Translated from Chinese by Canaan Morse. First published in the Summer 2015 issue of Pathlight Magazine, and to be featured in a forthcoming anthology.
I know that my end of days is this day, is right now. I’m already old, in my last years of life. I talk less and less, because no one understands me when I do. I’m surrounded more and more frequently by random strangers. They ask, “Do you remember me? Do you recognize me?” Are you kidding? Why should I recognize them? So they straighten up and say with real or pretend sadness, “She doesn’t recognize anyone.” A calm male voice replies, “That’s senility for you.” I turn around in annoyance. “Who are you calling senile?” The calm voice remains calm, and continues, “She thinks she’s nineteen again.”
He’s wrong. He’s making it up. Just yesterday morning I remembered with total clarity things that happened when I was sixty. I can clearly recall one evening of that year: an endless highway at night, dotted with streetlights on both sides. Although sixty may already be long gone, I’m not just some Alzheimer’s patient trying to believe she’s nineteen—yes, let us use the disease’s official name, not “senile.” I know perfectly well that I’m very old. All the smooth-skinned young women in their pretty poses must think I’m a monster. The man with the calm, assured voice calls me “Mom,” which is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Just a minute ago, I said to him, “When I’m dead, please put that picture of me at twenty-four on the gravestone.” (See? I remember more than just being nineteen.) He looked at me suspiciously. Then I remembered that when I was twenty-four, he didn’t exist—if what he says is true, and I gave birth to him. So I explained, “That picture I took when I was young, in Amsterdam. I was wearing a white blouse and standing next to the tulips.” That is my absolute favorite picture, because it was taken when I was in my prime, and at my prettiest. To me, Amsterdam is frozen in a moment that is already a half century gone. Like the northern industrial city where I was born and raised, it exists now only as a clutter of disconnected episodes of memory. For instance: I can’t remember what tulips look like, but I’ll never forget the houseboats that floated in those narrow dikes. People lived in them. Only when memory turns fragmented and illogical does it become truly reliable, an integral part of a person’s spirit. This is something a person cannot possibly realize while they are young.
Yet the tranquil stranger in front of me smiled and said, “Mom”—God, that word makes me angry—“that’s impossible. No one puts a picture of when they were young on their grave.” Forget it, forget it. People on the brink of death like me have one advantage: we no longer hold our hopes out for anything.
I’ve fallen asleep again; I’m dreaming, again. As I lose consciousness I hear the tranquil stranger say to a guest, “I’m really sorry, could you come again tomorrow, thank you for the flowers, she sleeps over ten hours a day now, just like a baby—if you come before lunch tomorrow, you might catch her awake, though of course, even if she is awake she may not recognize you.”
Every time I fall asleep, the blue horse enters my dream and summons me to go. I follow it, and we run together; for this old body of mine to feel that light, floating step is exhilarating almost to the point of terror. I have always reacted to ecstasy with fear, since I was a child, like I were getting something I didn’t deserve. But no one is interested in my childhood any more. People frequently lack imagination, and are unwilling to conceive of an old person having had a childhood. The blue horse is beautiful: it is the greyblue color of the earth and sky in the minutes just before sunrise. There are subtle streaks of red in its mane and tail, as if it were cut whole-cloth out of the dawn.
In this dream I am always nineteen. Why, I don’t know. But I don’t scrutinize anything closely anymore. The blue horse is so kind to me, and when it looks at me with those huge, limpid eyes, I remember what it feels like to be a young woman. “Young woman” isn’t a noun or a rhetorical device, let alone an excuse for narcissism—it is the undeniably genuine feeling that one could be carried away by the energy of one’s spirit at any moment. I’m nineteen, and I’m wearing the clothes I wore that year: a bright red dress. The color and cut are absolutely horrible, but that isn’t important, because youth is always disarrayed. When you’re no longer in disarray, your cleanest days are past. The blue horse smiles—don’t ask me how a horse could smile, I just know it was smiling—and says, “Do you like the way you look now, my dear?” It looks at me, eyes as soft as water and sad as ice. The breath from its nostrils tickles my ear and cheek. As it gives a coquettish toss of its mane I am struck with the truth: I finally understand why I am always nineteen when I am here, and who the horse is.
Nineteen was the year I started writing stories. You could say that that was the year my life truly began; you could also say that was the year I said goodbye to a real life. This horse, this blue horse, represents my stories.
When I was young, the books I wrote were read by other young people. Now they are all old, and so am I. I have no strength left for writing, nor they for reading. Thus history surreptitiously ends one cycle and begins another.
The blue horse steals on in its noiseless gallop. A nineteen-year-old me in a horrid red dress sits on his back. We flee through the dream of the dying. “You know you’re going to die?” it asks. I reply, “Will you die with me?” It laughs drily. “Good God, you haven’t changed at all. Still as selfish and overbearing as ever.”
Even in my nineteen-year-old body I can feel that I am near the end. I am losing the power of thought, and of language, which is to say that I’m losing all capability to interact with the world. So my final hour is arriving, and the blue horse comes to find me.
I can no longer remember any detail of my relationship with my stories. I only know that we were inseparable for a long time—you could even say we kept each other alive. The blue horse’s body heat effaces all memory of hardship. He carries me over great distances—yes, I can still remember, my stories and I traveled a long, hard road together. And I remember that that road got more and more desolate.
“Is there an end or not?” I ask the blue horse.
He chuckles softly. “How should I know? I was going to ask you.”
“If I told you that I didn’t know if there were an end, would you still be willing to go with me?” Was that really my voice? My voice at nineteen really was clear, and full of that uncertainty peculiar to the young.
“Are you kidding?” It turns to look at me. “Obviously, you’re the one who’s sticking to me no matter what. I can’t get rid of you. What a headache.” It bats its eyelashes at me. I am suddenly caught in a storm of recollection.
I leave all my hopes to the sound of earthly applause; I leave all my tears to the men I once loved; I leave all my worries to my departed parents and the son I no longer recognize, and I leave all my happiness and disappointment to this beaten, scarred, and leaky thing called life. I have absolutely nothing to say to the world. All elegant affectations are exercises in futility, all great beliefs and profound emotions are mirages and delusion. I want nothing but to continue this tireless sprint with the blue horse, because in life I gave what came from the deepest recesses of my soul to my writing—it wasn’t hope, nor sorrow, nor worry nor joy nor disappointment nor any kind of love or hate. Humanity hasn’t devised a word for it yet, which is why it can remain so distinct and soft, without any trace of having been invaded by language.
Over this road that is my life, the blue horse and I pass by an abandoned railway station, an old smelting factory, and countless gravestones in the rain. The petals of fresh flowers fall as they wish onto the names of the dead. Then there is emptiness, without even graveyards. The flat, red earth cracks. At the horizon, a peach blossom opens in a howl of color, yet it is forever unapproachable. I do not ask the blue horse where we are, it merely asks me, “Are you sure you want to keep going?” I respond, “I’m sure.” Of course, I’m terrified, fear sweeps through me like a wind, but when one has no sense of direction, what is there to do but advance? To turn around and go back is what takes real courage.
“Our water is almost gone,” I say to the blue horse.
It smiles kindly, and says, “I’m fine. I can live without eating or drinking. Save it all for yourself.”
The sky darkens. Evening on the plain is cold. The blue horse lies gracefully on one side, and I snuggle against it, my arms wrapped tightly around its belly for warmth. This is when I notice the priest.
He sits on the bare earth not far from me, his black cassock covered with dust, his lips so dry and cracked they bleed, yet with a look of peace in his eyes.
He watches me for a long interval.
“Come with me,” he says. “I can see you yearn for the religious life.”
I say, “No.”
“Why not?” asks the priest. “I’ll take you to Heaven. I know the way.”
I hesitate. The blue horse tilts its head to look at me. “I certainly don’t know the way. Go with whomever you’d like.”
I give all the water I have with me to the priest. I am sincere. I say to him, “Please forgive me. I don’t think I’ll be going to Heaven. At least, not right now.”
He brushes the dust from his robe, smiles, and leaves us. “You sure are stubborn,” sighs the blue horse.
“Will I die of thirst?” I ask the horse. It replies, “If you die, I’ll just keep going. I’ll run into someone else like you eventually, and take them with me; then, when they die, I’ll go on alone again. It’s incredibly liberating.”
I smile. “How heartbreaking.” It replies, “Not exactly. If you were to live forever, I would have to die; only by your death am I able to stay alive.”
“So we’re enemies?” I ask. It considers the question, then says, “Not exactly. Even though I exchange your death for my own survival, I also warm your memory of living.”
It rears and gave a long, alluring whinny that startles a few crows by the horizon. “Come on, get on my back. I’ll make a bet with you: I’ll carry you straight in a random direction, and see if I can’t bring you out.” I lie down on its back, and it resumes its noiseless gallop. Its hooves kick up thick grains of sand that sting my face. I close my eyes, and whisper in its ear, “Maybe we’ll even find a river, and some evidence of life.” It laughs at me gently. “What signs of life? This barren plain we’re on right now is your own dying mind. The only sign of life is this adolescent image of you in a red dress. Do you still not understand?”
At some point, I’m not sure when, it pulls up. The stop is so sudden it almost jolts me off his back. We stand in front of a battlefield fresh with slaughter. Blood runs in rivers; the sun slips in by accident and is stained red. The eye can see nothing but mangled corpses. What were once strong, nimble arms hang from the dead branch of a tree. My blue horse accidentally steps in a dying charger’s eye socket. I shiver, and say, “Let’s go. You’ve brought me to the only place that could be worse than a wasteland.”
“Have I?” The blue horse smiles as it stares at the head of a general, beached on the sand banks of the blood river. “Do you not recognize it? This bloodied battlefield is really just your attachment to the world.”
Night falls. I am dizzy with thirst. I had thought that this young dream-body would be resilient, since it is no more than a spirit. Sadly, I was wrong. I am still fragile. “What a pity.” I smile weakly. “I can’t go with you any farther. But I want to ask you, if you’ve known so many like me already, have you ever taken anyone all the way out? Can you tell me what’s at the end of the wasteland?”
The horse lowers its proud, beautiful head, and tenderly licks my face. Just as my hearing evaporates into mist, I think I hear it say, “If you want to get out …” Then I hear no more. My red dress melts away.
Then I wake up. Everything around me feels strange. The tranquil stranger walks over and says, “Mom, you’re awake.” I still don’t recognize him. But I suddenly know what it is I have to do.
The tranquil stranger takes me for a stroll in the park. It isn’t really a “stroll,” of course—I just sit in the wheelchair and sunbathe. He bends down to button my sweater for me. With a smile he says, “Mom, you’re just as pretty as you were at nineteen.” He’s lying. But I like to hear it anyway. I stare without blinking at a cold drinks vendor in front of us: rainbow-dazzling mounds of shaved ice shine in the clown’s hand like the shouts of children. “Mom, do you want some shaved ice?” He laughs and shakes his head. “Ma, you really have turned back into a child. All right, wait just a second.” His silhouette gets smaller as he walks away and then stops in front of the clown. I propel my wheelchair as fast as I can into a stand of trees. Here the land falls away in an apocalyptic slope of vertiginous steepness.
A child is standing in front of my wheelchair, looking at me with a clear curiosity. “Be a good boy and do something for me,” I say. “Help me out and that nice man will give you shaved ice.” He nods and says, “OK.”
I say, “Push me as fast as you can, and when we get to this hill, let go. It’s simple. You’ll do this for me, won’t you?” He is quiet for a moment, then his face twists in a crafty smile and I catch a familiar flash of blue in his eyes. “You’re here,” I say.
“I’m here.” His voice is so soft, his tone of voice so old.
“Let’s go, then.”
The scenery around me begins to blur. The wind at my ears is wonderfully crisp and cool. I close my eyes to enjoy this incredible speed, ignoring the alarmed cries of people around me. As the pace quickens, I feel like I’m a child again, going down a slide: time flows backwards. The first time I sensed my death was near was at the funeral of my best friend; torrential rain on the day my child’s child was born, and the strange, grey lights in the hospital; the doctor saying to me, “Congratulations, you’re pregnant!” and hearing a strange buzzing in my ear, like an insect about to be entombed in amber; the tranquil stranger’s father and I building a fire beneath a pale aurora borealis at New Year, the sparks that hovered in the endless waste representing all of life’s illusions; the smell of fresh grass in the summer of my seventeenth year; losing a red balloon when I was small, and my mother saying, “Don’t cry, honey, Mommy will buy you a new one …” Then comes a loud bang, then darkness; then I begin to fly, I transform into a beam of light. In this moment, I realize what it was the blue horse had said to me at the end of my dream: “If you want to get out, you have to learn not to hold on to the illusion of ‘I’.” But there is no time for me to put this into a novel; I am no longer I; I am a beam of light.
This is what I want to leave to the world. My horse, my stories, and I have already drunk our last cup of wine. Death is no great event. I have gone beyond the Western pass, and have no need for familiar faces.