The scent of osmanthus blossoms still lingered in her neighbourhood when a handful of men entered her home. Yet when they stepped through her bedroom door, they were blindsided by an overpowering stench that drove each one to put a hand over his nose.
She wasn’t dead yet, merely lying on a bed that was very likely the source of the odour. The clutter and filth in the room were easily imaginable; one might describe her own appearance the same way. Perhaps the only comforting aspect to the scene were two hedgehog cacti that stood motionless out on the balcony, glowing green under the angled gaze of the afternoon sun. As they grew very slowly and wanted nothing besides sunlight, it was basically impossible to tell whether they were alive or dead.
She kept on sleeping, or was unwilling to deal with other people, so the men only stood by her bedside for a moment before hurrying back to the living room, taking care to leave her bedroom door open.
Although the living room was also covered in ancient grime, and its furniture and accessories blanketed by dust, the drier air made it more tolerable. The visitors stood and talked to the young woman who had let them in – the daughter of the old woman on the bed, around 30 years old, with a freckle near the bridge of her nose. She wore a pair of jeans adorned on one leg with embroidered flowers that ran from knee to hip. The pattern was so gaudy that her visitors looked down at her leg every few sentences. Were those peonies? Or something else, it was hard to tell.
One couldn’t resist saying: ‘Look at your mother. What kind of a daughter are you?’
‘I’m not in Nanjing, I live out of town.’
‘Out of town? Where?’ asked the youngest of the group.
‘That’s still not far. You married out there?’
‘Well then, you should be “Coming Home Regularly to Visit”’, the young one replied, sharing a smile with the other two over his reference to the song.
‘I – ’ The young women seemed ready to protest but didn’t continue. She cast her eyes down as if admiring the flowers on her leg.
‘How about this’, interjected the fattest visitor, who looked most like a Party cadre, now speaking for the first time – not directly to her, but to the young one. ‘Tell her to leave a phone number, so we can get in touch in case anything happens.’
‘The old lady could die and rot in here and nobody would know’, added the second visitor.
They took down each other’s phone numbers, and the visitors slipped into the easy demeanour of those whose work was finished. But instead of leaving immediately, they split up and inspected the apartment. It was a two-bedroom, one-bath setup with a kitchen. While no one went back into the old woman’s room, the cadre inspected the spare room, the middle member looked into the kitchen, and the youngest one entered the bathroom. All three clicked their tongues repeatedly, united in the opinion that the old lady’s daughter needed to give the place a thorough cleaning.
‘If it really is too much,’ the young one continued, ‘you can call a professional cleaner to come help.’ As he spoke, he stepped through the front door onto the landing, where he looked over the walls and balustrade until he found an ad for a housemaid. He called out, ‘Here’s a number, here’s a number!’ as if he had made a major discovery, his voice reverberating through the empty stairwell.
Perhaps in response to his shouting, the door to 401 opened, and a male head with greying hair poked out. He looked first at the younger man, addressing him as ‘Director Wang’, then, upon noticing that the door to 402 was open, immediately covered his nose. He forgot to greet the two other officials standing just inside and stared straight at the young woman. He must have noticed the flowers on her thigh. It was obvious that the two had met years before.
The two officials still inside stepped out to join the third on the landing, while the daughter in 402 made a perfunctory gesture of acknowledgment and shut her door on all of them. When he saw the door to 402 close, the old man in 401 opened his the rest of the way, and stood in the doorway in his slippers and greeted the other two officials with an obsequious smile. The three noticed that he was wearing nothing but shorts and the threadbare undershirt he wore in summer. His armpit hair was extensive, and his nipples stuck far out.
‘What a stink. I can even smell it on my balcony. I really thought she’d died’, he whispered as he nodded at the other door.
The three didn’t reply, but merely descended the stairs as if they hadn’t heard him and left. As they walked, they chatted about totally unrelated matters. Then they resumed a conversation from before they arrived. However, as they crossed under an osmanthus tree, the fat one observed, ‘The old guy in 401 is in good shape.’
‘Huh?’ Director Wang wasn’t sure what he meant.
‘To be wearing just that in this cool weather.’
‘True, true.’ No one objected to this assessment.
Beneath another osmanthus tree, Director Wang suddenly announced, ‘Guess what I found in the bathroom in 402.’
‘Maxi pads.’ Director Wang sounded faintly excited. ‘By Sou’ermei, the old kind.’
The three men chuckled in amusement.
After the men from the Residential Committee left, the daughter changed her pad, but didn’t start any sort of cleaning as they had exhorted her to do. She went into the kitchen to put the kettle on and waited by the stove for the water to boil. She saw stacks of dishes in the sink and an appallingly thick layer of grease on the stove. Several of the cupboard doors had broken latches and would no longer close. She took it all in like she was appreciating a painting, and made no attempt to act on any of it. At first, her gaze drifted, unable to fix itself on any one object; then it turned hollow, as if she saw nothing at all, until the kettle emitted its sharp howl.
Even finding a cup took serious effort. She figured the one she found would need a rinse, so she only filled it halfway. But when she reached out to grab it, give it a swirl and dump the water out, she found its base firmly cemented to the marble countertop. Suddenly, it cracked, and hot water went everywhere. This didn’t alarm her; expansion and contraction was normal enough. But when she looked around for another cup, it occurred to her that it might crack, too. She’d never heard of bowls breaking due to heat, might as well use one of those. So she found a clean bowl and poured herself a full bowlful of hot water – but she regretted this too once she’d done it, since a full bowl couldn’t cool off quickly. So she poured half of it out and, lifting the bowl with both hands, blew on the water, then sucked in two small mouthfuls. The heat and her thirst brought forth a satisfied moan.
Inspired, she went to the bedroom to ask the person in bed if she wanted some water. But the latter still slumbered. Age had collapsed her face into its centre, while strands of unkempt hair drooped around dried-up nostrils, their occasional flutter demonstrating that she still breathed.
The young woman considered her mother as she stood by the bedside with the bowl in hand, then went out again. She didn’t go back to the kitchen but turned into the living room and sat down in a chair. She placed the bowl on a table as she sat, and emptiness soon returned to her eyes. The voice of a woman downstairs selling ‘osmanthus wine’ snapped her back to reality, but when she picked up the bowl for another sip, the water had already gone cold enough to make the teeth hurt, and when she drank she caught a strange, unpleasant flavour. At almost the same moment, she realised as if for the first time that her mother’s apartment really did smell awful. She suspected that, in addition to the smell of a person lying there uncared-for for days, there might also be a cat-sized rat lying dead in some corner, steadily emanating the smell of rot. She roused herself to do some cleaning. At the very least, she could locate the decaying vermin.
Yet she found no dish detergent in the kitchen, nor any disinfectant in the bathroom. She knew that, like many old women, her mother never got used to working with chemical cleaners; she used brushes and her own large hands, which were tools in their own right. So she found some plastic bags her mother had saved and began stuffing them with whatever looked like trash, until she finally hauled six bursting bags of garbage out of the building.
The old man in 401 didn’t open his door when she emerged, but she ran into said man in the small garden with the colourful exercise machines after she dropped her garbage by the bins and was on her way to the supermarket. The latter had thrown on a white collared shirt, though it still hung open at the chest. A pack of Red Pagoda cigarettes showed clearly through the front pocket, while his armpit hair and nipples came in and out of view. He was walking backwards along the cobblestone pathway, swinging his arms energetically, which brought him face-to-face with her even though they were going in the same direction. She kept on walking as if she didn’t see him there, but the old man stopped and asked, ‘You’re going out?’
‘Oh, uh-huh’, she responded in a hurried tone and quickened her steps.
She bought dish soap, toilet cleaner, Mr Muscle, laundry detergent, steel wool, brushes, garbage bags, a 12-pack of paper towels, and rags, which were all the cleaning implements she could think of. The line at the cashier was long, and she waited for a long time before her turn nearly came. But she left the line and went back into the bowels of the supermarket. She had almost forgotten to buy more pads.
Coming home, she circled around to the rear gate of the apartment complex to avoid meeting the old man from 401.
He had been her next-door neighbour for years before she married and hadn’t changed whatsoever during all that time. She recalled him having two children, but they were both grown and no longer lived with him. His wife had died many years earlier. Aside from that, she knew nothing else about him, and didn’t care to learn.
Once she got home, she started cleaning, first the kitchen, then moving on to the living room, spare room, and bathroom. The bedroom would have to wait until her mum woke up. While she worked, she also washed multiple loads of dirty clothes, sheets, et cetera, and hung them on the balcony drying rack. Obviously, she was a practiced homemaker, quick with her work and spectacularly efficient. But even though she moved furniture and got down onto the floor to peer into unreachable corners, she never found that rotting rat. Nor did her systematic cleansing affect the smell; on the contrary, the new state of cleanliness intensified its presence, mixing it with the scent of chemical disinfectant to create a kind of fetid sweetness. But that was fine, since it clarified her sense of purpose by pointing clearly to her mother’s bedroom. That was where the root of the problem lay.
In the spare room, which was once her bedroom, she came across a few of her old things – photographs, a few toys, some blankets whose embroidered patterns were familiar yet no longer smelled like they used to. These objects slowed her down but didn’t delay her too much. The labour made her hot enough that eventually she pulled off her shirt and worked in her bra.
Her cell phone jangled, its ringtone jarringly loud. She dropped her work and ran to it, then slipped into the spare room and closed the door before answering the call. Several long minutes later, she re-emerged.
‘Who called?’ Her mother’s voice came from the bedroom. She may have been on bed rest, but her voice wasn’t weak.
‘Zhang Jun’, the daughter replied at the same volume as she entered the bedroom.
‘What are you wearing?’ The old woman was so surprised by her daughter’s appearance she nearly leapt out of bed.
The daughter, who had forgotten she was shirtless, felt a twinge of embarrassment, and explained that she’d gotten too hot while she cleaned. She did not run out to retrieve her shirt.
‘Rest awhile.’ The old woman slapped the bed, inviting her daughter to sit down. ‘What did Zhang Jun have to say?’
‘He asked how you were feeling and when I was coming back.’
‘Go home, I’m fine’, the old woman said.
‘He wants to come see you.’
‘What’s there to see? Nothing to see.’ She pulled a hand from under the comforter to wave the idea off.
‘Yeah. I didn’t ask him to come.’
After a long pause, the old woman asked, ‘Does he still hit you?’
‘No, no.’ The daughter shook her head definitively.
Evening had come. The noise of climbing feet filled the stairwell, while the clashing of pots and ladles as well as the associated fragrances wafted over from the neighbours’. The old woman wasn’t as useless as her daughter imagined; getting out of bed, she stopped her daughter from cleaning the bedroom, saying they’d better eat first. But after the rice went into the electric cooker, there was nothing else in the house, so the daughter had to make another trip.
The streetlights had turned on, and the sidewalks were full of people. She even caught sight of the three members of the Residential Committee through the plate glass window of a restaurant. They were drinking, and seemed very happy. She also noticed how beautiful all the young women were now, and felt herself to be ugly by comparison.
She bought some groceries and walked home without delay. But she was surprised to find an extra person seated in the living room next to her mother: the old man from 401.
‘You’re back’, he said, addressing her with a wide smile. ‘You’ve really cleaned the place up.’
She didn’t respond, but focused on the chair he was sitting in. She had left the pads she bought that afternoon on that chair; they now sat at one edge of the table.
She went straight into the kitchen and started cooking. She hoped to listen in on the old man’s conversation with her mother, but the noises of stir-frying and the cooker hood drowned everything out. Eventually, she brought dinner out. When the old man saw it, he said he’d already eaten and wouldn’t bother them any longer. But when he caught sight of her with plates of hot food in hand, he enthusiastically helped prepare the table before leaving – that is, he picked up her pads once more and put them somewhere else.
‘Does he come by often?’ she asked her mother while they ate.
‘No, he’s never been here before today’, her mother replied.
‘Did you leave the door open when you went out? He said he would shut it for me, then walked in.’
‘Can’t be!’ she replied. She was very sure she had closed the door. Who leaves the house without closing the door? It’s the most basic habit of every urban resident. But that was also exactly the reason she must have left it open or shut it incorrectly. The probability of such a thing happening was minuscule, and yet it had. She felt a wave of unspecific rage and anguish. Yet she forced herself to control it, to keep her mother from sensing anything.
‘Whatever. What did he talk to you about?’
‘Who knows? Must have been talking about his kids.’
‘What’s up with them?’
‘One’s a director of some department, one has a grandkid who went to study abroad and spent a lot of money…. Overachieving types, you know, picking the good stuff to brag about. That’s all he was doing.’
‘Oh.’ The daughter asked no more questions and ate her dinner deliberately.
‘Are you and Zhang Jun really all right?’ the old woman asked out of nowhere.
‘What do you mean, “all right”? Mum, what are you talking about.’ The daughter reactively set down her bowl and chopsticks. Her brow furrowed and did not relax.
‘Huh? What’s wrong?’ At first, the old woman thought her question had upset her daughter. Then she began to suspect that something else was amiss.
The creases in the daughter’s forehead grew deeper, and her features worked, making the freckles near her nose seem to increase steeply in number. She held herself frozen in position, as if trying to filter something out completely. But she was clearly failing, so she stood up sharply from the table, startling her mother.
In the bathroom, she let her blood flow freely into the toilet while the pain in her gut forced her to double over. As she bent forward, she caught an intense whiff of the stench from before. She felt that she had neither the energy nor the responsibility to clean her mother’s bedroom. She thought of the pack of pads the old man from next door kept grabbing; of Zhang Jun, back in Zhenjiang; of the mementos of her girlhood she had found in the spare room, and even of her father, who died all those years ago. Still sitting on the toilet, she started to sob.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Cao Kou曹寇 is a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. Known for his dry sense of humor and anti-pretentious prose style, Cao’s short stories often focus on the unlovely textures of life away from urban centers, and the deep inequities half-concealed by human resilience. He has published over ten collections of short stories, as well as the novel Life in the Saddam Era.
Canaan Morse is a literary translator, poet, and scholar of late imperial Chinese literature. His translations of Chinese prose and poetry have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Baffler, Southern Review, and many other journals, as well as twice in book form via the NYRB Classics Series. His translation of Ge Fei’s novel Peach Blossom Paradise was a Finalist for a 2021 National Book Award.