By Ge Fei
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
Are there still openings in the ceaseless recycling of sensational news stories through which we can bear witness to the unmarked tragedies rupturing countless lives all around us? What role can the media play to address the unacknowledged grieving of our age? In his characteristically poetic style, Ge Fei deftly exposes an answer so disquieting it will echo long after the story ends.
Suddenly the dusk brightened as a light rain began to fall. Through the window grating Ding Xiaoman could see out into the deserted parking lot. A boy was sitting under an awning. He was perhaps four or five years old, and wore a backpack yellowed from many washings. Now and then he kicked at a metal trashcan. He was so thin that even a casual glance took in his jutting shoulder blades. He’d been sitting there for quite a while. On the hillside across the street was a large cornfield. The dense cornstalks nearly obscured the path leading down to the cement plant. Not long ago, the path had been the site of a strange murder. Strange not because the case itself was complex, nor because of the horrendous act of rape the murderer had committed on the victim’s corpse. No, the reason this ordinary criminal case had attracted a lot of media attention was because of the age of the suspect. The online news site SpiderWeb reported it this way:
96-Year-Old Grandpa Rapes
and Kills 18-Year-Old Beauty
LI DINGXIN, REPORTING: In this wide world, nothing is too bizarre to happen. Bai Lili (18 years old), a lovely and voluptuous cement-plant worker from Pinggu Village, never could have imagined that she would be raped and killed by a man old enough to be her grandfather. On the night of August 18th, as Bai Lili was returning to her dormitory, she passed by a cornfield and a shadowy figure pounced on her. The suspect, Gao Deshun (96 years old), hit her on the back of the head with a wooden bat, beating her senseless before raping her. Bai Lili’s body was discovered the next morning. Although her mouth and genitals had been stuffed with mud, the investigating team was able to use extraordinary skill to recover a hair and traces of semen from her vagina, and within 48 hours of the crime they swept in to arrest their suspect. After his arrest, Gao Deshun explained that at one point as he was giving free rein to his animal desires, Bai Lili woke up. Over and over again, she called him “Grandpa” and begged him not to kill her. Gao Deshun professed that at that moment he felt moved to have “a compassionate heart,” but in the end he still ruthlessly choked the girl to death, and afterward proceeded to rape her dead body twice.
Noah’s Web reported the same story as SpiderWeb, but under another title: “A 96-Year-Old? Who Can Believe It!!!” That was also Ding Xiaoman’s reaction when she first heard the news. When Qiu Huaide, the head editor of News Weekly, called to send her to the scene to write a two-thousand-word article about the case, the first thing out of her mouth was: “How is that even possible?”
“In this world, nothing’s impossible.” Qiu Huaide said. “The first time I invited you to dinner, you said no way, but then what happened?”
Ding Xiaoman had arrived that day before dawn. It had all been pretty straightforward. She’d found the cement plant and the cornfield mentioned in the news report, and over the course of the morning, she’d interviewed a total of sixteen people. They all answered her questions in the same way: “I don’t know.” Their expressions and tone of voice were also the same. I don’t know, and then they would turn and walk away. The last person’s response had been a bit different. He answered: “Who knows?”
Ding Xiaoman walked alone through the cornfield for two hours. The field was quiet and still, and she could hear the sound of water flowing through the irrigation ditches. She could even hear the sound of the leaves unfurling in the sun. These sounds made her recall an old ambition she hadn’t seen to fruition: in college, her mother had made her sign up to test into the biology department; her father had made her sign up to test into the waste treatment and disposal department. In order to please them both, she had tested for the two majors at once. But in the end, she’d only been accepted by the Spanish department.
By the time she got to the local police station, it was already noon. In the reception area, a few policemen were eating lunch and chatting. Ding Xiaoman took out her press card and told them why she was there, and the whole room laughed. A tall policeman beat at the edge of his bowl with his chopsticks. “Not another one!” He shut the reception window with a bang. That is to say, the interviews didn’t go so smoothly, so she’d decided to find a hotel room for the night and try again the next day. And then it had begun to drizzle. Or it was already raining. This rain is something happening in the past.1It had affected her entire memory, and now she couldn’t remember the when and where of it.
The boy walked over to her window. He raised his chin to look up at the rain, and then he looked down at the coin he was squeezing in his hand, like he was baffled by the mist in the air. Ding Xiaoman crooked a finger at him, as though calling a puppy.
“Sweetheart, come here,” she called. The boy came to the window. He pretended not to be interested in her at all, scraping rust off the window bars with his coin.
“Why don’t you go home?” she said. “The rain’s getting worse.” The boy paid no attention to her, just snorted some snot back into his nose. Her cell phone dinged. It was a text from Qiu Huaide: “You still haven’t told me what that scar below your bellybutton is from.”
“I have a lot of money,” the boy said suddenly, bragging artlessly. She glanced down at him with a laugh, then texted her boss: “You might be my boss, but I’ve got to say you can be a real jerk.”
“Did you just say you have a lot of money?” she asked the boy. He nodded shyly.
“Let me see.” She winked at him.
He hesitated, then pulled his backpack around to the front and took out a plastic bag. It was stuffed with colorful bills.
“How much is there?” she asked, chuckling.
“A ton.” He laughed too. “More than a thousand. I can’t even count it.”
“I’ll help you count it.” She said this casually, not thinking the boy would actually push the bag of money in through the window. She dumped the bills out on the table and sat down to stack them according to value.
“Where’s your mother?”
He thought for a moment. “In the drawer.”
She heard him singing under his breath. It was a song she’d never heard before. Of course, his voice was very low and she couldn’t hear clearly. She quickly counted the money, and altogether it came to forty-seven kuai and twenty cents. She pulled the rubber band from her hair and wrapped it around the money. The she put the money into the plastic bag and handed it back to him.
“There’s forty-seven kuai and twenty cents, so with the money that’s in your hand, that makes forty-eight kuai and twenty cents. Can you remember that?”
“I’ll remember,” he said.
“Ok. You can go home now and give the money to your mother. Go. It’s starting to rain hard.”
“I can’t go home.”
“Tell me, what kind of thing can hang in midair?” the boy suddenly asked her. A strange question.
She laughed again. She liked this kid. His long eyelashes were studded with bright raindrops. “Are you giving me a riddle? Let me guess . . . a bird, right?”
He shook his head.
“A kite, right?”
He still shook his head. “I mean a person. Can a person hang in midair without falling?”
She thought for a moment, then said, “A parachutist probably can.”
“What’s a parachutist?”
“It’s someone who jumps from an airplane with a parachute,” she answered. Her phone dinged again with another message from Qiu Huaide: “There’s been a development in the case. Go online and take a look.”
She opened her computer. As she waited for it to start up, the boy began singing again. This time, she heard the lyrics.
You say you want to hear my song
You say you want to see my face
I can’t sing it for you, if I sing I’ll cry
I can’t let you see my face, if you look at me I’ll cry
Ding Xiaoman felt she had been pricked in the heart with a pin. It’d been a long time since she’d heard a silly children’s song. She looked at the boy, sizing him up. The sky was already dark and the enormous neon sign across the street had come on. The boy noticed that she was watching him and he abruptly stopped singing.
“What’s the next verse? Keep singing, I’d like to listen.”
“I forgot it, you tell me.” He spread his hands out towards her.
“Who taught you that song?”
“And she’s . . . ”
“In the drawer.” That phrase again.
Her computer had finally connected to the Internet. She opened the SpiderWeb website. At first glance there was nothing new about the murder case, but the number of people who had commented on the story had shot up to 106,873. She opened up the comments section, and immediately saw the new comments netizens had left:
Comment from 61.53.185, at 5:03 PM
F*ck me, is this for real? 96 years old? Can he even get hard? And three times!!!
Comment from 128.72.64, at 5:02 PM
I’m jealous of the old dog. I’m 37 and I already don’t have any GD interest anymore. My wife is like a bitch in heat, moaning for it all day long.
Comment from 78.52.38, at 5:01 PM
Maybe he was just inspired to write a new section of Sima Qian’s book. Also, does anyone know if the big game tonight between Arsenal and Manchester United is going to be broadcast on Channel 5?
Comment from Catch Wind 261, at 4:52 PM
Just kill him. Or even better, castrate him like Sima Qian.
Comment from 6158KV3100, at 4:47 PM
I strongly urge the authorities not to execute him. His dietary habits should be noted and thoroughly researched so we can figure out how a 96-year-old man maintained such incredible sexual ability. Then we can produce our own Chinese Viagra.
Comment from 117.28.413, at 4:33 PM
Why was my comment removed? I protest! I was only pointing out the truth.
On Noah’s Web, the famous psychologist Professor Geng Yuxiu was discussing the case online with netizens:
Common sense would say that this case is nearly impossible, but it isn’t one hundred percent impossible. I’ve looked at the reports, and since the police have extracted semen from the victim’s genitals, sexual intercourse is known to have taken place. From medical science and especially advances in our understanding of anatomy, the erectile tissue, the hypothalamus, along with the central nervous system . . .
Ding Xiaoman closed down her browser and realized that the boy was no longer there. The rain was falling harder. Headlights illuminated the parking lot, and the raindrops made the street surface look like bubbling porridge.
A hotel maid rang the bell to deliver the daily thermos of hot water. Ding Xiaoman chatted with her, and as soon as she raised what had happened recently, the maid laughed and said that just that day a television reporter had asked her about the same thing.
“It’s impossible,” she said. “You’re all talking about this thing that happened on the hill right across from the hotel. But if something like that had happened, there’s no way we wouldn’t have known, let alone . . . ” She suddenly stopped talking and laughed through pursed lips.
“Let alone what?”
“That kind of thing, I mean rape, that kind of thing hasn’t happened in this town for five or six years. There’s no need for it. There are prostitutes everywhere. For a little bit of money, you can find it all over the place, whatever you want. You have no idea the kinds of things they’ll do. There’s no reason for a guy to take a risk like that, unless he’s totally crazy.” Then Ding Xiaoman asked her where the hotel restaurant was, and the maid told her it was on the second floor before turning and leaving.
She had already judged the truth of the maid’s words: the story was false. The news stories on SpiderWeb and Noah’s Web came from the same source, the Huaiyang Evening News. She quickly found a phone number in the directory for the news bureau. But the person she reached said that the piece had come from a freelance reporter at the Star City Paper. After the third time she implored him, he finally offered up the reporter’s number. She dialed the number and got a recorded message: “Hello, you have reached the Economical Agricultural
Implements Company . . .”
Ding Xiaoman stared out at the rain, her thoughts in a muddle. She texted Qiu Huaide: “I suspect the story is fake, there are no developments.” Qiu Huaide didn’t like to answer the phone, but he was fascinated by texts because he felt they were very modern. A newspaper hawker was outside, selling the day’s newspaper: “Papers for sale, papers for sale, the latest news! Gong Li commits suicide! Papers for sale, papers for sale, Gong Li commits suicide! The latest news!”
After a bit her phone dinged with a text from Qiu Huaide: “Then make something up. In the news business, inventing a few appropriate details is fine. Baby, I miss you. You get so wet and I get
so big . . . ”
The text only made her feel worse, and she angrily turned her phone off.
When she went upstairs to eat something, she was still thinking about the little boy. She felt something wasn’t quite right. She got into the elevator, and just as she turned around she saw him. He’d never left, just huddled up on the couch in the reception hall and gone to sleep with his little behind sticking out. A grizzled old doorman was about to shake him awake. The elevator doors closed.
The restaurant was full of people, and the waitress led her over to a seat by the window. When she had ordered, the waitress bent toward her and said, “I’m sorry, we’re very busy at the moment, and you may have to wait a bit for your meal.”
Sitting across from her was a man wearing a suit. He’d already finished his meal, and was picking his teeth with a toothpick and reading the paper. There was a white porcelain vase on the table with a single rose. The loud clamor of voices and the clinking of glasses and plates covered up the sound of the rain outside. But she knew it was raining heavily from the rainwater sluicing against the windowpane. She sat there daydreaming for a while. A connection could be drawn between any two random events, enough for her to make rich associations. For example, the boy and that totally fictitious cement plant worker; or the parachutist and a bird with outspread wings; or roses and rain with that familiar poem by Borges:Whoever listened to the rain would think of that time, a blissful time that had offered her a flower called a rose and its brilliant red color. But her rose had withered; it was rotting now. She felt as though her mind were rotting away bit by bit. She waited for a full forty minutes and her food still hadn’t arrived. The man sitting across from her had left, but his newspaper was still there on the table. She flicked off the two used toothpicks and flipped through the paper. The headline on the front page caught her attention immediately: “Gong Li Commits Suicide (for details, see page 8).”
She turned to page eight and searched for a long time before finding in the lower right corner a tiny section with this report:
WANG XIAOQIANG, REPORTING: The farmer Gong Li, a member of Group Seven, Area Eight, Dingmao Village, Zhuge Township, quarreled with a neighbor over two ducks. Upon returning home, she was distraught and used a hemp rope to hang herself from the roof beams . . .
Ding Xiaoman scoffed coldly, and threw the paper back on the table. Just then her food arrived. She took a few bites, her eyes still drawn to the newspaper. She suddenly thought of something, and put down her bowl and chopsticks. She grabbed the paper again, staring at the words “used a hemp rope to hang herself from the roof beams.” Tense, she thought of the riddle the little boy had just given her: “Can a person hang in midair without falling?”
She felt a sudden danger and blamed herself for her thoughtlessness. She flagged the waitress down, paid the bill, and hurried downstairs.
Holding her breath, she ran to the reception area. An empty couch—the boy was gone. She went over to the doorman and asked him which way the boy had headed. He just pointed to the door.
“Do you know who he is?” she asked.
“How could I not know?” The old man’s breath stank of garlic. “His father was my student.”
“You mean you were a teacher?”
“Before I retired I taught middle school geography. That was many years ago. His father was in my class. He wasn’t a good student, and he left his junior year in high school. Now he works as a street sweeper in town. I see him and his son nearly every day. That boy has a good head on his shoulders. While his dad sweeps the street, he follows along picking up stray paper.”
“Have you seen his dad these last two days?” she asked.
The old man thought for a moment before answering, “Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen him sweeping these past few days. You have some reason you’re looking for the kid?”
“Where does he live?” she said impatiently. “Can you take me there?”
“I know where he lives, but I have a bad back. I can hardly walk and anyway it’s still raining out.”
Ding Xiaoman took out her wallet and handed him a one hundred kuai bill. “Please take me there. I really need to find him.”
The old man glanced at the money she’d given him, and chuckled like he’d never thought she would give him so much. He went to the desk and borrowed an umbrella from the clerk. She asked him, “Isn’t your back hurting you?” The middle school teacher joked with her, “It doesn’t hurt a bit. If she gave me two hundred kuai, I’d run all the way to America.”
They walked through the rain for nearly an hour until they finally arrived at a five-story gray brick building. A white van with bright headlights splattered Ding Xiaoman’s face with mud as it drove past. The geography teacher took her to the westernmost door of the building and stopped.
“Give me the umbrella back. I’m not going with you. They live on the fourth floor, number 401. I’m not going up.” When he had finished speaking, he took the umbrella from her, lifted it up over his head, and left.
There was a big puddle of water by the door. The two doors on the lower level were open, and two women stood there chatting. “His tongue was sticking out so far, it was scary.” On the third floor she bumped into three policemen coming downstairs. They were wearing raincoats and high rain boots, and carrying long flashlights. There were a lot of people in the hallway. “That boy has no head on his shoulders. The body was there for such a long time, how could he not have gone and gotten help?” She caught a whiff of acrid disinfectant, a strange odor.
The door to apartment 401 was open. She saw him immediately, lying on the bed eating a pear or an apple. It was already eaten down to the core. A woman in her forties stood by the side of the bed, looking unhappy. There was also a little girl in the room who seemed about seven or eight. She was on tiptoes, trying to reach something on a tall dresser. The middle-aged woman snapped, “Don’t touch that. You’ll get infected.” She turned and gave the girl a smack. At that moment, the woman noticed Ding Xiaoman standing in the doorway. The boy had obviously seen her too, and his lips broke into a smile.
“Who are you?” The woman sized her up.
Ding Xiaoman thought for a moment, then said, “A relative.”
The woman breathed a sigh of relief and said with a smile, “Well, thank goodness.” Then she said that she lived across the hall. The police had instructed her to look after the little boy for the time being. Tomorrow morning the neighborhood committee would send someone to take care of things.
“What happened here?”
“Didn’t you just see the hearse arrive? His father hanged himself. Early this morning, the boy came and banged on my door, it must have been four or five in the morning. I had just got back from my shift at the cement plant. I’d slept for maybe two hours when the kid woke me up. I opened the door and asked him what had happened, and he said, ‘Come look at my dad. Hurry!” I thought, ‘It’s not like I’ve never seen your dad before. What’s there to see?’ To tell you the truth, I was just too tired, so I closed the door. Who knew his dad had hanged himself?”
The woman spread out her hands under the light and stared at them. “I just helped them take down the body. Do you think I’ll be infected? He had hepatitis.”
“If you wash your hands, you’ll be fine,” Ding Xiaoman said.
The woman grabbed the little girl by the hand and turned to leave.
“What about his mother?” Ding Xiaoman said to her retreating back. The woman turned her head, waved her hand, and said, “She’s dead too. Two months ago, from lung cancer.” She heard the door across the hall bang shut.
Now there were only the two of them left in the room. The window facing west was broken; the wind whistled in, wetting a pile of newspapers stacked against the wall. On the dresser was a hospital medical record sheet. The handwriting was messy, but still readable: Liver, CA, late stage. To one side was a coiled rope that looked new. This naturally made her think: when the boy’s father was coming back from the hospital, maybe he was already thinking about killing himself, so he went to the store to buy the rope.
She sat down on the bed next to the boy. She ruffled his hair and asked if he was hungry. His eyes were unfocused. He said he’d just eaten an apple and wasn’t so hungry, just tired. Then he slid out of bed and brought over a stool. He clambered on top, opened the top drawer of the dresser and pulled out a picture frame. He showed it to her.
“This is my mother . . . She lives in the drawer.”
As Ding Xiaoman looked at the photograph, she realized that her lips were salty from tears. A pale, delicate face with doubtful eyes, compassionate and terrified. It was as though in the moment the photo was taken, she’d seen something terrible. Ding Xiaoman put the photo back into the drawer. She wanted to bring the boy a washbowl to wash his face, but she couldn’t find one. She could only take him into the kitchen, lean him over the sink, and use her hands to rinse his face with water. She saw that his nose was caked with blood, and she asked him if it was broken. He said that morning he’d gone across the hall to his neighbor’s, and when she’d slammed the door shut on him, it had hit his nose.
“It bled a lot for a while, but now it isn’t bleeding. What does that mean?”
Ding Xiaoman had been crying all the while. She hugged him, then helped him take off his shoes and washed his feet. Then she carried him to bed. His little body was soft and weak, and as soon as he felt the bed beneath him, he fell asleep.
She sat on the edge of the bed watching him, still crying. She took out her phone and called Qiu Huaide.
“Editor Qiu, I’d like to write a different story.”
“What’s wrong with your voice? What happened?… Hello?”
“Something happened here, and I want to write about it.” Ding Xiaoman told him the story.
“Silly girl, that kind of story happens all the time. It isn’t news.” On the other end of the line, Qiu Huaide had listened patiently for her to finish her story. Now he laughed and said, “Don’t let it get to you. I have to take another call. I’ll call you back in a bit.”
She leaned back on the bed. She waited for two hours, her head spinning. Qiu Huaide’s call still hadn’t come and the rain was still coming down. The fine rain that covered the windowpanes also fell on the abandoned outskirts of town and the lost courtyards, washing clean the black grapes that grew there. Talk to me, damp dark typewriter tape; I yearn for the sound of my father’s return, he isn’t dead. Ding Xiaoman slipped in and out of sleep for a while, thinking over how she was going to say goodbye to the boy in the morning. Thinking about it, she started to cry again without noticing.
In the middle of the night, the boy suddenly woke up, his eyes dark and shining. He was pulling at her left hand, trying to look at the ring she wore on her ring finger. She took it off and handed it to him.
“What is it?” he asked her.
“It’s a ring.”
He looked at it closely for a long time, then suddenly said, “I remember that song my mama taught me.” At that moment, her phone dinged. It was a text from Qiu Huaide: “Change in plans, tomorrow morning you go to Hefei and then fly back to Beijing. Liu Xiaoqing was in an accident.”
The boy was staring at her. “I want to sing it to you. Will you listen?”
“Of course. I’m listening. Sing it for me.” She stroked his hair. His eyes were dark and shining.
You say you want to hear my song
You say you want to see my face
I can’t sing it for you, if I sing I’ll cry
I can’t let you see my face, if you look at me I’ll cry
Let me give you a wildflower instead
You ask me, Mama, what’s this flower called
You ask me, Mama, what color is the flower
It’s a ring flower
It’s a lovely bright white ring flower
It’s your mama’s tears, it’s your mama’s heart
It’s a ring flower
Translator’s note: The italicized text throughout the story is translated into English from a Chinese version of Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “Rain.” Translation by Eleanor Goodman.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 1