≠Late spring is when Hangzhou is prettiest, but it is also when the air turns hot, wet and sticky, so that, all of a sudden, going for my daily lunchtime stroll along the West Lake is as exhilaratingly horrible an experience as eating my girlfriend’s pussy. Both are long, drawn-out affairs that leave me with sweat in my ears and between my toes, that give me pleasure precisely because they make my mind blank so that, instead of worrying about the work I have not completed for my graduation show, I know only the dryness of my mouth and the sting at the back of my eyes. It is a sense of peace I have worked hard to find.
On the day that the rain begins, a Monday, my classmate Xiao-Li finds me sitting on the ground alone near the back of the West Lake scenic park, some hundred metres away from the school gate, where I am watching the waters, smoking a cigarette, and thinking about sex. He stands in front of me, blocking my view, and ruins my pleasant daze by beginning to ramble about school matters. Were it not for Xiao-Li, I might have noticed the little shiver of thunder that everyone else, later, will say occurs around this time.
Xiao-Li is the second shortest student in the oil painting department and towers over me. When he arrives, I stand up and brush the dirt off my trousers so that at least I can face him when we speak instead of craning my neck to look up at him like a dog. I take my time getting up and am rewarded with Xiao-Li waving a photograph in my face that he has apparently been clutching in his hand the whole time.
Look, he says, so I do.
It is a snapshot of an egg-shaped object balanced on what seems to be a tall table. The egg takes up the whole of the frame, warping the space around it so that the table looks frail under its weight. The photograph smells like it’s just come out of the developer and was clearly not taken by a professional: there’s a blurred patch in the corner where whoever took it dangled their thumb.
Knowing that Xiao-Li will explain why he is showing it to me, I say nothing and wait.
What if I told you that this was a giant sculpture? he asks me, grinning.
I look up at him, at this reddish face that has become familiar to me after having had to see it almost every day for the past four years. He spreads his arms as wide as they’ll go, and when I raise my eyebrows, he nods.
Hmm, I say.
You know Zhou Lei from the sculpture department, Xiao-Li says.
He knows that I know Zhou Lei; not well, but in first year both I and Zhou Lei almost flunked out and as a result were lumped together. There were rumours for a while, baseless ones about the things we liked to do to each other in the men’s toilets. The only time we actually spoke was when we ran into each other in the canteen and he laughed and said, Can you imagine? in an unnecessarily insulted tone. I told myself to forgive him.
This is Zhou Lei’s graduation piece, Xiao-Li was saying. And do you know what it’s called? – he pauses for drama – ‘The Beginning of Life’!
I snatch the photograph from Xiao-Li, ignoring the unpleasant way its cheap glossy surface slides against my thumbpads. I look at the image again, that slightly out-of-focus egg with, I can now see, several cracks running along its shell. It is hard to believe, especially in this picture, that this precarious thing could really be made of stone.
It’s Xiao-Li’s turn to wait for me to talk – he wants to collect my critique, it’s what he came all this way for – but I am more patient than he. I bring my cigarette to my lips and re-light it, casting my eyes beyond his shoulders at something in the distance and slightly to the east, as though trying to spot Shanghai on the murky horizon. I do not tell him that I think the egg is a work of genius, despite the fact Zhou Lei made it. All of life in one geometric shape, warm creation, simple and distilled. It reminds me of the painting Courbet did that was also called ‘The Beginning of Life’, if I remember correctly, and which depicts not an egg but something almost as seductive: open legs and parted folds glistening with wetness, soft and pink and inviting.
It’s a work I’ve only seen in magazines, in black and white and smaller than my palm, as poor a reproduction as this snapshot of Zhou Lei’s sculpture. It’s hard, from just that, to really know if the pussy is wet or soft or pink, especially because the slit disappears confusingly into the mass of pubic hair, or is it even pubic hair? It’s more bush than I or anyone I know has ever seen. The painting is a fine work of art to me, perhaps the finest of that historical period, precisely because most would refuse to call it art. It depicts two progenitors – an extraordinary genius who is of course a man, and an ordinary, used pussy, used probably that morning and again on that very mattress after the picture was done – and asks, Who creates? Who gives life, and what is this thing we call life, is it wretched, is it noble, must we die, can we transcend? And how? Had Zhou Lei intended to allude to Courbet, that would make him a fine artist indeed.
I think it’s divine, Xiao-Li says, trying to prompt me. It takes me a moment to remember that he is still waiting for me to make a comment. I mean, he adds, the teachers will tear him apart and he might actually get kicked out. It doesn’t look anything like the examples of good art we were shown. I can’t believe he’s finished his project already. What do you think he’s going to do for the next two months? he asks. Go on holiday, I hope.
If Xiao-Li and Zhou Lei both love that piece, I should change my mind on it. In fact, it is probably boring and overthought. Unlike Courbet and his instinctive, radically simple choice in depicting those heavy thighs, and to cut them abruptly at the edges of the painting so that they look like the thighs of the Belvedere Torso plaster casts that we sketched in life drawing class. The liquid but intentional way Courbet painted the tangled sheets; the upper left corner being just black, revealing no bed, no divan, no wallpaper, no context or sense of space – just a moment in time. A hundred years later the painting remains important enough to be seen in China. Zhou Lei’s egg attempt is admirable but unless he makes a good case for it the teachers will cover it with a cloth after the graduation show, never to be seen again.
Well, Xiao-Li says eventually, checking his watch, I’ll see you in studio.
Mmm, I say, and his silhouette leaves my eyeline. I check my own watch and see that I have ten minutes left of our break to look at the water, so I try to put the egg aside, and do.
At this point, there is no grey cloud on the horizon, no hint of what is to come: everything is still, as it always is at noon. I come here to do my favourite thing and what I am best at, which is to watch: I watch the heavy sun, I watch the green water that is just a little too dirty, too soup-like, to imagine dipping into. I watch the gardeners scattered across this part of the bank in ones and twos, planting flowerbeds in silence so that the West Lake might someday look more like what it might have been in imperial times, when Hangzhou flourished. The workers’ bodies move in a set rhythm not unlike the soft waves of the lake. They curve their backs like in Courbet’s ‘The Stone Breakers’. I can smell their body odour from here, that specific scent that sweat has when it’s produced from wage-labour: sour, slightly addictive. I find myself wondering if these gardeners are local, and if so, whether they find they prefer the West Lake from their childhoods to the one they’re seeing and making today.
Most of my classmates at the academy grew up in this city and have all kinds of opinions about the past, some of which need to be expressed more carefully because it is not tasteful to be happy about the late Sixties and early Seventies, a time we now call those ten years of extreme ideological thought trends when errors were made. I only know the edges of what some of my peers, several of whom were childhood friends, were up to in those years, what streets they roamed, what mountains they went up to and countrysides they went down to, and what they found in those villages, and what they recovered when they returned to Hangzhou. What the West Lake looked like for them. Because I am not from this city, I only know the West Lake the way it is now, vast and beloved and constantly asking for someone to make it better. Standing at any point on the bank, I can never fit all of it into my eyeline, just as a traditional hand scroll painting is too long to be viewed in one go. Instead one has to choose which section to unroll; the rest of the scroll must remain hidden for that one view to be revealed.
Some months ago, before the renovations were properly begun, I was interrupted on my lunchtime visit by two comrades wearing armbands and holding clipboards who asked me to participate in a survey listing the most notable sceneries on West Lake. After the government finishes construction in this area, they told me, it’ll become an attraction for tourists from across the nation and even abroad. As a non-local, what did I enjoy most about the lake? I was flooded with shame at the idea that even after more than three years in Hangzhou I reeked of out-of-townness, and so even if I knew the names of anything I would have been too anxious to conjure them. The lake is very pleasant, I said. Yes, the survey-takers said, gripping their pencils, but which part is your favourite? In the end I found a name in the dregs of my memory and told them I liked the Broken Bridge, the meeting place of the lovers from that famous myth about the white snake seductress.
That one? the survey-takers asked, pointing across the water to a long bridge built from pale stones that curved upwards ever so slightly in the middle, like a mosquito bite on a forearm. The bridge had a circular gap in the middle that resembled a window. There was nothing broken about it.
Yes, I replied, mystified, because I actually had not known that the Broken Bridge from myth was a real place that still existed today. It had, in fact, been on that bridge that, last year, late one night with no one else around, I’d kissed my girlfriend for the first time.
After school that evening, when I met with her and told her about the survey and my discovery, she snorted.
I thought you did it on purpose, she said. It made sense to me. I figured you had this whole romantic scene in your mind.
Like what? I said.
You thought you were the innocent mortal boy, and I was the white snake spirit, out to trick you, but whom you loved anyway because of your good heart. That’s why you waited so long to make a move. You chose the Broken Bridge because you love symbols.
Did I love symbols? I wondered. If she said so, then it must be true.
She continued: But in reality, I think that you’re the white snake and I’m the green snake.
But the snakes are sisters, I said.
My girlfriend laughed. Hot, right?
No, I said. I thought for a moment. Why are you the green snake?
She put her fingers in my hair, made a fist, and pulled and pulled until I relented and let her hear me groan. She knocked her forehead against mine, rested there. Because it doesn’t matter what shape you take, my girlfriend said, or where you go. I’ll always follow.
That was then: the air was sharper, every student wore near-identical woollen jackets bought for cheap at the academy shop, and our graduation show was still an abstract, distant dream. Zhou Lei’s egg was still in a quarry somewhere, waiting to be cut and sold and chiselled. These days, as our deadlines loom closer, my girlfriend and I have less time to see each other, and we always have stains on our fingers, mine oils, hers inks. I tell her I don’t mind dropping by her studio to keep her company while she paints, but she says it makes her feel self-conscious when I stare. I wonder if the gardeners also dislike that I am staring at them; if they sigh in relief when I walk away at the end of my breaks and disappear into the front gates of the academy where I belong.
If the city-dwellers can tell from the way I hold myself that I am different from them, art school is not necessarily better. Some other students are from the provinces like I am, and one or two are even from a different region altogether. But in second year my male friends published a list assigning every woman student at the academy a flower and a ranking, and they put me last, as a blade of grass. They say it’s because I always look ill and I creep them out. They ask whether I only like girls because I know I’m repulsive to men in the first place. I laugh, because I have to, and also because it’s funny.
Maybe I am creepy, especially when I am watching people, because I am told that my eyes get big. But I am a diligent student, and when I am watching I am also taking things in so that I can paint them later. The most important slogan we learn at art school is that we must plunge deep into life, immerse ourselves in it, in order to make art that is true to life. That our duty as socialist artists is to become so filled up with life that we can create paintings promoting our nation’s glorious economic progress, paintings so good that they can reach out of their frames and grab visitors’ necks and make them feel the vitality of our world; and that this is Realism with a capital R. I was taught that Courbet was a Realist painter, a socialist who was not as lucky as we are to live in a socialist nation but who was nonetheless involved in life, rubbed up against it, joined himself to it until over time his skin began to fuse with the surface of the world, and that is what taught him to paint – not school – although school complemented his spirit with skill.
But the Courbet painting entitled something like ‘The Beginning of Life’ could never have been a slide in class; I had to encounter it in the pages of one of those pictorials that introduced Western art history now that it was no longer taboo to know who was born where and made what and died how. The painting was initially just a rectangle tucked between some romantic pictures of peasants in fields at sunset and that sad horizontal burial painting, which I knew so well, half-sucked into the magazine’s spine. How artful Courbet was, in his ability to make all those worn and pallid faces emerge out of a stiff shroud of mourning black. I was leaning close to inspect the dog, because who brings animals to a funeral, when that other brazen image caught my eye and I snapped the magazine shut immediately. I looked around me at all the other bent heads in the library just in case I’d scrunched the paper too loudly, my tongue buzzing in my mouth, my heartbeat nagging at my neck and the tips of my fingers, a sense of gaping need inside me calling out to the painting that I had to look at, again, despite how small it was on the page, how grainy. I couldn’t believe that such an explicit thing could have been printed. But it had made its way into the academy’s library and in front of me that day, and therefore it had the potential to become an object of diligent study, nuanced critique, and selective inspiration.
Courbet understood true life, just as we are taught to understand true life; to portray the working classes who are the life-force of the world, stone breakers in work trousers and holding hammers, and girls kneeling on the floor screening grain in great woven sieves; and to portray all of life, including where life ends, with ugly people at funerals, and where life begins, with a tight and available cunt. I may not be the top of my class but I know what Realism is, and I am a Realist painter. I cannot let Zhou Lei outdo me with his egg.
The storm announces itself with a sound of thunder that strikes out across the sky and makes me look up, at the black clouds that have been pasted thickly above our heads without my noticing, at the gardeners beginning to pack up their tools. As everyone in Hangzhou will recount, the rain comes immediately after that and it comes with no trepidation but at full force, soaking my hair and streaking down my face in rivulets, bullet-like drops bouncing so hard on the surface of the lake that a kind of white mist seems to rise up from it. The ground on which I sit becomes mud in an instant. I scramble back to school with my fists against my face to protect my eyes, and because of this, I do not stop to admire the flowers that the gardeners have worked so hard to plant one last time before they are pummelled to powder.
The myth goes something like this:
There was a boy who came across a dying white snake and saved its life. Thousands of years later, the white snake cultivated to immortality and tracked down the boy in his reincarnated state. His name was Xu Xian. The snake transformed herself into a beautiful young woman and met him at the Broken Bridge on the West Lake in Hangzhou. It was raining that day. He lent her his umbrella. They fell in love, married, and led peaceful lives as pharmacists. The white snake’s sister, a green snake, made herself a girl too, and came to live with them. They were happy. One day, Xu Xian went alone to a temple and its monk, detecting a foul energy on his body, suspected that he was being haunted by an evil spirit. The monk brewed a potion for good health and gave it to Xu Xian, who gave it to his wife, not knowing that what was good for humans was what was lethal for spirits. The white snake drank the potion and tried to thank her husband, but all that came out of her lips was a dry hiss. Her skin began to stretch and tear, strained by the bulging of her flesh beneath it, and her hair began to fall out in clumps, and her eyes turned yellow. Soon, she had entirely reverted to her original form as an enormous white snake, so large that she broke the windowpanes and crushed Xu Xian to death, or perhaps he died of shock. In any case, the white snake did not even wait to bury her husband. She went to confront the monk over his treachery and they battled fiercely for a long time, but eventually the white snake was defeated. The monk imprisoned her beneath a tower, where she either stayed for all of eternity or was rescued by her sister, or rescued by the son that she and Xu Xian had made together. The monk may have had a personal vendetta against the white snake, or he wanted to ruin the pharmacy that, in healing those in need too quickly, was taking donations away from his temple; or he simply did not know that the white snake was not evil. The white snake may well have been evil. She may have wanted to eat Xu Xian’s flesh. The green snake may have been jealous. She may have been in love with Xu Xian, or in love with her sister, or in love with the monk and in cahoots with him too. The only consistent detail across every family, every village, every region’s version of the legend is that fateful-seeming, actually planned meeting on the Broken Bridge; the footsteps, the rain, the smell of hot tea and charcoal from a vendor somewhere on the shore, the wax-paper umbrella changing hands and in that moment the touching of skin, one hand warm, another cold. A meeting of eyes, then lips, teeth, and soon hips pressed against one another, hard nipples, soaked cunts.
My girlfriend was right: if I had to assign the two of us roles from the story, I would make myself the naïve and useless Xu Xian who disappeared before the climax of the story, and her the powerful white snake who sorted things out for herself. She saw something in me even though I was ordinary and she was skilled and worldly. Before she was with me, she was engaged to a man, an ironworker based in Shanghai that she’d met in Inner Mongolia where they’d been sent down together as teenagers, during which time, she told me, she’d been passed around the other students before choosing him because he was effeminate. In Inner Mongolia, they learned to ride horses and herd sheep and my girlfriend excelled at both, was sad to leave, had to be persuaded into taking the university entrance exams, persuaded again after failing the first time. At school, it is easy to tell who was old enough to give themselves to the Cultural Revolution when it was happening because they still act as though they own the world. Or maybe it’s just one of those boy things I’ll never understand because I never had to live with so many boys until now, whereas my girlfriend is much more like them: a boy. She talks like a boy and eats like a boy and fucks me best when she fucks me like a boy fucks his girl, four fingers inside and my forehead against the floor. When Chairman Mao said women hold up half the sky he was not talking about her; she has the strength to do it all alone but she chooses not to bother. She could be the white snake, who takes charge, or the monk, who wins in the end, or even Xu Xian, who had the kindness in the first place to save a creature as thin as his finger – but I think frequently of the fact that she assigned herself the green sister instead. Whenever I recall the myth I always forget the green sister was even there. She lurked in the background and had no clear will of her own, no desires. What did the white snake have on her, to keep her around?
If they really were biological sisters and not just sworn ones, if they did spawn from the same mother they would have been two eggs of many, cradled together in soft, moist soil, hearing the reassuring rhythm of all their heartbeats synchronised, which would have been a loud, repetitive sound, unceasing and unbearable. Did they know, even then, just from their heartbeats, that out of all their siblings they would become most attached to each other? When they hatched, did they both push their heads out of the membranes at the same time and catch each other’s gaze? Did they help each other out? They would have had to actively choose each other, on that day, and every day after that, even when the white sister almost died, and even when the white sister fell in love with a human.
Every work of art, our teachers told us in our first year, has to have a narrative. They showed us a reproduction of a hyperrealistic painting of an old man with sun-browned skin and a pencil tucked behind his ear, a wooden bowl in his withered hand, the light tinted yellow. Just like Xiao-Li that morning with the egg, the teachers used their arms to indicate how enormous the painting was. The painting was called ‘Father’, they told us. The story, they told us, is that he leads a poor and difficult life. He is all of our fathers. I wrote that down in my notes, eager, at eighteen and in braids, to prove that I cared enough to deserve to be at this school: He is all of our fathers. I noted that the pencil showed he was literate, which is not something a peasant would have been, a hundred years ago; that despite the poverty and difficulty, things were better than before, and could only get better. That summer we took a field trip up north to the Yellow River basin and sketched long stretches of parched landscape and tried to balance quietness and spirit, and we made portraits of locals and tried to make their eyes hollow but bright, their bodies hardened but resilient. We were in the cradle of civilisation. The portfolio from that trip is still in my studio space somewhere, pressed flat between two pieces of cardboard that I sewed together myself. Many of its pages are crumpled from how hard I ground my eraser against them, and there are several pages that are covered in so many layers of graphite that it looks as though I was drawing coal miners – and black dust coming off their bodies and clothing with each step they took, rucksacks full of tools, their boots caked in mud – instead of trying and failing and trying and failing to capture the sight of a young girl carrying her sibling or perhaps her own child swaddled against her chest, walking across the village square in weathered canvas shoes.
Some of the boys in my cohort had visited areas like that one before, others hadn’t; I couldn’t remember whether I had. Everything felt sharper there against my skin, and smelled stronger, and the air made my chest feel cold, and I didn’t know whether it was unfamiliarity or the opposite, having deeply sowed memories sprout up into me again. On that trip, what I did best – watching – gave me nothing; I saw nothing except dust. Upon our return we had to make paintings based on our experience and I only wanted to paint canvas after canvas of dust from every angle: dust swirling, dust clumped together, dust made wet, dust in the air, dust in the nails. The paintings I actually made were good enough to let me pass my first year but by the end I was sickened by certain shades of yellow and brown, began to seek refuge in still lifes again, where at least every element was a discrete object that I could put down onto paper. Instead of vast and alien. I never went on another field trip again.
Last year the school film society screened a movie about a young girl in braids who wore a red shirt and lived in those dry yellow hills in the 1940s, before Liberation. She met a Communist soldier who was travelling to collect folk songs to turn into liberation anthems, and he persuaded her to sing for him. In the end she walked into the water and the shot cut to the Yellow River’s rushing current, with particular focus on how dark and murky the waters were, how unforgiving.
What story is being told? the teachers always ask. They asked it of ‘Father’, of the art we made on our field trip, of the film ‘Yellow Earth’. What story are you telling?
Closely followed by: Is the story a correct reflection of our society? Or is it misleading and potentially dangerous?
The teachers who took over our instruction for our final year, this year, are kinder. They are responsible for overseeing our graduation pieces. They say that instead of just one painting, we can make several; and we can write self-explanations for our work, to put on the wall next to the artwork at the graduation show. They say Realism is about painting the Real and everything that we see and experience is Real, so we can paint our toenail and it would be Realist; they ask us, What is your story? which to me is worse. I have nothing; I was born, and now I am here. I have tried all year to make paintings for the graduation show but I scrap everything as soon as I get anywhere, and unbeknownst to these kind young teachers who want to encourage a new kind of Realism in our generation, I have nothing. Zhou Lei has already completed the main work he will exhibit, and I have nothing.
The storm is so heavy throughout that first afternoon that alleys and side-streets are flooded. The next morning, we hear reports of power cuts and a fallen tree blocking a main road; classes are cancelled. Looking out of my dormitory window, I can see objects swimming across campus that have been flushed out of somewhere, sheets of paper and textbooks and the occasional canvas floating upside-down like a corpse. The rain is loud against our windowpanes and drowns out any attempt at conversation between myself and my roommates, so we read on our own and go to bed as soon as the light fades.
When the rain still won’t stop, classes resume, and I return to the studio only to find that a leak has ruined a whole portfolio that I had carelessly left on the ground on Monday afternoon. The hasty ink sketches that I had made that day after hearing about Zhou Lei’s egg at lunchtime had been of pussies, close-ups of labia conjured from memory, and now they’d been warped into thick, rope-like forms that closed in on themselves like snakes devouring their own tails. I shove everything into the corner, next to the Yellow River drawings that I hate.
That evening, I wade through the water to my girlfriend’s flat and lie on her mattress while she cooks us a simple lunch. I talk, as I always have done this year, about my painting and the fact that I have nothing.
Braised pork, my girlfriend says eventually, handing me a big bowl of soup noodles. She sits down on the mattress with her own bowl and brings out her winter blanket from the cupboard, drapes it over the both of us.
We eat sitting next to each other like this, our backs against the wall and our sides touching, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, knee to knee, little toe to little toe. My girlfriend is usually extremely well-composed, sometimes even aloof, but she always makes the most shameless slurping and moaning noises when she eats soup noodles; she says her birth family taught her to eat that way, that they had to show their mother they were enjoying the food or else she’d shut herself into the outhouse and emit muffled wails of grief. When my girlfriend eats, she takes her time, closing her eyes and savouring every bite as though there are ingredients in there more exotic than soy sauce and vinegar. And in the end, when there’s only soup and bits of chopped scallion left, she brings the bowl to her lips and tosses it down in two great gulps. There’s grease all over her mouth after, which she wipes with the back of her hand, and then she smears her hand all over my face. I don’t protest; it only encourages her if I do.
I let her clean off my bowl, too, and then we place our dishes on the ground next to the mattress and lie down and feel all that liquid sloshing around in our stomachs as we roll around over the unmade sheets. She puts all of her weight onto me and pins me down, her hair falling down into my mouth; reaches her hand up my skirt and finds me wet already, Shut up, I whine, I can’t help it, I’m always ready for her, can’t she see? She fucks me hard with her fingers and I ask her to please use her cock so she gets it out of the drawer, parts my legs and makes me hold them open for her, slides into me slowly because she knows I hate it. She likes to touch my tits when we’re in this position, pinches my nipples and tells me how big and fat my breasts are, how she’d like to fuck them someday. She stays coherent while all I can say is please, please. I only feel relief when she starts thrusting into me, every snap of her hips pushing my whole body along the mattress. I feel stretched and full, and everything starts to blur until all I can think about is how the rain still hasn’t stopped and how if she could get me pregnant she’d pump her come inside me every day until it took. And then my belly would become round and full with what she’d made. You like that? she asks and I realise I’ve been saying it out loud, You want me to put a baby in you?
When I come, I burst into tears. She flips me over and fucks me through it.
Afterwards, she takes me into her arms, my back against her chest, my hair against her cheeks, and presses kisses to my neck and face, more tender than I’m used to. Her breath reeks of garlic. I know mine does too. Things are quiet, and then I say, What if I did a performance?
What do you mean? my girlfriend asks, lightly tracing the lines of my palms. She’s already falling asleep.
I shrug, my shoulders against her shoulders. I imagine myself wheeling in a rack of canvases covered with sheets, promising to unveil them on opening night. Then, when all the academy faculty and local cadres and even the parents who’ve travelled hours on the slow train to witness their children’s healthy success are watching me, I pull away the sheets to reveal that they’re completely blank. Fields of nothing. Or gessoed. Or painted with a layer of white.
Or I do make paintings, really good ones, but then I burn them in front of everyone before they can see.
Or I paint myself. Or I burn myself. Nothing could be more Realist than that.
When I next open my eyes, the room is dark and the rain has gotten louder. My girlfriend is fast asleep and has turned her body away from mine, so I pry myself out of her grasp easily. I want to wait for her to wake up so I can demand attention, but something about the stillness of the night now feels off. I can feel my heart in my fingers and in my scalp, relentless in its beating.
Deep inhale, counting one, two, three, four, long exhale, counting five, six, seven, eight.
Even though my body is aching, I stand up. I get dressed without turning on the lamp, putting on layers of my girlfriend’s clothes as well as the still-damp coat I wore on my way here. Before I leave, I look around at the familiar room in the dim glow of the streetlights below. My girlfriend’s books and sketches and dried-out inkbrushes strewn across her desk, the pile of clothes on a chair in the corner, the empty noodle bowls still on the floor. Her body looks so vulnerable when she’s curled up and her brows are released of their usual frown.
My girlfriend’s apartment building is usually full to burst with other students and their arguing, door-slamming and radio-listening, but now, there is no one around: not in the downstairs courtyard, not out on the street where all the restaurants are shuttered and only one or two cars dare venture onto the slippery road. I have no idea what time it is, but the flood has subsided so I am only wet up to my ankles. There is no danger, only discomfort. So I walk.
The emptiness of the city shocks me more than I thought it would. I wonder if this is what it was like in historical times, before the twelfth century when Hangzhou was made the capital of a fleeing dynasty, back when Hangzhou was a small city dedicated to pleasure, inhabited by poets and painters and people who liked to admire the willows along the West Lake. At night in those days, Hangzhou’s residents would retreat to their compounds’ gardens and eat braised pork there while drinking wine and debating philosophy, and there would be no one outside except servants sent to fetch more alcohol for their masters, male bourgeois scholar-officials with administrative assistants and hefty salaries who had the time and materials to make innovations in aesthetic form and technique.
In their first year foundation class, my girlfriend and her classmates learned to copy from the eleventh-century court painter Guo Xi, their syllabus being stuffed full of ink painting forefathers who’d changed history with mere strokes of their brush. I only know about Guo Xi from my girlfriend; he thought that the finest art could not come from directly copying reality, but needed to be injected with the artist’s ingenuity. Because Guo Xi was not a Realist, we oil painters had nothing to learn from him: he never depicted the lives of the people around him, nor did he represent his nation’s struggle against imperialist enemies; he painted only landscapes, endless scrolls of trees growing on the sides of teetering cliffs, and snow-capped hills, and waterfalls. How would Guo Xi paint a powerful storm being whipped by the gale as it travels across a city? Would he show sunken roofs and uprooted trees, and, barely visible within the fog, a lone ugly girl weeping as she makes her way to the shores of the West Lake only to find that it has overflowed?
The Broken Bridge has become an island, the parts of it that connect to shore having been submerged. It makes me sob even harder, my chest heaving and my voice cracking, and I feel ridiculous crying in all this rain, as though the storm is turning my body into tears and I’m going to melt into a puddle, leaving only my clothes swimming in the lake. I take a step forward, find myself squelching into the rippling lakewater. I ought to be afraid, but my arms and legs are so cold that they have begun to feel almost warm again, a kind of vibration on the surface of my skin that I find myself embracing if only because it feels better than pure pain.
I was never actually planning to go into the water. I just wanted to dip my hands into the lake where we’d been born, where we’d hatched from eggs laid in the shallow end on a late summer evening ten thousand years ago, until my fingertips pruned. The wrinkles would remind me that I am meant to shed my skin someday and slither home into the mud, quiet beneath the waves and warm in the darkness, back to where life began.
I know, now, what it means to be truly inspired, to pierce life’s skin and drink the juices that leak out of its hole, to pour all of that back out into a work of ultimate art. Zhou Lei had his egg, and I will paint a masterpiece of my own that is so monumental they will not fit it through the exhibition hall’s door.
I hear my girlfriend shout my name and turn to see her standing behind me, holding a useless, crumpled umbrella. She has never looked so at a loss. It makes her even more beautiful.
White sister, I gasp. I can barely get any words out of my body, which now feels frozen beyond recognition, no longer mine at all but a dead thing made of scrap metal that weighs me down with every step I take. I understand now, I tell her once I have reached her and grasped her arms, which are cold but soft and certainly human, certainly alive.
She says, What are you talking about?
I try to speak as calmly and clearly as I can so as not to alarm her, because I can see the alarm in her eyes and in the curve of her mouth. There was never a Xu Xian, never a man, I say. Only you and me. Right?
I’m the green snake, I keep saying. That’s why I don’t remember the past. I didn’t exist until I met you.
My girlfriend cups my face in her hand and stares at me with a strange expression on her face. She opens her mouth to speak, then shuts it.
Are you my sister?
Her face is drenched, but she glows with an inner light. She looks like a courtesan from an ink painting, delicately outlined face and completely immortal.
Let’s go home.