Edition 24: Broken Stars by Tang Fei (translator: Ken Liu)
Jiaming often dreams of the white woman, who predicts the future in her stars. School dominates her teenage life, and she seeks the attachment and happiness she doesn’t find at home with her distant father. Despite all other predictions, her life begins to spiral out of control. This dark, supernatural fantasy from Tang Fei captures the shallow and excruciating existence of the teenager, and their detachment from others. SY
If I really think about it, the stars did not arrange such a fate.
But the stars are broken, and so the definitive proof is gone. This moment is a vertex where time caves in: to the left is the past, to the right—
To the right should have been the future.
But the stars are broken.
Also, I met Zhang Xiaobo.
She didn’t bring an umbrella though the weather forecast said it was going to rain. After dinner, as she passed by the shoe rack, she missed the umbrella that had been specifically set out for her.
A few other students were scattered along the sidewalk, gradually gathering into a trickle of school uniforms that crossed the road and entered the school. Tang Jiaming entered the lecture hall from the back, at the top of the tiered seats, just as the first bell for evening study hall rang.
Most of the seats under the fluorescent lamps were filled. It was the second semester of the year before graduation, and the high school had organized nightly cram sessions starting at seven for students who still had some potential of doing well on the college entrance examination. Out of the two hundred or so students in the class, only about thirty qualified for the cram sessions based on their mock exam scores. The rest went on with their regular classes during the day, and were packed into this lecture hall for self-directed study in the evenings.
Jiaming saw Zhu Yin waving at her from one of the back rows—she had saved Jiaming a seat by the window.
“So many people here tonight! I’m guessing they’re still renovating the pool hall?”
“It’s gonna rain,” Zhu Yin mumbled. She held a bunch of rubber bands between her teeth while her hands danced like butterflies flitting through her hair. Zhu Yin excelled at fancy braids, and her hands were rarely free for anything else.
“You’ll have to write out this problem for me.” Zhu Yin lifted her chin to indicate the two workbooks on the desk. “Your handwriting is so messy that I can’t even copy your solution.”
“It’s just adding two complex numbers.” Jiaming pushed the workbooks back to her.
Sometimes she helped Zhu Yin copy her homework, but not always.
Zhu Yin scowled as she continued to braid. She was still angry at Jiaming for what had happened.
“Jiaming, I’m your best friend, right? The best?” she asked.
“Uh-huh.” Jiaming’s gaze roamed around the lecture hall.
“Out of everybody in the world?”
Jiaming laughed. She turned to look at Zhu Yin—she’s so pretty. “Because I want to be just like you,” she said.
“Liar!” But Zhu Yin was pleased. Her black eyes twinkled, and the scene in front of her was reflected in those dark mirrors, perfect in every detail. Jiaming really did like Zhu Yin, liked the ease with which she could be cheered up in an instant.
Jiaming yawned. It was going to rain, a big thundershower. The outside was unusually dark, but no one in the lecture hall seemed to have noticed.
Playing with phones, copying homework, reading comic books or gossip magazines, napping smoking giggling eating…like the slips of paper being passed around the room, the students shuttled about, changing seats without cease. Those who preferred quiet were concentrated in the first two rows so they could focus on working out supplemental problem sets for three hours. It was the same every day. The mercury-vapor lights dulled the colors and outlines, while restless, bulging, youthful bodies agitated under their clothes. The chaotic, low background white noise was interrupted occasionally by a shout or peal of laughter. Various aromas mixed together in harmony: Little Raccoon brand dry crispy noodle snacks, ham sausage, hair spray, rain boots. She enjoyed the sensation of being immersed in her surroundings, idle.
Her heart was filled with affection for everyone.
“Did you not sleep well?” Zhu Yin asked.
“Had too much to eat,” Jiaming replied.
“I’ll help you fix your hair later. How could you let it get so messy?”
Bang! The door slammed open. Before anyone in the room had time to react, the sand and pebbles blown in by the gust of wind struck their bodies, accompanied by flapping workbook pages and screams. Chaos reigned in the lecture hall. The gale preceding the rain careened around violently, sweeping away everything in its path. The windows creaked in their frames, the glass panes threatening to crack.
Jiaming got up to close the window; it would take but a moment.
She saw Zhang Xiaobo, even though she didn’t yet know his name.
He stood on top of the cement wall around the schoolyard, his footing uncertain in the howling wind. The wall was tall, and had grown taller every year. From where Jiaming stood it was hard to tell if he intended to jump. She thought he might. Maybe not now; maybe someday in the future.
She saw the boy bend down to sit on top of the wall and retrieve his lighter. He flicked it until it was lit but didn’t light anything; instead, he simply stared at the flickering tongue, shielding it from the wind with his hand. The tongue licked at his palm, painfully, and illuminated his face.
The windowpane before Jiaming’s face fogged up.
Strictly speaking, he wasn’t Jiaming’s type. He was too pale, too thin, with eyes that were too large and sunken in dark circles. However, he appeared serendipitously on the school wall that night.
The summer of 1998. The squall coming from over the sea brought the warm, moist scent of salt and fish. The shadows cast by the trees shifted—Jiaming had never seen the trees move so wildly, as though they craved to dance. She pressed her face against the glass and gazed at their dark outlines: perhaps someday they would uproot themselves and run madly away from here. Just then, perfectly timed, the boy had appeared on top of the only part of the wall not hidden by the shadows of the trees. The tongue of flame in his hand trembled wildly, illuminating the brown bloodstains on his white shirt. From a distance, the drumbeats of dense African jungle struck against Jiaming’s body, riding on the wet, violent blasts of the storm.
The fire went out.
“What are you looking at?” She heard Zhu Yin’s voice behind her.
“The rain is so heavy.”
“I brought an umbrella. How about you come home with me first …”
“Where did you get that umbrella?”
“You should go change.”
Jiaming went to her room and changed into fresh clothes, the wet bundle at her feet like shed snakeskin. The rain was so heavy that the umbrella hadn’t done much good.
She returned to the living room, where silent images danced on the TV screen. She picked up the remote and clicked through the channels, pausing at each briefly. In their home, no one ever unmuted the TV, but no one turned the TV off, either.
“Do you have any homework?” a voice asked from behind the piles of architectural plans.
“I’ll get off work early the day after tomorrow. We can go out for dinner together.”
For a second, Jiaming was silent as she stared at dozens of Mk 82 bombs dropping from the sky on TV; the next scene showed burning fields. She remembered.
“Your birthday is in two days.”
“What would you like as a gift?”
“Isn’t it a bit bizarre to give me gifts when it’s your birthday? Do you have something to tell me?”
The man ignored this.
“A Sarah Brightman CD then.”
“Write it down for me. It’s time for bed.” The man went into the kitchen and returned with a glass of milk; he handed it to Jiaming and watched as she drank it down.
Every night, before bed, her father gave her a glass of warm milk so that she could sleep soundly.
“So ugly!” The pale woman stared at the hairband in her hand, shocked. “Who would buy this?”
“They sell very well, in every color. Lots of girls at school wear them.”
They glanced at each other and laughed at the same time.
“Long hair is too much trouble.”
“But I like you with long hair. You look particularly well behaved.” The pale woman caressed Jiaming’s short hair. Her hand was so white that it looked like a beam of moonlight was shining on Jiaming.
“I prefer it like this.”
“Same old same old. It rained yesterday.” Her voice softened, but returned to normal almost immediately. “I didn’t bring an umbrella so Zhu Yin lent me hers.”
She waited for the pale woman to ask her, Does Zhu Yin still act really petulant sometimes? Then she would know what to say next.
But the pale woman didn’t.
“It rained yesterday,” she repeated what Jiaming had said.
“The day after tomorrow is Dad’s birthday,” said Jiaming.
The pale woman was quiet.
She reached into her pocket. “Let’s look at the stars,” she said.
She retrieved a folded-up sheet of paper and began to spread it, infinitely patient and gentle. Each time she opened another fold, her skin grew brighter, as if lit from beneath with a pure white light, of which, like her joy, it was impossible to say whether it was warm or cold. The paper, which had appeared about the size of her palm at first, gradually expanded and spread out in every direction under her careful, repetitive movements until the edges could no longer be seen.
The symbols and lines on the paper coiled and extended, as strange as the first time she had seen them. A rapidly spinning disk.
“Look, these are your stars.” The pale woman laughed.
For P.E., they were supposed to do an 800-meter run. But after the first lap, few girls could be seen on the track.
From a distance, Jiaming saw the P.E. teacher chasing girls who had been trying to get out of running by hiding in the shade of trees back onto the track. Reluctantly, they minced their way down the track. As soon as girls hit puberty, they seemed to lose the ability to run properly; it wasn’t only because of their bouncing breasts—overall they became indolent, or perhaps they were learning that this was part of the art of being coy.
“You’re in a good mood today,” Zhu Yin said.
Jiaming looked at her, surprised. They were hiding among the girls on the basketball court, pretending to be practicing their shots.
Zhu Yin came closer, like a mouse who has scented cake. “I bet there’s something.”
Jiaming said nothing.
“Did you dream about her?”
When she was seven, Jiaming had told Zhu Yin that she dreamed of a woman who was so pale that her skin appeared pure white. Zhu Yin had never forgotten about her.
“What did you talk about last night?”
“I told her about my dad’s birthday.”
“Were you able to see her face clearly this time? Did she look like your mom?”
Jiaming had always been able to see the pale woman’s face clearly, but she couldn’t remember what her mom looked like. Her mother had died in an accident at sea when she was four.
“Hey, you two!” A male voice next to them interrupted. “Is that your teacher?”
The man coming towards them with the whistle in his mouth was indeed their P.E. teacher. Jiaming and Zhu Yin looked at each other and then slipped onto the track, hurrying to catch up with the group ahead of them.
“Thanks!” As they passed the boy who had warned them, Zhu Yin winked at him.
Jiaming and the boy locked eyes for a moment. She recognized him.
“You know the guy we just passed?” Jiaming asked.
“I know of him. He’s in the cram class. A bit of a freak.”
“What’s his name?”
Without the storm, without the trees thinking of escape, without the wild, mad fire, without him sitting on the wall, he looked calm and friendly, perfectly normal. Jiaming told herself not to look back; there was no need for suspicion.
The pale woman had told her that the stars wished her luck.
She hadn’t even noticed her own smile.
“What are you so happy about?” asked Zhu Yin.
“I was thinking of my dream from last night. I showed her the hairbands that are so popular right now, and she thought they’re really ugly, too.”
Jiaming looked at the girl sitting on the bench next to the track without speaking. Only someone who had gotten a note from the nurse could sit there so openly, excused from having to run up a sweat. As they crossed the finish line, the girl on the bench got up and walked towards them.
“You saw the ones she’s wearing?”
Zhu Yin laughed. “Yeah, pretty ugly.”
The new girl approached Jiaming but hesitated when she saw Zhu Yin.
Zhu Yin rolled her eyes. She turned to Jiaming. “I’ll wait for you back in the classroom.”
“Jiaming!” The bright sun made the new girl squint as she smiled.
Lina was one of the first girls to attract the attention of the boys. Once she turned twelve, her body lost its baby fat and began to acquire curves and contours, giving off a warm scent and unconsciously attracting the gazes of the opposite sex onto the bulges in her school uniform. She was always surrounded by boys, and not only boys her age.
No one worried that Lina was going to do something improper. She was as decorous as a cow elephant slowly maneuvering her enormous body, unmoved by everything around her. Only when the need presented itself would she deign to notice the boys’ existence, and she knew how to make use of the gazes always trained on her.
For instance, that note from the nurse’s office.
She also knew how to take advantage in other ways.
For instance, now she was grabbing Jiaming by the hand to get a snack from the campus store.
Lina paid for both of them. Jiaming let her and asked for two ice creams.
“I’m getting one for Zhu Yin,” she said.
Lina smiled. “My doctor—he’s a traditional Chinese medicine specialist—won’t let me eat anything cold, not even sashimi…”
The best thing about conversing with Lina was that you could let her talk without listening. Unlike other girls their age, she knew that one didn’t have to take everything so seriously all the time. Jiaming had always felt relaxed around her.
“I hear that the study hall sessions are pretty easy.”
“Sure, there’s no extra homework. I’m sure you work much harder in the cram sessions.”
Something was stuffed into her hand. Jiaming stopped and stared expressionlessly at the gift box from Lina: velvet, satin, exquisitely made. She opened it to find a brand new Parker pen. “Lina?”
“We used to sit at the same desk, didn’t we? I happen to have an extra pen.” Lina’s smile was like a piece of chocolate about to melt.
“Looks expensive. Do you fill it with regular ink?” The pale woman uncapped the pen and tested the tip of the nib.
“I’m sure they sell fancy ink that goes with it. Probably comes with its own gift box.”
“Why did she give you this?”
Jiaming said nothing. She didn’t think one or two secrets were much of a burden to carry.
The pale woman lifted Jiaming’s face by the chin. “Give it back to her. I’m worried about you.”
“If I were to do that, you’d be worrying about me even more.”
The pale woman held her still and forced her to meet her gaze. “I’ve seen her stars. I don’t like them.”
“If I don’t accept her bribe, she’ll think that I’ve decided to betray her. Do you understand?”
The pale woman released her and moved away.
Jiaming walked over and sat down next to her. “Do you like my stars?”
“I do.” The woman’s eyes were as gentle as a sigh. “You’re a good child. The stars told me so as soon as you were born.”
A thought flitted across her heart like a shadow. Her chest tightened in the senseless, flickering light from the TV screen.
“Can the stars really talk?” She had never asked this question; she had never believed.
“Yes. Yes!” The pale woman said earnestly. “Yesterday, yesterday the stars told me that you would meet…someone very special. He would appear in water, and then disappear in fire. The stars also wished you good luck. I told you.”
“Then, what about today? What do the stars say?”
The pale woman opened her astrolabe. Jiaming paid attention to her every movement, scrutinizing the details of this process she had already witnessed countless times. The more she focused, the more she felt like she was elsewhere. She was here, but also not here. She had been abandoned by herself—somewhere in her body, there was unquestionably the emptiness left by abandonment. No matter how much she tried to ignore it, she could feel the nauseating chill as well as…the dizzying sweetness.
Those stars: the symbols drifting from the depths of the vast space appeared on the sheet of paper with unprecedented clarity.
“Tomorrow, there will be happiness. You’ll walk a path that you don’t normally walk, and make a date in the morning. The stars say that you’ll meet someone important, someone you’ll spend the rest of your life with. The date will change your destiny, so be careful of wrong turns. The stars are speaking. Listen, the stars are talking, all of them. Can you hear them? The stars want you to be happy.”
The pale woman’s speech sped up. She repeated herself. Because she was talking so fast, she couldn’t catch her breath, but still, she didn’t slow down. It was like a wheel spinning out of control, and speech lost meaning until, finally, the senseless, staccato syllables made the woman’s body convulse. Abruptly, the bony fingers locked onto Jiaming’s shoulders, and the woman let out a burst of crude, piercing laughter.
Jiaming hugged her tightly. “Stop acting crazy, Mama. Stop.”
Jiaming couldn’t remember exactly when the pale woman first appeared. It was her sixth birthday, or maybe even earlier. She had been dreaming and opened her eyes at midnight.
There was a woman sitting at the head of the bed. Her skin was so pale that it looked uncanny, a radiant object in the darkness—a star.
She spoke to the pale woman. Strangely, she didn’t feel any fear. That was the most dream-like part of the whole experience.
“You’re so pale. Are you glowing?”
“Not me. It’s starlight. Quick, ask me who I am.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m your mother.”
“My mother is dead. You’re mad.”
“I am mad.” The pale woman covered her mouth and giggled.
She wasn’t afraid of her. Later, even on one of those nights when the pale woman acted crazed and tried to strangle her, she still wasn’t afraid.
Most of the time they were together, the pale woman was very quiet.
They talked like regular people. Jiaming told her what had happened at school, and from time to time the pale woman offered an observation. They held the same opinions concerning most topics. Sometimes the pale woman brought up the stars. She taught Jiaming to recognize the stars: their names, positions, colors, their pasts, and also, their speech.
“Listen carefully: you can tell who’s talking by the tone. To understand what they’re saying you have to interpret the words as well as the tones. The stars sometimes prefer to sing.”
Jiaming heard nothing.
The stars could not talk.
What did it matter? The stars disappeared during the day, like dreams.
Jiaming never imagined that she would one day believe the words of the deranged woman.
That morning, however, she decided to take the bus from the southern gate of her residential district to go to school. She hadn’t ridden the bus during rush hour for a long time, and she couldn’t even squeeze her way onto the first bus. When the next bus came, she got one foot onto the bus but couldn’t find any more space to move up. Just as she was hesitating, a hand reached out and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her onto the bus forcefully.
In the dense crowd of passengers, she recognized Zhang Xiaobo’s cold face.
He didn’t look like someone who would have helped her onto the bus.
The bus was truly packed. Each body lost its individuality and boundaries. Pressed against other bodies, the passengers endured pressure from all sides. Each torso was twisted into unimaginable poses and then fixed in place, like canned pieces of meat.
It shouldn’t be like this. She and he were too close together. Although a middle-aged woman stood between them, they were still too close. Jiaming had no choice but to look into that expressionless face. His eyes were black like the water pooled at the bottom of an abyss; irresistible.
Don’t fall into those eyes.
She struggled to twist her head away so that she didn’t have to look at that face. Her cheek was crushed against the spine of the man in front of her, and it hurt. She didn’t care.
The bus slowed down as it approached the stop. Passengers who had to get off pushed and shoved their way to the exit, but Zhang Xiaobo didn’t move. He didn’t show any signs of wanting to leave.
The doors opened. Jiaming closed her eyes. Exiting passengers surged past behind her. She should be in their midst, easily carried off the bus by the current. She should not be dizzy.
Yet she endured the buffeting of the crowd, her fingers locked onto the handholds. Several times she was almost swept off the bus, but she struggled to hold her place until the doors closed. The drumbeats of dense African jungle once again struck her chest. She wanted to cry; she wanted to laugh.
“You’re going to be late.” She hadn’t noticed when Xiaobo came to be standing next to her.
Her mind was a blank. The bus started moving again, past the school. She could see the old man at the gatehouse; in another ten minutes he would close the gate. The school grew smaller in rearview and finally disappeared behind the row of Chinese parasol trees along the street. She closed her eyes. The dappled light of the leaves flitted across her eyelids. Something tickled at her heart.
“Now you’re really going to be late.” He was almost smiling.
They rode the bus to the terminal stop, where they got on another bus heading back. They sat in two separate rows, one behind the other. They didn’t look at each other or talk.
As they approached the school again, he leaned forward and whispered into her ear. “What classes do you have in the morning?”
Things that seem crazy happened because they were fated to happen.
Jiaming turned around to look at Xiaobo.
The bus stopped; the doors opened; the doors closed. Neither of them moved.
It was already eight thirty.
It was noon by the time she was back at the school. She was about to go to the cafeteria to grab a bite when the Dean of Academic Affairs stopped her and took her to his office.
She wasn’t worried because she thought it was about skipping class. But she was wrong.
Once she emerged from the dean’s office, she took Zhu Yin to a remote corner of the cafeteria. Zhu Yin confessed before she even asked the question.
“That’s right. I told them about you taking the exam for Lina. It’s the truth.”
“They must have asked you for proof.”
“Yes…” Zhu Yin seemed to realize the problem and fell silent.
“And so you told them that I could confirm your story, that I took the mock exam for Lina in all four subjects.”
Jiaming walked in front of Zhu Yin so that she had to look into her eyes. “But you know very well that I’ve never said that I took the exam for Lina. I haven’t before and I never will. The dean already spoke to me.”
“Did you tell him—”
“I told him that Lina’s score was all due to her own diligence.”
“Why are you protecting that bitch? Why help her? I saw you.”
“You saw me help her pick up her exam when it fell on the floor. That’s all.”
“Why? Why? I can’t stand the way she struts around as though she has already been admitted to a top-tier college. I want everyone to know that she’s a fake, a nothing. If I had hard proof, I would have—”
“But you don’t. However, you’ve succeeded in convincing her that I’ve sold her out.” Jiaming was no longer angry. This girl had no idea how clever she had been.
She had helped because it was easy. She had thought nothing of it, not caring about test scores. As for herself, she had casually written out a few answers on her own exam in the time remaining.
She had treated the whole thing as a joke, but she seemed to be the only one who found it funny.
“Why are you helping her like that? For that pen? I saw that new Parker pen in your gym bag after P.E. Don’t leave, Jiaming! We’re friends!”
Zhu Yin’s voice faded behind her.
Xiaobo caught her on the landing as she climbed the stairs. His face was dark.
“I need to see you.”
“I thought we were going to meet at McDonald’s after school.”
“Why are you spreading such malicious lies? Did you think anyone would believe you?”
Jiaming stared at him. “You think those are lies?” She leaned against the wall so he wouldn’t see her trembling.
The stars had said that he was a very important person.
“Who would believe that you took the mock exam for Lina? The dean already talked to her. She’s been crying ever since. How can you hurt someone just to satisfy your vanity?”
He already believed them, just like that.
Jiaming bit her lip. Something was stuck in her throat, burning, suffocating her. She didn’t want to speak because it would hurt too much. But… but he was an important person to her. Maybe he was worth it, worth her ripping the words from her chest.
“What if I told you that I really did take the exam for her?”
She stared into his eyes, hoping to find something familiar.
“You’re filthy,” Xiaobo said.
She twisted her face away. She did find something familiar, though it wasn’t what she wanted. She was in so much pain that she could not bear to look at him.
But, he was going to hear her explanation. They would be happy together. She just had to—
The bell rang.
“Let’s talk about it more after school, all right?”
Xiaobo rushed for the classroom. Jiaming followed and climbed up a few steps, stopped, and turned around to go back down.
She decided to leave; leave behind the trivial nonsense, the school. She was going to cross the street and go through the revolving door of the McDonald’s, where she would sit on a sofa chair and sip from a large Coke. She would do nothing and think about nothing, until school let out.
She had never told anyone about taking the exam for Lina. This evening, she was going to tell him the whole story as a joke. She would be lighthearted and not leave out any details. She would be careful with her phrasing. She didn’t want to make him feel guilty.
The ice cubes slowly melted, gradually vanishing into the dark, sweet liquid. Very few people ever paid attention to how ice disappeared. What about the pale woman? Did she once focus on the inevitable fading away of things? What would her stars say?
The stars want you to be happy.
What kind of stars would make her happy? Jiaming didn’t know and didn’t want to figure it out.
The pale woman was still asleep. Jiaming didn’t wake her. The Coke she brought back for her was already warm, but she didn’t want to awaken her. She rarely got to see the pale woman so at peace.
“What time is it?” The pale woman woke up. She glanced at the TV; the anchor was reporting on the domestic news. “It’s so early. I thought you had a date. Did you get to meet him? You should have taken a path this morning you normally don’t.”
“I met him. We made a date for McDonald’s after school. There’s a Coke I bought you on the table.”
“How was the date? It ended too early.” The pale woman tilted her head and laughed. “Now do you believe me? Your mama isn’t mad! The stars tell the truth.”
“Mama, let’s look at the stars.”
The pale woman set down the Coke and happily took out her star chart. The spinning disk stopped and the symbols appeared clearly on the paper. The woman began to interpret.
Her mouth was open, but no sound emerged.
“What’s wrong, Mama? What do the stars say?”
The pale woman collapsed into the chair. She had never been as white as she was now.
“Why are you hiding in the shadows?” she asked Jiaming.
“You’re not going to like the way I look now.” Jiaming walked into the lamplight. “They got my clothes dirty.”
They had held her down on the beige colored sofa at McDonald’s, where the Coke spilling from the cup they toppled on purpose flowed onto her pants from the table. Lina hadn’t been in the crowd; she had stood in the back, traces of tears on her face.
“Did they hit you?” the pale woman asked.
Her face felt swollen, and there were a few scratch marks. Jiaming licked her cracked lips. The taste of blood was a bit similar to Coke.
“They weren’t too fond of iced soda.”
The girl who had toppled the Coke had been the first one to slap her in the face. Then they had dragged her in front of Lina. Half a dozen pairs of hands had shoved her until she was kneeling before Lina, her knees striking the hard tiles. This was the price for betraying Lina.
They had then slapped her face: one, two, three. Right in front of the customers and employees gathered around them, in front of the pedestrians on the sidewalk looking in through the windows, in front of the teacher mixed in the crowd pretending to not know them, perhaps in front of other students.
Someone had held her by her hair so that she couldn’t lower her face. They wanted everyone to see her face. Jiaming had closed her eyes.
One of the girls had explained the scene to the spectators.
Look at this stupid bitch. She could barely get passing marks. How dare she make up stories about Lina, a model student?
“You know who they are, don’t you? Did you guess or did the stars tell you?” Jiaming wiped away the pale woman’s tears. “Don’t cry. Don’t you find the whole thing funny?”
Had she not shut her eyes tightly, had she been able to see the expressions on those faces, she would have laughed hysterically, unable to stop herself. The joke hadn’t reached the punch line until then.
“Did the stars tell you how many times they slapped me? Twenty-seven. I was so bored that I counted for them. But this wasn’t the real problem. There’s actually a really important question, something that I had to ponder before Lina left. Mama, how did they know I was at McDonald’s?
“Why did the man who’s so important to me take up their side? Ask the stars, Mama, ask them! Why did he treat me the same way that man treated you? Hurry up and ask the stars! We must have the same stars, Mama.”
The pale woman was curled up in the chair, biting her fingers instinctively. Only her eyes, independent of body and will, attracted by the star chart, stared without blinking at the figures on the sheet.
Jiaming walked over and pulled her fingers out of her mouth. “What do the stars say? My crazy, mad mother, tell me, what does this mean?” She pointed to one symbol.
“The Moon?” As Jiaming spoke, she moved her pen. The pale woman screamed and stretched out her bloody fingers to stop her, but it was too late. The symbol for the Moon disappeared in a dense storm of pen strokes. The pen moved and casually drew the symbol somewhere else. “It’s over here now.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What about this one?” The nib pointed at another symbol.
“It’s too crowded over here.” She scratched out Pluto and randomly set the nib down in a blank space elsewhere. “Isn’t this better?”
The pale woman howled, tearing at her hair.
“Don’t cry. Open your eyes. The stars and planets are no longer where they were, but the world remains the same. Nothing has changed. The stars do not speak; they don’t tell the future. The future, the past, the present, none of it has anything to do with your shitty stars.”
The pale woman bent over the star chart, as if gazing at a baby she had given birth to who had just died. Tears flowed down her cheeks and dropped onto the paper; ripples expanded over the chart as though pebbles had been tossed in. The symbols on the paper trembled like reflections in the water, and then cautiously began to move, heading for their former positions.
Jiaming watched them expressionlessly, unmoved. This was nothing more than another cheap trick.
The stars did not speak; the stars did not tell the future; the stars were powerless.
She understood this better than anyone else at this moment.
“You don’t know what you’ve done!” The pale woman sobbed uncontrollably.
“I know what I’ve done. Almost, almost I believed you. This morning was the first time I’ve ever believed that I might deserve happiness after all.”
My name is Tang Jiaming.
My mother is insane.
Dad told me that when I was four, my mother died coming home on a ferry. I didn’t understand why Dad told me such a story until I was much older.
Not long after my mother’s death, Dad and I moved into our current home. Dad is an architect; he spent a lot of time renovating our new home. Our new home didn’t feel as spacious as it looked, but it was plenty big for us. Later, I went to school like other kids. One night, I dreamed of the pale woman. She had a sheet of paper filled with strange symbols, and she told me that the paper told her the future. I didn’t believe her. Although I dreamed about the pale woman every night after, I never believed her predictions, the words of the stars.
Until I met Zhang Xiaobo.
Because I wanted love.
That’s humanity for you.
He opens the door and is surprised to find me sitting on the sofa. “You’re home?”
“Sorry. I know we said we’d go out for dinner. I forgot it was tonight.”
“No big deal.” He takes the Sarah Brightman CD out of his briefcase. “For you.”
No matter what I want, he always tries to get it for me. No matter how disobedient I am, he never disciplines me. None of the other fathers are like this.
He doesn’t ask about the bruises on my face. He’s been like that since I was little. If I got bullied he always pretended that he saw nothing.
“That’s why you have to be smart and take care of yourself,” the pale woman had said.
“Did you get out of work early because you wanted to tell me something?”
“No. I just wanted to have a good meal with you. Aren’t you going to get in trouble for skipping study hall tonight?”
“Don’t worry about it. Since you’re back early and I’m not going to study hall, why don’t we sit and chat a bit?” I get up and dim the living room lights.
The living room has never been so dim in my memory. Day or night, the lights and the TV have always been kept on.
“What are you doing?’
I walk in front of the mirror facing the TV. I press against the glass and look in. I see what he doesn’t want me to see: the pale woman and her prison cell.
“One-way glass?” I stare at him. “Daddy, I guess our living room isn’t so small after all.”
My name is Tang Jiaming.
My mother is insane.
My father is an excellent architect. He built a secret chamber into our living room, where he has imprisoned my mother for more than a decade. The pale woman has never been a dream. It took me a long time before I understood this, but I continued to insist that she was just a dream. Like the story he told me about her drowning.
Before we lie to each other, we always have to successfully lie to ourselves.
“When did you find out?”
“When I realized that I always felt extra sleepy after drinking the milk you gave me.”
My father doesn’t know that although the drugs could put me to sleep, they couldn’t stop me from waking up in the middle of the night to find the pale woman. No matter how soundly I slept, sometime during the night I’d be awakened by some force, and, like an object in midair tumbling to the ground, I’d come to be by the side of the pale woman.
If you didn’t want others to know that you had a mad wife, why didn’t you just seal her inside solid walls?
If I asked him this question, he would surely reply that he did it for me. He didn’t want others to know that I had a mad mother.
I don’t think so. I’m not going to let him get a chance to say this.
“Drink this. You haven’t been getting enough sleep.” I bring out a glass of warm milk from the kitchen and put it in front of him. I look at him solicitously.
He drinks it down. I knew he would. No matter what I had put in it, he would have drunk it.
Anything would be better than having to face me like this.
“When did she start to say those crazy things?” I sit down in front of him, my hands gently covering his trembling knees.
“She was always different, even when we first met. She said she heard strange voices. She was always very interested in the exact time and place of people’s births. She disliked some people for no reason at all. I just attributed those to harmless quirks. But then you were born, and she—” He looks up at me, and continues only with some effort. “She calculated your fate by the astrolabe, and said that you were a child destined to alter the talk of the stars; you had to be protected. She became more and more deranged—”
“You got scared.”
“I don’t know if she’s really crazy. Some things have come to pass the way she predicted. No, I wasn’t scared of her. But you didn’t see how others were looking at us.”
He knows I’m not crazy, the pale woman had said once. I remember her expression as she said it. I remember other things, as well.
Before he closes his eyes, I ask my last question. “Did you stop loving her a long time ago?”
“No, not at all. I love her. Always have.”
That is the worst of all possible answers.
Thanks to that glass of warm milk, he falls asleep before he could begin to cry uncontrollably. Of course he loves her. For her, he had installed the one-way glass so that she could watch that TV in the living room, always left on. More important, the pale woman could see me through that mirror.
But Daddy, you really have given me the worst answer.
My name is Tang Jiaming.
I don’t have a father, and no mother either. I can change the talk of the stars; that is, I can change fate.
Tomorrow morning, I’m going to get to school on time. I’ll continue to pretend to be a student as if nothing has happened. I’m not going to pretend to be like the others, and I’ll never allow anyone to hurt me again. I’m going to be myself, completely. Once you know how to change fate, this is not difficult.
The pale woman should be happy. I believe her, and I’ll fulfill her prediction. I’ve copied her astrolabe, and I’ve tried to move her stars. As my first experimental project, she died. I didn’t want her to die, but I don’t need an excuse to absolve myself. There’s no question I killed her. Still, she should be happy.
Zhu Yin will make up with me. That’s what her stars say. The stars also say that she wants many other things.
At the next full moon, nude pictures of Lina will appear in the inbox of every student. That night, Lina’s stars will become utterly fragile. She’ll want to die; she’ll hang herself from the tallest pole in the school, where her nubile body will swing in the wind like a leaf.
On that night, the fragrance of her feminine body, the smell of death, and the stench of her excrement will attract Zhang Xiaobo to her corpse. He’ll be like some lost worker bee, confused by the smells, hovering around the dangling girl. Even death won’t be able to completely stop the cinnamon aroma of her body. She’ll be so entrancing. Especially then. Serene, calm, a chocolate sea calling to him.
If not for fate, why would he pass by just then? If not for fate, how could he have been able to light the fire in the gale?
Xiaobo will loosen the rope and let Lina down. Her body will still be warm, filled with the scent of summer. Her natural, tanned skin will glow and be filled with the elasticity of youth. He’ll be especially attracted by her round, smooth legs, covered by her excrement. On that night, he’ll experience unprecedented levels of hunger and obsession, his blood boiling in his veins. Death will swell his blood vessels, will make him feel harder and stiffer than he’s ever felt. By the time his hands reach into her blouse, greedily kneading those chocolate breasts, he’ll no longer be an insect driven mad by the rotten stench of the corpse flower. He’ll no longer be lost. He’ll have encountered himself. He’ll lick those purple lips, and then gently wind himself around that tongue, again and again, tirelessly. That will be how he confirms who he is. He’ll understand what he fears; he’ll know what he yearns for; he’ll know himself.
My frail lover, come to me. We’ll be bonded together on a foundation of evil.
From now on, you can blame me the way you blame fate.
I am your star.
As I smile at the mirror, I know he’s looking at me from behind it. He’s now trapped in the cell he had built himself.
On the table is the meal I prepared for him. “This is made from the flesh of the pale woman. You’ll be eating the same thing for a few years.” I told him the truth and now I’m waiting here, patiently, on the other side of the mirror. I know he’ll start eating sooner or later.
He’ll think that I’ve moved his stars, making him eat it.
But he’ll be wrong. I haven’t moved his stars at all. From the moment of his birth, his stars have said that he’ll consume the pale woman.
“When you move the stars, you change fate. When you move the stars, you also break them. Don’t move the stars lightly.”
Those were the pale woman’s final words to me before she died.
Many stars have been broken tonight, and many more will break in the future. Even so, the sky will never be completely dark.
There will always be a star that remains eternally lit. A star that doesn’t need my guidance.
Tang Fei is a speculative fiction writer whose work has been featured (under various pen names) in magazines in China such as Science Fiction World, Jiuzhou Fantasy, Fantasy Old and New. She has written fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, and wuxia (martial arts fantasy), but prefers to write in a way that straddles or stretches genre boundaries. She is also a genre critic, and her critical essays have been published in The Economic Observer. More recently, she has been published by mainstream literary magazines such as Zui Story and Shanghai Literature.
In translation, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld and Apex.
She lives in Beijing (though she tries to escape it as often as she can), and considers herself a foodie with a particular appreciation for dark chocolate, blue cheese, and good wine.
Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He also translated the Hugo-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, which is the first translated novel to win that award.
Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, was published by Saga Press in April 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, in March 2016. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty)