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SU DE

 

 

Su DeSude is the pen name of Wang Yi, a native of Shanghai. Even though she is still in her twenties she has already published six collections of short stories and two novels since her first book, Touch My Mind, was published in 2002. She has studied at the 1st Lu Xun Literature School and the Writers’ Master Class organised by the Shanghai Writers’ Association. She has participated in a writers’ camp in Shanghai. Sude was the 2009 writer-in-residence at the Munster Literature Centre—part of an exciting development which also saw Cork writers Cónal Creedon and Leanne O'Sullivan take up residency in Shanghai (Cork’s twin/sister city) last Autumn. Sude presented a workshopped translation of 'The Ring' at the 2009 Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival.

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The Ring

 

Lin Zhuo flew home from her last business trip of the year.

 

She walked out of the airport and called her husband Xu Wu. He told her on the phone that he had bought the bus ticket for En Ze. It was the end of the year. There was a long line of people at the exit, waiting for their turn to get in a taxi. Lin Zhuo had to walk to the bus station, dragging her suitcase along. Frustrated, she pulled the suitcase behind her for a long time. She had never calculated her own steps like now. Slow down, she told herself. The slower, the better. If only the flight had been delayed. If only the bus had broken down.

 

She looked out of the window. As the bus moved from the east bank of Huang Pu River to the west bank, people appeared on both sides of the highway. There were farmhouses, rivers, cattle, small tractors, and, when the bus was getting closer to the city, shopping malls, furniture markets, new neighborhoods, and finally, the Lu Pu bridge that led to the west bank. She hadn’t sent Xu Wu any text messages since the phone call. They were now both used to lack of contact. But it hadn’t always been like this. When they were dating and after they were first married, Xu Wu would always come to the airport to pick her up. When he was too busy with work, he would make sure that a great number of text messages were exchanged before she was home. And when she was home, she was always welcomed by a bunch of white roses on the dinner table; Xu Wu usually picked them the day before and left them to blossom during the night. Lin Zhuo was very fond of white roses. The name of this flower had also been the title of her favorite novel in her school days. According to the author of that novel, white roses belonged to quiet, independent and rigid souls. But Lin Zhuo was neither independent nor rigid. She was quiet, yes. After seven years’ work, however, she felt that time and life had actually squeezed her into a white rose, though she was not welcomed with one anymore. 

 

Xu Wu was already home. He had unexpectedly filled the dinner table with dishes. There was even a bunch of white roses on it. When she stepped inside, he opened his arms to welcome her with a huge hug. This was supposed to be the first hug since the cold war had broken out between them over six months before. But she was no longer used to this. She bent over to untie her shoelace, and to dodge the hug. He stood in the doorway, crestfallen. Then he paused, and reached out to take her suitcase and ease the tension in the air.

 

“I’ve cooked. It’s been a long time since we last ate at home,” he said.

 

“Really?” she replied. She took off her scarf and went into the kitchen. She wanted to wash her hands. She also wanted to clense her emotions. The kitchen was exactly the same as when they had married, neither dirtier nor older. Lin Zhuo didn’t cook. Neither did she want to. So they had most of their dinners in restaurants, sometimes with each other, sometimes with their own friends. Xu Wu did cook. And every time he cooked, the night that followed was always lit up with passion. Xu Wu was insatiable in bed. So was Lin Zhuo. During the first three years of their marriage, she had been pregnant twice. But both times she miscarried within the first two months of her pregnancy. She didn’t pay much attention to it. She was in business consulting. Professionals like her had to work long hours and fly to various cities each year. She thought it might be the fatigue that made her lose the baby. So when she was pregnant again in the fourth year, she quit her job and rested at home. However, a couple of days before the second month, she lost her baby for the third time. This time they were both alarmed. They went to many hospitals and saw many doctors. The diagnosis was the same: hers was a case of habitual miscarrage. Considering Lin Zhuo’s weak condition, doctors advised that she never attempt to get pregnant again. Otherwise, they warned, her life could be in danger. After they returned from the hospital, both Lin Zhuo and Xu Wu were sleepless for the whole night. 

 

The water was freezing. She soaped her hands and rubbed them together again and again. There was still a delicate gold ring around her wedding finger. It had been given to her by Xu Wu’s father before they got married. The old man told them that the ring had once belonged to Xu Wu’s mother, that it had been with the family for a long time. When the young couple returned to Shanghai from Xu’s hometown, they went to a jeweler and told him to make another ring that looked exactly like the old one. The new ring became Xu Wu’s wedding ring. Many of Lin Zhuo’s colleagues told her that they liked her ring. There were tiny symbols carved into its surface and no one knew what they were. Some said it was Sanskrit. Others said they were some sort of ancient phonetic symbols. One guy glanced at the them and said: “Aren’t they dew drops?” 

 

For five years from that day, Lin Zhuo wondered about the inscription. She had to agree that the string of symbols did look like beads of dew.

 

Suddenly, Xu Wu put his arms round her waist from behind. “Come here and have dinner,” he said over her shoulder. Badly startled, Lin Zhuo shrugged her shoulders in an attempt to escape. In the struggle, her arms unexpectedly hit his chin. He was dizzy for a moment. “What the hell?” he yelled angrily. And he was not the only one that got angry. Again, they stopped talking. 

 

In the night, he stretched one leg from under the blanket and tried to touch her skin. But she pretended to be asleep and her body grew stiff. She stared out of the window while he sighed heavily. They had had separate blankets for more than six months. She didn’t want him to touch her for fear of another pregnancy. During the month after her fourth miscarriage, she was so weak that she couldn’t even talk. After that, she decided that she would never again try to have a baby. But he was the only son in the Xu family. So had been his father and his grandfather. The failure to produce offspring meant the extinction of the family line. Even if they had a baby and that baby was a girl, Xu Wu’s father would definitely ask his daughter-in-law to get pregnant for a second time. The young couple had fought over this many times. Every time he suggested another attempt, she would glare fiercely and ask if he and his father wanted her to die. 

 

To avoid sex, she had gone on business trips as much as she could in the past year. As a consultant, her business trips could last from one week to three months. The company allowed them to take a few days off after every trip. But she seldom used the benefit. She spent more and more time out and stopped talking about Xu Wu to other people. Sometimes she felt lost seeing her colleagues getting off the plane and being picked up by their husbands, or hearing them talking to their sweethearts for long hours over the phone. She wished she could go back to the past, when she and Xu Wu loved each other. But every time they tried to talk over the phone, they ended up fighting. His whisper of love always made her tense up. She couldn’t help thinking that he was trying to trick her into going home, sleeping with him and getting pregnant. She was afraid. She really was. And the fear had turned to anger, which was focused on him. In the end, he believed that she was being unreasonable and he no longer tried to please her.

 

Lin Zhuo and Xu Wu were going to spend the New Year’s holidays in En Ze, Xu Wu’s native town, as they always had. Lin Zhuo realized that she could no longer hide the truth from her father-in-law. She had to tell him that there would be no child. It was not that she would rather die than have a baby, as the old man suspected, but that having a baby would kill her. She understood why Xu Wu was cooking tonight. He was gauging her. They hadn’t had much sex for a long time. Even when they did, she always demanded he wear a condom all the way through and she always bathed herself carefully afterwards. This made Xu Wu a little depressed. He felt that his passion was not reciprocated, that she wasn’t enjoying sex at all. 

 

Love was supposed to be a joyful thing. So was sex. Both could be ruined by a distracted partner. Xu Wu began to realize that their love was being endangered by the absence of sex. Like Lin Zhuo he found himself distracted, only that the distraction wasn’t in their bedroom. He was attracted to another girl, a young and bright intern in his company. But he was no longer the horny young guy he had once been. Thirty years old, he was able to keep his impulses in check. Although the idea of passionate sex was tempting, seven years’ love was by no means easy to abandon. He understood that there were things he just couldn’t do. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to go back. The girl was very nice to him. And he was very nice to her. She bought him breakfast every morning and he drove her back to school after work. Sometimes he found that he enjoyed this kind of relationship: nothing physical, just the feeling. It was like a cup of hot tea, the kind that the old men in En Ze had on a warm winter afternoon. He never talked to the girl about the relationship. But the girl was not as patient as him. One day she told him with tears that she loved him. That night, Xu Wu went home and stayed awake for a long time. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw her eyes reddened by tears. 

 

When he finally fell asleep, he saw his mother. She looked exactly like she was at thirty or so. Plump and gentle, she was sitting under a desk lamp and patching his father’s socks. Father was the cremator in the local crematory. It was said that people like him had to wrap themselves from the feet up to the neck because any tiny hole in the clothing could attract evil things. So, his mother would examine his father’s clothes everyday and patch every hole. Xu Wu watched as his father walked to his mother from behind and patted her on the shoulder. She flushed and followed him into the bedroom. It happened when Xu Wu was only six. He peeped through the curtain on the door and saw his mother’s white body bending over his father’s, like jade in a mud pool. Of course he didn’t understand what was going on. It was only when he recalled as a grown-up that he realized he had seen his parents having sex. When Xu Wu was ten, his mother died from a hemorrhage caused by miscarriage. From then on, he was brought up by his father alone. As a result, he was very obedient to the old man, never daring to say ‘no’ to him. 

 

The death of Xu Wu’s mother had become a burden for Lin Zhuo. She was convinced that it was a lesson to be learnt.

 

When she woke up the next morning, she found that Xu Wu was already awake. He stared at the ceiling silently for a long time. “Let’s get divorced,” he said. “I’ll ask dad to give me the residence certificate tomorrow.”

 

“Ok,” she said. She was lost for a moment, but she came back to herself soon. She turned over and tried to lie for few more minutes as Xu Wu pulled himself from the bed and went out to take a shower. As she heard the running water in the bathroom, she started to cry. She wept and she whined, her tears running down like springs. They just couldn’t be stopped. 

 

In the bathroom, Xu Wu was also crying.

 

Located in a tiny corner of southern Zhe Jiang province, En Ze had a history of a thousand years. Legend has it that Emperor Qian Long once stayed here and slept with a local girl. Since such behavior of an emperor was known as ‘En Ze’, the town got its current name. Another version of the legend was that the name ‘En Ze’ once belonged to one of Qian Long’s concubines, whom the emperor took with him on the trip to the southern provinces. Unfortunately, Madam En Ze died on the way and was buried at this little town, which was renamed in memory of the poor lady. There were other legends that centered on the name of the town. As a child, Xu Wu had heard many of them. His father was convinced of the second one. He had heard it from a local jeweller, a friend that was much older than him. According to the rumor, the jeweller got rich by selling things bought from tomb looters who had got jewellery from Madam En Ze’s tomb. 

 

Lin Zhuo agreed to accompany Xu Wu to return to his hometown. It was also in this little town that they had first met. At that time, she was fresh out of college and was travelling with some fellow students. The moment he saw her for the first time, she was stepping on the stony roads and giggling with several other girls. Their images lit up the eyes and hearts of the men in the town. Xu Wu was one of them. He was here to pay homage before his mother’s tomb and would go back to work in Shanghai after a few days. Twenty-five years old, he had become an assistant engineer just three years after graduation. He fell in love with Lin Zhuo at first sight. She was a quiet girl, the kind that he liked. The girls asked him to take a picture for them. He agreed. Then he took the camera and stared at her through the viewer. He stared long enough for her to grow self-conscious. “How come it’s so slow?” he heard someone complaining. He had to press the button in a hurry. The picture was a blur. He was too nervous. 

 

He managed to get her phone number. When he returned to Shanghai, he started chasing her madly. He invited her to dinner and took her out shopping. They watched movies and played computer games together. And they spent hours in café together. Work was totally ignored during their first year dating. They both felt that they should have met earlier. That was also her first year on the job. She dodged business trips whenever she could, so that she could spend more time with him. Two years later, those who joined the company with her had all been promoted to the position of consultant. She, however, was still an assistant consultant. But she thought it was OK. She felt that as long as she had him, she had the whole world. They were a truly happy couple. And they would have remained so if it were not for the pregnancy problem. In the previous two years she had been doing better and better with her job. She had learned how to lead a team and how to negotiate with the customers. But just as she thought things were changing for the better, their marriage seemed to have come to a dead end. 

 

What could be expected from a marriage when there was no talking, no sex and no kid?

 

Xu Wu’s father heard the news and fell silent for a long time. Suddenly, he dropped his pipe and said “No way!” Then he walked out with both hands behind his body. Xu Wu didn’t move. Nor did Lin Zhuo. They looked at each other and no one said a word. When night came, the old man bought wine from the local market and asked Xu Wu to drink with him. After he got quite drunk, he stared at Xu Wu with reddened eyes and talked to him with a shaking voice. “Son,” he said, “You are not my son.”

 

It turned out that the old man and his wife failed to produce any children for over a decade since they had got married. She was able to get pregnant, but every time she miscarried not long after the onset of pregnancy. So they adopted a boy from the local orphanage and treated him as their own. But Xu Wu’s mother was never convinced of her infertility. She was determined to produce a real offspring for her husband’s family. So, the once plump woman was made weaker and weaker by repeated miscarriages and was finally killed by a massive hemorrhage. For many years, Xu Wu’s father blamed himself. Death was a regular sight in the crematorium. He said to himself, What was so great about a ‘real’ offspring anyway? He thought about the words of the jeweller. “What belongs to you will finally come to you,” he had said. “What doesn’t belong to you will never be yours, no matter how hard you try to get it. Never try to please others by killing your own pleasure. That’s the worst kind of life.”

 

“Few people know it, but the jeweller used to be a lady killer.” The drunken old man shook his head, remembering. He said that the jeweller had fallen in love with a slow-minded woman at the age of fifty. After that, he quit his business in jewellery and asked his apprentice to take over the store. Then he decided to become an amateur doctor and began looking for herbal medicine in the mountains. He always took the woman with him. There had been rumors that they even made out in the mountains. But who knows? And who cares? A couple of years later, the poor woman died of tuberculosis. The older Xu did the cremation and saw his old friend cry his heart out. “What do you think love is, son?” said the old man. “I think love is seeing the person who is with you as the best in the world. It doesn’t matter if she’s retarded or something. It doesn’t matter if she can’t have a baby. Your mum should have lived. She should have. ”

 

Later, Xu Wu helped his babbling father to the bed. He was drunk, too. Tears came to his eyes. Lin Zhuo was sitting in the outer room, dazed. She stared at the dishes that covered the table and at the half empty bottle. Then she poured herself three cups of wine and finished them one by one, bending over the table and crying bitterly. She felt her heart was being squeezed again and again. She felt she could hardly breathe. 

 

Later in the night, Xu Wu and Lin Zhuo slipped under the same blanket. Instead of making love, they slept soundly, with the fragrance of wine around them. When they woke up the next morning, they went for a walk around the town, hand in hand, just like when they were first getting to know each other. They talked about the tiny little things that happened when they were madly in love. They realized that neither of them had forgotten about that time. Xu Wu made a decision. He told himself that he had to say sorry to the young girl in his company. When they were sitting in a teahouse near the outskirts of the town, an old man stared at Lin Zhuo from a distance. Then he walked up to them and said he could tell her fortune. Convinced that the old man was a swindler, Xu Wu waved his hand to say ‘no’. He felt that he needed to cherish his wife and protect her well. 

 

But the old man sat beside them and wouldn’t leave. He looked at the ring on Lin Zhuo’s left hand and insisted that she take it off and let him take a closer look. “Do you know what those words mean?” he muttered. “How come a young lady like you is wearing something so heavy?” Then he copied the symbols from the ring and wrote them down in a larger size. “It’s a spell for the dead,” he said as Xu Wu watched the symbols. “The ring is meant to be worn by dead people. The dew drops can wash the sin from the dead.” The old man shook his head and said that Lin Zhuo was not supposed to wear it.

 

When they went back to Shanghai, the young couple took the old man’s advice and put the ring before the statue of Buddha in the doorway. One night, they both had the same dream. In their dreams, Xu Wu’s mother was doing the patching again. She looked very young, about twenty years old. She was checking her husband’s clothes in the dim light when a gold ring suddenly fell from one of the pockets. She picked it up and looked at it. She thought she liked it and put it on her finger. 

 

A year and a half later, Lin Zhuo gave birth to a healthy son. Xu Wu named him ‘En Ze’, which means ‘to resume the bliss’.

 

The gold ring, it turned out, was indeed taken from a dead body in one of the tombs. The identity of the dead one could no longer be determined. Legend has it that she was the legendary Madam En Ze, Emperor Qian Long’s favourite concubine. A tomb looter took the ring and sold it to the jeweller. When he was fifty, the jeweller met the retarded woman, who fell in front of his store and miscarried. He saved her life, made her use the ring as a contraceptive ring, and kept her by his side. He never studied the meaning of the words on the ring though, and he didn’t know how. After the woman was cremated, Xu Wu’s father found this peculiar ring among her ashes. He was going to return it to the jeweler, but his newly wedded wife had found it attractive and put it on her finger. In those days, the Xu family was poor and Xu Wu’s father had never given his wife any real gifts. So he gave it to her as a gift. The ring, which was once used for contraception, and which carried a spell for the dead, was finally passed to Lin Zhuo. 

 

This was a story that Xu Wu and Lin Zhuo had never known. They decided to keep the ring, for it had made them understand that while a ring could be replaced, love and loved ones could not. 

 

©2010 Su De

 

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