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A sense came over me on the bus ride back from town that something was off.

It was early fall. The plants all through the mountains were brittle and crunchy, and they trembled in a brisk breeze that carried with it the smells of rice paddies. The fields were a brilliant gold. Where there should have been crops growing out the mud, there was light. And the sky shone so blue it seemed to hold a secret.

The land undulated around me, its green deepening toward the serried peaks.

As I took all this in, I spotted a collection of peculiar shadows skimming the terraces, headed for the distant green.

It struck me that I had once dreamed just such a scene. Or maybe its memory was the remembered residue of a past life.

A primeval feeling rose in me, a lightness that put me at ease.

“Grandad?” It was the boy in the seat behind me, “What are they?”

That was in my fifth year of working at the cutting station. I had treated the trip down the mountains to the county city to purchase materials as an opportunity to visit an elderly gentleman I knew. As I left his home, my mind had been swimming with thoughts of that never-ending couplet and the calls of phoenixes.

I spent the night at a hotel, then began the journey back.

The county city is a gray place, girdled by mountains of a deep green. The streak of darker gray that winds through the green and beyond is the main road. It connects the local towns and villages, each one a muddle of earthy yellows and blacks. Flashes of color at the roadside. Where they end begins an unbroken green palette studded with flecks of waxen yellows and crimson browns. The white blotch on one mountainside—that is my cutting station. The Cloud Management Administration has lots of these stations scattered around the city’s edges.

My daily tasks at work range from cutting clouds to repairing equipment, from printing ads to maintaining the normal operation of the station. The post is mostly a breeze, which leaves me plenty of time to do with as I see fit once my duties are complete. There used to be a guard who worked here as well, a mute who died not long after I arrived. That was before I discovered rummaging through his old things that he was a serial killer, who used to head down the mountain whenever he felt it time to claim his next victim. Now, the only living things here are myself and the moss on the stone steps outside. But around us there is an abundance of life, our being near a forest reserve, and at night I get a free front row seat to the songs, shouts and chatter of its denizens.

The Cloud Management Administration has a very long history. It was founded following a visit by the then-head of state, come to inspect the municipality. In the run up to his arrival, the whole city had banded together to prepare—it was all hands on deck, sweeping the streets until they were spotless and sprucing up building exteriors. Pulling up crooked trees and replacing them with ramrod straight ones, trimming bushy crowns into perfect spheres. Stray dogs were shot en masse and dragged away. Trash was prohibited from being thrown in trashcans, to avoid any unwanted smells.

Then came the day of the visit.

A crisp and clear morning, the streets at nine a.m. were bare of people and vehicles, the hedges and trees stood as if to attention, and the rows of pristine buildings glistened in the sun’s rays. The head of state, hands crossed behind his back, took his tour of the city.

Impressed by what he saw, he announced to the officials in tow: “You take fine care of your municipality’s appearance! The streets are clean, they are suitably greened. If only, on today of all days, there wasn’t that scruffy-looking cloud in the sky. Doesn’t it remind you of a dishcloth?”

The officials’ gazes shot upwards, and there sullying the wash of blue, having intruded at some time unbeknownst to everyone below, was a cloud putting the whole presentation into disarray. How vulgar it was, dawdling in the way of the sun.

The officials’ beaming faces darkened, sweat erupting from their foreheads in beads.

What had escaped their notice was that the head of state was actually in high spirits and had simply been making a lighthearted remark, as a show of his good humor and wit. All the same, the quip spelled disaster for every hapless cloud that happened into this patch of sky from that day forward.

Once the inspection was over, the Cloud Management Administration was established immediately, as an institution for the management of any cloud that coasted into the city’s airspace. The inaugural Municipal Cloud Management Regulations stipulated: “All clouds, regardless of make-up or origin, must accord in their proportions with the official standard for an oval shape with evenly curved, wavy edges. Failure to comply will result in a cloud being judged illegal and subject to elimination by this body, as required by law.”

Clouds have been uniformly cartoonish in shape ever since, plump and docile-looking. In language textbooks, newly obsolete terms like “cloud flow” and “roseate clouds” soon became problematic to explain.

This was where the cutting stations came in. Mine sits on the edge of Cloudcap Mountain Forest Reserve and consists of a white lighthouse-shaped building with a round roof. I live at the top, with the warehouse at the bottom, and two gates directly beneath my lodgings, one on either side. The gates are the two ends of what is in actual fact an enormous piece of machinery.

You see, the nearby valley is the source of a lot of clouds. At night it fills to the brim with a thick milky white that in the morning begins to disperse: on some days in clumps and billows, and on others in whisps and threads; but always looking unkempt and slovenly, and therefore outlawed.

These clouds drift out of the valley and are sucked in through one gate, before popping out of the other, trimmed according to regulation. They then bob, cute white cookies in blue milk, out over the city.

It was only later on, when the city started to benefit from an upturn in its economy, that the policy was relaxed, and the Cloud Management Administration added a number of new services. One of which was to print advertisements on clouds, a service we still provide now. A row of words is cut out from the center of a cloud by the cloudcutting machine, so that when the cloud is released, the blue of the sky shows through against the white, clear as day.

The shortfall of these floating billboards is that they blow wherever the wind takes them, so they are impossible to keep in line. They never hang around long either, seldom lasting more than a day before they scatter. This is why ad space has always remained cheap, and no big-name companies have ever come a-knocking. Mostly we get things like, “For rent: 135xxx”, or else, “Problems conceiving? Visit so-and-so hospital”.

We also receive private requests.

Every Valentine’s Day the sky throngs with clouds bearing declarations such as “Wang Lihong, I love you”, or proposals like, “Li Xiuzhen, will you marry me?” It is a sight to behold.

The ad content is sent over from head office for me to input into the system, and simple as that the chosen lettering appears on the next cloud to pop out.

There are occasions when a strong gust of wind damages a cloud, warping the lettering, and others when one cloud smushes into another, garbling the wording and giving us something like, “Wang Lihong, I love Li Xiuzhen, will you marry me?” When that happens, it’s up to me to jump to action.

I fly the station’s old-fashioned biplane, sputtering, to the scene of the accident. There, I drop a precipitation pellet onto the offending cloud, which with a whoosh ought to vanish in an instant, leaving in its place a patch of newly clear sky.

Meanwhile, a burst of rainfall has soaked everyone and everything below.

Living alone in the mountains has never felt like a lonely or boring existence to me. To sit with nothing to do, a glass of water within reach, watching yellowing leaves drop from their branches till the day’s end—that’s my idea of comfort. Lying in bed at daybreak I can hear the sounds, like tidewater in the dark, of the moss outside growing. On winter nights, I nurse a cup of warm millet wine and listen to stories on the radio. Or I take a book from the shelves, one of the thousands in the collection my teacher left me before he died and which took several trips to haul into the mountains, and sit to read. I sort the books by cover color, from light to dark. I used to pick one out at random, or else I would get no further than walking the length of the shelves, passing my fingers over the bumps and creases along the books’ spines. I had decided back then that I would choose one subject to spend the rest of my life studying, but I hadn’t settled on which yet.

I remember it was with a copy of Prehistoric Marine Biology open on my lap that I sat by the window, dusk settling outside and the trail through the forest thick with fog, vegetation and birdsong, when the fox came plodding down the mountain, a pack on his back.

The fox was an acquaintance of mine. He took human form in order to make regular trips into the city and catch the latest blockbusters. I was a dinosaur compared to him. He was the one who had to tell me there was a new head of state.

As he passed by the station, he looked up and said, “Always reading, aren’t you. You never came to the card night I invited you to.”

“Taking a trip? Where are you off to?” I asked.

“I heard Avatar is showing. Want to come?”

When I asked him what Avatar was, he gave me a pitiful look and walked on, shaking his head. I went back to my book.

I had been reading Prehistoric Marine Biology for nearly six months. There was a sort of sweet absurdity to researching gigantic creatures from under the sea, creatures that went extinct eons ago, while I lived high up in the mountains. I had no intention of trying to become a scholar of any kind, I only wanted to find something I could pour myself into, an oceanic trench into which I could plunge.

Some of what I read built up and set firm like coral in the corners of my mind; the rest shoaled, blotting out the light, flitting this way then that in loose clusters, then scattered in a frenzy.

At the end of the six months, when a Mosasaurus started to frequent my dreams, I put the book away. I realized that if I plumbed the depths further, I may never find my way out, and the spell of the deep blue would sweep away my remaining years. So I stopped.

The three months after that I spent reading up on the whereabouts of the Jianwen Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

I had come across a long poem written in the early eighteenth century with seven syllables to a line, in which the writer hinted at certain clues to the burial place of Zhu Yunwen, as the emperor had been called pre-ascension. To help decipher all the Daoist lexicon in the piece, I eventually turned my attentions to the Seven Tablets in a Cloud Satchel, and ended up investing an extra few months into that. Then one night I awoke with a start from a bright red dream and knew for certain that if I continued down that path, I would spend the second half of my life hemmed in on all sides by the great blaze of 1402, unable ever to escape.

So I abandoned my search there and then.

The next day when I had finished my work tasks, I started to browse a history of perpetual motion machines.

Three months later, having analyzed every detail of over two hundred failed blueprints, I caught myself one day toying with the idea of building a perpetual motion machine of my own. That was warning enough that again it was time to stop reading and throw my sketches in the fireplace.

The silvery instrument meant to make a mockery of the laws of the universe turned to ash and smoke before it ever saw the light of day.

Those years I felt like I was wandering lost in a cave. At some point I had come to a fork, with tunnels branching off in every direction, each too long and dark for me to see to the end. I could have dropped a pebble down any one of them and echoes would still be reverberating decades later. Whichever I chose, I knew it would lead me down a path lined with mind-boggling stalactites and chromatic crystals that I could wonder at endlessly as I forged farther and farther onwards. But I couldn’t stick to a decision. I always walked a short distance and then, afraid I might never be able to find my way back, withdrew to the entrance, my respect intact. I didn’t know which was the best fit for me, and there was no way of trying each first before committing. To choose one was to give up infinite other possibilities. So I stayed at the intersection, delaying, as time slipped away, the cold draft from the tunnels on my face.

On the day of my trip to the city, I put the station equipment on automatic and made sure there was plenty of setting liquid (a spray for making clouds keep their shape for longer), switched off the lights and locked the door. Then I trod down the mountain path between dense brush, fallen leaves littering the ground underfoot, until I eventually reached the nearest spot where I could catch a bus.

My late teacher had an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for many years and I had decided I would pay him a visit.

When the gray bus reached my stop, I alighted and joined the flow of gray figures on the sidewalk, following the gray street signs to arrive outside the gray courtyard wall of the apartment block.

Dusk had beaten me there, just, and had come to settle in the canopy of the large banyan in the courtyard’s center as a sprinkling of orange stardust. Bats swooped low and danced in the fading light.

I climbed the stairs.

The staircase was in the same sorry state as the last time I’d visited. Cobwebs and dust veiled the lightbulbs, and the walls had peeled such that they seemed to reveal the continents and oceans of some secret map. Icy notes of music, jade-like in texture, cascaded from above. One of Bach’s fugues. The player I knew was an elderly woman, thrilled to still be alive.

She had been playing all those years before, when I had gone to see my teacher in his apartment. I was young then, but already long convinced by a rumor that the building was occupied exclusively by the “karmically handicapped”. At first, I had pitied them, but my pity had soon given way to immense admiration. The residents were former professors and scholars who had foresworn the prestige and warmth they’d enjoyed in ordinary society, in order to immerse themselves wholly in their fixations and dispense of what little life remained to them. To outsiders they appeared to be a community of mad old crones and codgers.

One had dedicated their life to uncovering Jack the Ripper’s identity; another to proving the four-color theorem. Then there was the one trying to restore instruments lost to time, and the one attempting to recreate the formula used in the legendary Chai kiln of the Later Zhou Dynasty.

The elderly woman with the piano had once been a theologist, until she came across a letter between the pages of a monastery ledger from the eighteenth century, which suggested that Bach’s compositions contained a prophecy. She had hardly come up for air since, becoming a highly accomplished cryptologist and musician as she undertook her research. When she was released from the psychiatric hospital, her previous employer arranged for her to spend her last years in this apartment block.

The door was open when I knocked. My arrival didn’t seem to come as a surprise to the elderly gentleman, who called me inside, where we shook hands and inquired after each other. He poured some tea then tottered over to hand me the rattling cup. His face was stiff from his perennial lack of human interaction; I imagined that he saw the same in my own. We made some small talk about my former teacher before I cut to the chase, with barely a segue, telling him about the cave and my confusion. He listened, watching the leaves in his cup trace slow circles, the liquid turning a coppery brown. When I was done, he made a sound that suggested he agreed and then said, “So many things are worthy of lifelong obsession, each with its own temptation. As you say, choosing any one tunnel feels nigh-on impossible. I hesitated at that same crossroads as a young man. It was only later I discovered that not every path is there laid out for you to choose from; some are concealed in the dark. I stepped into one and fell headlong, and still today I haven’t reached the bottom.”

“Of a pit, you mean? I haven’t come across that yet.”

“It depends on the person. Some people are destined to fall into something, never to reemerge. Others, no. They never even see the inside of the caves, and still live fine lives. Better ones, in fact.”

He refilled our cups with water and started to describe his own cave. In the mid-eighties he had acquired an old tome which a museum had deaccessioned. Tattered and stained, much of the text had been rendered nearly illegible, and no one had been able to decipher it, which was why it had been discarded. Curious, he studied the text carefully and found it comprised a contrapuntal couplet that ran into the tens of thousands of words. The two lines stretched parallel down a page, before continuing in the same way on the next one. Whoever edited the book had redacted certain words in each vertical line of the couplet, and the only way to work out what was missing in a specific place in the first line was with reference to the word in the corresponding position in the second line, or vice versa.

At this point in his explanation, I interjected, “But there is more than one possibility for a pair in a couplet?”

“Exactly,” he said, “therein lies the draw. For instance, if, say, the first line read emerald mountain, what do you suggest the corresponding phrase should be? According to the rules for couplets, as you know, the two words must offer a tonal counterpoint to the words we already have—in this case they would both have to be oblique as opposed to level—and the first of them has to be a color. Blue pond, white waves, grey hair, green tree, green lake… any of them would do. But, if any of these words appear elsewhere in the first line, then we must eliminate them as options. Likewise, if an element, like water, is needed elsewhere in the second line, then it cannot be used in this instance. Take into account that consecutive pairs in a single line must also align, and suddenly you can refine the search even further. This is how, for ‘emerald mountain’, I have for now settled on ‘cinnamon oar’; as in, an oar made of cinnamon wood. Not a great match, eh? Actually, it’s ‘cinnamon oar, magnolia boat’ in the second line, and ‘emerald mountain, blue water’ in the first. So, the colors in line one match, and the materials in line two also match. Just how ‘purple lightning, blue frost’ corresponds to ‘rising dragon, soaring phoenix’, and how ‘the look of clouds and charm of waters bring pleasure’ matches, in its own way, ‘the echo of will and song of cares set free.’ Yet ‘cinnamon oar’ may not be the solution. While I haven’t filled every gap of the couplet, there is always the chance that those parts I’ve already completed will be proven wrong. Scrapped, time and again. The thing is akin to an endless crossword.”

He then told me that he had once fantasized about becoming a mountaineer, and before that he had wanted to be a watchmaker; then the book fell into his hands and since then he had been living as both at once: there was no steeper peak to tackle, and no mechanism that required more precision. With those uncoupled pairs, he had come closer to some pinnacle than he ever could on a snowy mountaintop or between any two gears. “Complete peace”, he called it.

He handed me a photocopy of the book and I leafed through it gingerly, as though I held a crumbling palace.

Once a renowned professor of classical literature, this old friend of my teacher’s had lost interest in everything but this book. He had gone so deep into his cave that he had become an eccentric hermit.

“Parallelism is the essence of metrical poetry,” he continued. “The perfect couplet is a symmetrical, closed universe all its own—harmony incarnate, utterly unshakable.”

“What’s next, once you’re finished?” I asked him.

He clasped his hands together, the thumb of one hand stroking the wrinkled back of the other.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It started out as a way of entertaining myself, but before I knew it I had been seized by the task. All I know is I have to find a way out.

“There is a notebook, I discovered, from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, the end of the Ming, in which it says that when the couplet is complete, phoenixes will start to rise, and a frost will descend.

“There’s a diary, too, written by a British Sinologist, which speculates that every word in the couplet came from some never-ending line of poetry, and that throughout it fragments of countless other poems shimmer quietly. Like constellations at the bottom of a lake.

“And there’s a letter, sent sometime during the Republic Era, which implies that to close the couplet is to reach the end point of all word games—an ouroboros of sorts—a snake devouring its own tail and returning to nothingness: language will disappear from the world, the cosmos will regain its divine silence, and existence will revert back to primordial Chaos.”

My teacher’s friend admitted that he couldn’t decide whether this was creative license or complete drivel. But maybe it was true. Before I had time to really consider what he had said, he shared with me his latest breakthrough. The previous night, it had occurred to him he might be able to pair “moonlit wisteria” with “windswept flora”.

By then, the tea leaves had fully unfurled. They glided through the water, I suddenly realized, not unlike giant oceanic manta rays.

It was dark out when I left. I followed the descent of Bach’s music around and down the staircase on the complex’s exterior, the building taking on the feel of a labyrinthian cave network, with an endless tunnel behind every door.

In the courtyard, the shadow cast by the tree overlapped with the night, thickening the blackness. I could no longer see the bats, but I could hear the flapping of their wings.

I stepped out of the gate; the cold breeze hit me as though I was stepping into water.

I spent most of the bus journey back the next day trying to imagine what a phoenix call would sound like. It wasn’t until we had gone some ways that I noticed the shadows over the paddy fields. They spread across the open country, caressed the water’s surface and scaled a mountain ridge, surging in the direction from which I’d come. The landscape flickered light and dark.

I looked up and saw clouds. Great big fluffy messes of wayward clouds. Some resembled galloping horses, others dolphins. And still more resembled nothing at all; there was nothing on Earth that compared to their shape. My eyes were blue then white, blue then white.

“What are they?” the child behind me asked.

“They’re clouds,” replied an old man’s voice. The child laughed, “Na-ah grandad, clouds don’t look like that.”

Only then did it click that something had gone wrong. The machinery had malfunctioned while I was away.

I jumped off the bus the moment it pulled up at my stop and ran like crazy up the mountain path to the cutting station. When I reached the office, I saw straight away the landline was backed up with unanswered calls, all of them from HQ. I dashed into the warehouse and moments later was in the biplane taking to the air.

Glancing at the meter, I was relieved to see there were more than enough precipitation pellets on board. I put the plane into full thrust, its body shuddering like an old-timer’s with a hacking cough, and directed it toward the lawbreaking clouds.

Then it dawned on me.

What I was trying to do was silly. I had no issue with those clouds. In fact, I liked them rather a lot. Especially as they sparkled like virgin snow in the sunlight, their edges tinted baby blue; each one of them was a picture of imposing grandeur and unruly pride, poised over the heads of earthbound folk.

But I couldn’t leave them there, how would I put food on the table. When the will to live takes over, it, too, is indomitable. Plus, I wanted to carry on living in the station, where I could continue my cave explorations. There was nothing else I could think to do. Besides, clouds ought to be oval, all the ones I had seen throughout my childhood had been. It’s just a thing we accept without needing a reason, like wearing a tie. Such things are the cornerstones of a civilized world; they brook no challenge. I was duty bound to not turn back.

I flew straight for the nearest cloud.

Once in range, I pressed release. With a “poof”, a flurry of light showers began and a moment later ended.

The administration’s response was to circulate a notice of censure. The top boss was irate. He felt that in the few hours the machine had broken down he had lost dominion over the skies. It was an inconceivable humiliation. I expected to be given the sack. But I was saved by the fact that none of my colleagues loved the prospect of a transfer to the mountain post, so all of them bar none put in a good word. My punishment in the end was that I had to stay in the mountains for at least the next ten years, barred from applying for reassignment.

When the disciplinary meeting was over, I again boarded a bus back into the mountains.

Each town we passed through, passengers got off. Little by little, the bus emptied, and myself and the man behind me were the only ones left onboard as we neared the forest reserve. That was when I heard a bang, and turned to see a cloud of smoke clearing.

Sat in the seat where the man had been was the film-loving fox. He was alarmed to see a face gawping back at him, but he soon relaxed on seeing it was mine, “I couldn’t hold it any longer, I’ve been clinging on this whole way. I had no idea it was you sat in front of me. If I’d known I would have changed back ages ago.”

“Did you go watch another movie?” I asked. “Any good?”

“It was real neat. A doozy. Made the long trip worthwhile.”

When we entered the forest, he took his chance to hop out of the window so the driver wouldn’t notice him and slipped between the roadside thickets. I got off at my stop and crunched up the leafy path.

That night, there was a tap at the door. It was the fox, come to invite me to join another card game. Knowing it was bad form to take another raincheck, I followed him into the forest and on into a cave. In the middle was a tree stump with a pack of cards laid out on it and to its side a tortoise.

“Fight the Landlord, then?” the fox said.

Their third player had been a squirrel, but with fall having arrived he was busy gathering supplies for winter. I was there to make up the numbers.

We wasted no time getting started. As the fox dealt the first hand and each of us received our random assortment of colors and numbers, I realized that we could play ten thousand rounds and have no repetition. It was another infinite game you could fritter away a lifetime on. “Are we playing for money?” I asked.

“Who has money?” the fox replied. “We gamble with life. A bet is ten years.”

As he said this the fox looked at something above my head, as though there was a number floating there.

“That’s all you have left,” he sounded surprised. “Well, no bother, we can spot you if you run short. Tortoise has plenty to go around. More than he has use for. Just know he plays real slow. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all,” I said, “but I’m bad at this, so go easy on me.”

In that first game, I made the highest bid and won the landlord position. I tossed three cards onto the stump to start.

I was back at the cutting station by daybreak.

Once I had a queue of neat oval clouds filing out the gate, I sat down at my desk. I found a piece of paper and started to write. It seemed that my little cave problem was as good as solved.

I sat for a quarter of an hour letting this fact settle in. Then I put pen to paper again and listed all the subjects that took my fancy. If I gave twenty years to each, then with my new lifespan I could research one hundred and twenty different areas.

I could spend a whole century diving into prehistoric oceans, another sleuthing out Emperor Jianwen’s remains. I could dedicate a handful of hundreds of years at least to banging my head against the puzzle of how to invent a working Perpetual Motion Machine. And for the rest I could tootle from one tunnel to the next until I’d visited them all.

I would learn the names of every plant and tree by heart, memorize the temperatures of every star in the sky.

If along the way I fell into a pit, I had the time to go all out. To keep going until I reached the bottom and then start digging.

In the first rays of dawn, I brushed my fingers across a row of books on a shelf, tickling each spine as if it was a piano key. Where I stopped, I took out the book and sat with it in the light coming through the window, and started to read.


Chen Chenchung lives in Quanzhou, Fujian, the province where he was born. Submarines in the Night is his first published book. The collection brings together stories originally published online to great fanfare; it earned the author the 2021 Blancpain-Imaginist Literary Prize and the first PAGEONE Literary Award, and was the highest-rated work of fiction of 2020 on the Douban website. Chuncheng continues to work at his local botanical garden.