gu looked around the large ward and was surprised by the desolation. When he was downstairs, he always thought the top floor was very busy; it was even more possible that those "catmen" were hiding here. The other day, he had sat in the wheelchair, and an aide had pushed him to the flat roof on the ninth floor. At the time, he thought he was about to die. The big fellow pushed the wheelchair around the periphery of the flat roof and told him to look down. He looked a few times: muddy waves were all around. Then he heard all kinds of screams coming from everywhere in the building, as if the end of the world had come. Still later, grumbling and swearing, the big fellow took him downstairs and pushed him into his own ward. At the time, five other patients were still in that room. As soon as he entered, everyone rose respectfully and looked at him with envious eyes. One of them—a young person named Bei Ming—said, "This is like winning the lottery!" His entire day floated amidst everyone's compliments.

"Mr. Gu, have you seen my mask?" Ju said. "I must have left it on the stairs. Without it, except for you, I can't see anyone."

Gu thought for a long time, but couldn't figure out why Ju had to wear a mask to see people. He really wanted to ask him what he had experienced after he disappeared, but he could never broach the subject. He thought it would be tantamount to asking his student: "After you died, where did you go? What unusual things did you see?" He just couldn't do it. He slowly massaged his fluid-filled belly, and his thoughts flew to the beginning stages of his sickness. He'd felt then as if a load had been taken off his mind. In high spirits, he had moved to the slope at the maple forest and had spent some lovely days there. In the autumn, the red leaves had intoxicated and entranced him. He'd never felt so well endowed in sensibilities as he did then. In high spirits, he even saw eagles. Autumn was a long season. He said to himself: "Autumn is so long—like eternal life." Sometimes, old friends came to see him, but they weren't the person he wanted to see. Back then, he couldn't think who it was that he wanted to see. Only now, lying here, did he know. The one he had wanted to see all along was this student who had disappeared. As he thought of this, the fluids in his belly made a pleasing sound, and a grateful sensation spread throughout his body.

Gu heard them free the Dutch piglet that Lei had tied to the bed. As soon as the piglet was freed, it scurried out of the ward. The persons garbed in large white gowns looked at each other in dismay. Someone said softly, "This never would have occurred to me." But Gu thought, Perhaps this had occurred to them some time ago. Nothing could easily defeat someone like Lei. Even the person who jumped from the window the night before had ordinarily done as Lei said.

Ju was snoring comfortably in the next bed. Gu thought, He's so at peace with himself that even the clamor in the building can't disturb him. Gu really wanted to learn how far Ju's disease had progressed. He intended to ask him as soon as he woke up. Gu had witnessed Ju jump into the icy river, but he couldn't ask him how he had been revived after his bare heart had been submerged in the icy water. He merely wanted to ask about his present condition. His face had always been as white as limestone, and it still was. From his exterior, it was impossible to guess how bad his condition was. He felt that although his appearance had changed, he was still as gentle as before. Perhaps it was because he could see his own heart that he had been so sure about what he was doing—for instance, jumping into the icy water.

"Ju, let's go to see the red leaves next year, okay?" Gu said to the air.

A meow came in from the door: it was Lei talking with someone. Of course Lei was a "catman." It seemed three persons were outside: why didn't they come in? The big white gowns from the fifth floor were also heading upstairs, but neither Lei nor the others paid any attention to the doctors. Gu heard them say that doctors were "garbage."

After the doctors came upstairs, they didn't encounter Lei and the others. Gu heard them plotting something—something that Gu was very familiar with, something that he had once participated in but had completely forgotten. What was it? Gu felt unable to express it in language. When this group of persons entered the opposite ward, they closed the door, and in the process, nipped the Dutch piglet's leg. The piglet howled. Someone turned around, freed the curious little pig, and let it in.

Gu groped under his pillow for a flashlight; probably a former patient had left it there. Feeling excited, he immediately walked to Ju's bed with the flashlight. Seeing that he was still sound asleep, he lifted the quilt and shone the flashlight on his chest. Ju's torso was bare, and so Gu immediately saw his pulsating heart. For some reason, his heart was milk-white-colored. It beat much slower than most people's. Peering through the hole, he saw that the beating heart was shifting its position. This baffled him.

"This is just the way my heart is, Mr. Gu." Ju opened his eyes and spoke apologetically.

"Ju, did you hear the secret meeting in the ward across the way? What are they discussing?"

Ju took hold of the flashlight and shone it toward the door. Gu also turned his gaze in that direction. A doctor was standing there, but he wasn't one of the doctors who made rounds. Gu had never seen him. The doctor blocked the flashlight's rays with his left hand and said: "It's good to be here. We're prepared for an emergency at any moment.

Then he left, closing the door behind him. Ju laughed softly and commented that this hospital was "quite interesting." He put on his black jacket and his opera mask. Gu asked him where he had found the mask, and he said that actually he hadn't lost it: he'd forgotten that it was at his waist all the time. After he dressed, he told Gu that he wanted to go across the hall "to take part in the meeting." Gu—heart thumping--went with him. He had a hunch that the truth would come out. His hands began trembling.

When Ju appeared in the room wearing the opera mask, everyone's head swiveled in his direction. The blinds were all open, so it was quite light, and Gu noticed that neither Lei nor the doctors were there. They were all his closest friends and relatives, but he couldn't call any one of them by name.

Someone pushed a wheelchair out, and Gu thought it was for him. He never imagined that Ju would beat him to it. Sitting in the wheelchair, Ju looked happily inebriated. Gu begrudged him the wheelchair, because he usually used it. Two big fellows were pushing Ju, and Gu thought they intended to leave the room, so he quickly made way for them. But they didn't go out; they just pushed the wheelchair around in the empty ward. Ju grabbed at something in the air. He looked absorbed, and the people around him were cheering him on. Just then, Gu glanced out the window: what he saw was the splendid spectacle of drifting red leaves. Astonished, he sat down on the floor. How could there be red leaves in the winter? In the sunlight, the leaves were like flames.

Now—with Gu at the end of the line—everyone was following the wheelchair making the rounds in the room. The footsteps sounded like marching. As Gu listened attentively, he even felt that everyone's footsteps were lost in thought. Walking and walking, Gu no longer looked out the window, because a shadow was filling this circle. Everyone was sinking into this dense, dark shadow. At last, Ju plucked something from the air. He took off his mask and smelled the thing.

"Mr. Gu! Mr. Gu! This is it!" He seemed to be weeping.

"What is it, son?" Gu asked.

"It's the thing I jumped into the river for!"

All at once, everyone's steps became uncontrollable. In the dense, dark shadow, Gu couldn't get a good look at these faces, nor could he see the scenery outside the window. But he could still hear Ju calling him and he could still hear the wheelchair rolling past. The two big fellows had vanished, and the wheelchair was being steered automatically. A dark gust of wind in the room took hold of him and detached him from the circle. In the corridor, Gu still heard Ju shouting: "Mr. Gu! This is it!!"

When Gu went downstairs, the entire building rang with all sorts of meows. They were meowing wildly everywhere—in the wards, the offices, and the bathrooms. Gu knew they weren't cats but were "catmen" hiding in this building. Perhaps they'd been provoked by Ju's arrival. He himself had stayed here such a long time, and yet they'd never gone wild like this before. Ju must be the key character. If he hadn't come, the "catmen" might have merely been a little restless. And the red leaves wouldn't have appeared outside the window in winter. He quickly went down to the fifth floor, where the odor of Lysol made him drowsy. He thought, the person who flew down from the ward window last night: perhaps the words he had shouted were identical to the words Ju had just shouted—"Mr. Gu! Mr. Gu, this is it…."

Book Cover

"Red Leaves" Reprinted with permission of the publisher and is included in the collection Vertical Motion, published 2011 by Open Letter Books. © by Can Xue, Translation © 2011 by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

Our review of this collection can be read here.

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