Translated from the original Chinese by Jianan Qian and Alyssa Asquith
The old men liked to say that our village was our world. I couldn’t accept this, and from the beginning, I felt that I didn’t belong. I wasn’t interested in farm work or gossip—whose sons were feuding for their family estate, whose wife had had an affair, who was the manliest, who had been struck by some odd disease and miraculously cured, whose cattle had been lost and later found, which kind of crow spoke human tongue, whose grave had been struck and broken by lightning, funerals, weddings, the Chinese New Year—none of these held my interest. I was sure that one day I would leave those slumbering mountains. But, for so many years, only one man had managed to leave our village for the prosperous world: Brave Fan. I’d never met him; I’d only heard bits and pieces of his story. Brave Fan had gone to a city, where he’d had all sorts of wild adventures, then he’d made his fortune and moved abroad. Those who spoke of him the most were twenty or thirty years older than me. From the way they talked about him, I sensed both admiration and jealousy.
Naturally, I grew up idolizing Brave Fan. Still, I never had the courage to leave the mountains myself. I left school after ninth grade; I had no practical skills and wasn’t sure what to do. This sentiment slowly turned into self-loathing. I sunk into a deep depression and began to neglect my farm work. I wandered about the valley all day with a hand-rolled cigarette in my mouth and a martial-arts novel in my hand. I soon came to be viewed as a slacker. In our village, laziness was viewed as sinful, and no one wanted anything to do with a slacker—as if my laziness might be contagious. Though they didn’t drive me out, I knew very clearly that I had no future here.
Then, one day, something happened.
The weather was scorching hot, and I sought refuge in the woods near the mountain’s peak. Beneath the trees, the light dimmed, the air cooled, and I grew more comfortable. As I wandered about, I saw something glistening beneath a tree. I bent down and found a silvery pistol. I lifted the pistol and felt its weight in my hand. At first, I was a bit frightened; but, the longer I looked at the gun, the fonder I grew of it. I decided to go further into the forest, clutching the pistol to my chest, hoping to find a place to hide my treasure. Suddenly, a shadow emerged from the bushes and blocked my path. Sunlight leaked through the gaps in the leaves, trembling, and dotted the face of a young stranger, whose eyes bore into mine.
“Give me back my gun.” His voice was low and dignified.
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t know what you—”
Before I could finish speaking, he had flung himself upon me, like a leopard. He was strong, but I didn’t back down. All the bitterness that had built up inside of me now erupted in a force of brute strength. For a long time, I punched, kicked, and struggled until I began to lose consciousness. I thought I heard a gunshot, but it could have been my imagination. Something slammed into my ear, and a thick fog obscured my vision.
I don’t know how long it took for the fog to clear. When it did, I noticed a man staring down at me: a city-man, fifty-something, tall and sturdy, in stylish dress, his face dazzling in the sun.
“Where’s that other guy?”
“There’s no one here. You must have been dreaming.”
“No way,” I strained to push myself up. “Who are you?”
“They call me Brave Fan.”
“Oh. You’re Brave Fan!”
“You’ve heard of me?” he said. “I’m here visiting relatives. I heard you wanted to leave the village. Well, I’m looking for an assistant, and I’d prefer a fellow villager. Someone I can trust. Come with me.”
“Yes. You’re not willing?”
“No…no, I am.”
“Then let’s go. You don’t need to bring anything. I’ve already talked with your family. I hear you loaf around all day. They thought you’d better come with me.”
“Alright,” I said. “Alright, I’ll come.”
So I followed Fan out of the forest. We trekked up a long mountain trail before we reached a winding road. In retrospect, when I think back on our trip, the time spent waiting for the bus seemed to last the longest; I still had time to change my mind. But I didn’t. Trembling with excitement, I followed Fan onto the bus. A few hours later, we arrived at a town near the base of the mountain. We switched to another bus, which, after several more hours, arrived at a small city with a dilapidated railway station. After that, I stopped keeping track of the time. The only thing I remember now is that it was pouring as we boarded the train. I took the top bunk bed and Fan took the bottom one. The train, besieged by the heavy rain, chugged along into the night. I couldn’t sleep; when I craned my head down to the bottom bunk, hoping to chat with Fan, I heard him begin to snore. As the morning broke, I found myself in a big city. I had never before seen rows and rows of high rises, or such enormous buildings with such strange shapes.
Once we’d left the train, Fan led me to a large underground parking lot. It took us some time to find his car, a dashing, silver Lamborghini. Slowly, we weaved through the heavy traffic at the city center. I sat in the backseat, leaning against the window, looking here and there. I was already giddy with exhilaration—but we had not yet come to our destination. The car merged onto the highway, and before long, the hustle and bustle of the big city was behind us.
“Are we far?” I could no longer contain my curiosity.
“Both near and far, in a way,” Fan replied with a smile.
As we pulled off the highway, we turned onto a winding road and drove through a stretch of wilderness. Not long afterwards, we came to a large iron fence.
“Through there,” Fan said. “My private airport.”
“Do you have a plane?”
“Of course. It’s waiting for us.”
I soon found myself climbing into a small, silver passenger aircraft. As the plane took off, I sat with my hands clenched so tightly that my palms began to sweat. After some time, however, I began to calm down and gazed absent-mindedly out the window. Clouds unfurled like a boundless, silvery ruin, and beneath them a sea of light fanned out, shimmering. At this point, Fan finally seemed to relax; he began to explain how he had made his fortune.
Fan’s experience as a young man in the village had been no different from mine. After leaving the village, he had arrived in the town at the bottom of the mountain. There, he took on many different jobs. He lived a frugal life and managed to save some money; then, using his savings, he bought a plane ticket to Fiji. A few years later, he had saved up enough money to fly from Fiji to the United States. In his early days in the United States, he could only work illegally. Day and night, he washed dishes in restaurant kitchens. It wasn’t until years later that he was able to acquire his green card. By then, he had saved enough money to open a small business. He spent his savings on an empty plot of land, and, less than two years later, he sold it to the city’s highway planning project for a significant profit. After this windfall, his attention shifted to high-tech product development, especially in the manufacture of space technology for commercial use. His fortune bloomed as a result of his investments in this field. Ten years ago, he had ranked among America’s wealthiest men. More recently, he had invested his money into what had seemed to be an impossible space exploration project. He had also trained as an astronaut.
“How did you do it?”
“Leave the village. That must have been the most difficult step.”
“It was a coincidence. I killed someone by mistake and had to flee. Even now, I suffer from the weight of my conscience. I’ve been trying to repent.” He stared at me blankly.
The plane landed at Fan’s air base. By then, I felt as if we had been released from the bonds of time and space. I didn’t even think twice as I squeezed into his silvery spacecraft. The timer counted down, the ship gave a roar, and we shot into space.
“You’re not a farm boy anymore,” Fan said. “You’re a spaceman. And now I can show you my planet.”
Time in the spaceship seemed to stand still. That stillness gave way to an emptiness, and the ship swam in that emptiness, faintly and quietly. I couldn’t say how far we travelled; Fan never mentioned the distance. But my guess is that, in the scheme of space travel, we didn’t set an impressive record. It seemed to me that the ship landed not long after taking off.
We donned our space suits and stepped out of the spaceship. A grey planet stretched out before us, with a dim sheet of light draping its potholed surface. I followed Fan through the thick dust that hung in the air. I felt that I had lost all my weight; whatever it was that had stepped into my space suit was now only a wisp of a spirit, floating about like the wind.
It wasn’t until a long while later that I spotted several white cubes of buildings, all huddled together amidst the bleak landscape. Fan stopped walking, removed his helmet, then turned and helped me remove mine. The air was damp and fresh, as if rain had just fallen. We threw our space suits to the ground and walked towards the buildings.
“This is my village,” he said.
“Does anyone live here?”
“You’ll be the first. But soon there will be more. Some of your fellow villagers, I’d expect.”
“No way. They won’t come.”
We walked very close to one another, but his voice seemed to come from a distance.
We arrived at the house he had prepared for me. It was sparsely furnished, and its layout was identical to that of my home back on Earth. The only difference was the two bookshelves on the wall. I would later count many times to confirm the number: I had a total of one thousand books, and among them, one hundred were martial art books. The other nine hundred were more serious reading.
We left the house and went into the backyard, where we found a well. Fan told me that the core of the planet had once consisted of ice, which had since melted; if I lowered the bucket to the bottom of well, I would have a constant supply of fresh water. It wasn’t until he had gone that I would learn how cold the water was.
Fan took me around the village to see the farm. He explained that the soil had been adapted from dust and sowed with many kinds of seeds; I could reap more than enough without toiling.
After the tour, Fan announced that he had to go. He had to go now, he told me, so that he could persuade the others to come and live in his village. I stood at the gate of the village and watched him disappear into the shiny, grey haze.
Since then, I’ve lived alone—if such an isolated life still qualifies as living. I don’t know how much time has passed. I only know that I’ve read each of the one thousand books at least ten times. At first, I read to forget my sorrows; soon, the books became the vessels through which I could remember or imagine the world: paraffin wax, breasts, silver, sails, incense burners, anvils, olives, spruce trees, coral reefs, shoreline…still, when I look at myself in the mirror, I can’t see the time on my face: even my hair has stopped growing. It is only my eyes that have changed. They are now the color of cold silver.
The planet doesn’t have its own sun. At its brightest, it has about as much light as a rainy morning on Earth. In the afternoon, the light slowly fades, as if someone is turning the dimmer switch on a lamp, until the night falls, thickens, and eventually settles. It rains often, and the rain mixes with the fog. Ice-cold raindrops sting my face as I walk through the mist. Sometimes I lie in bed, watching the fog press against the window. Occasionally, I hear the sound of wind, like sobbing; but, when I follow the sound outside, there is no wind to be found. Even so, I have seen the wavy fog lift and leave a thin film of dust on the roof.
From time to time, a patch of greyish-green crops, none of which I can name, will sprout in the field. They exhibit animal features: their leaves resemble feathers, their twigs are claw-shaped and covered with scales, their flowers have wide-open mouths and bared teeth, and their fruit hangs and droops, like an eyeball plucked from its socket. I extract a small portion of these plants for food. They taste like blood. I leave the rest of the crops to rot in the soil.
I’ve been anticipating Fan’s return. I’m hoping he’ll bring me back to Earth, or at least send along some villagers. Perhaps I’ve been abandoned, or perhaps this was a trap, or perhaps he really is at the village, trying to persuade the others. Perhaps something happened to his spacecraft, and he was killed on his journey back to Earth. But there’s yet another possibility: perhaps Fan never left this planet; perhaps he is hiding in some far-and-near corner, watching.
Sometimes, when I can’t bear it anymore, I’ll try to walk back the route we came. I can’t say whether or not I’ve reached the spot where we dropped our space suits; if I have, there is no trace of them on the ground. When I go further, I have difficulty breathing. I suppose there must be some invisible border; when crossed, the air starts to thin out.
When the weather is nice, I can see a mountain through my window. The mountain has a soft, faint grey color in daylight, and becomes a large, dark shadow as night approaches. On occasion, I try to walk toward the mountain. When I do, the air is easy to breathe, but a sort of horror seems to follow me; as I draw nearer, the sense of horror grows stronger. In the end, I have no choice but to turn back. I turn back to this empty village, to my house, to lie in bed and wait for the night to cover me.
Image: The Sky, A Film Lesson (1928), Prelinger Archives