Chapter 1: “Opening Scene.”
“Click.” From darkness to brightness, a screen flickers on and a picture begins to form.
This is the residence hall for faculty staff. Out of all the century old buildings, this building is based in the furthest corner. Located in the most remote area, the school mostly assigns the younger instructors to live there. At a glance, the building looks beautiful with its red bricks and white pathways. The ivy spreads elegantly outwards, its green vines wrapping itself around the building. Anyone who passes by would not be able to resist taking a couple more glances towards it.
Only upon moving in, would the fortunate instructors come to the great realization– that this old building required a lot of repair, the inner walls were peeling away much like a weary face with its makeup touched up multiple times.
The weary building was so lacking it could not even provide a proper TV. The ones provided to each room were all cable TVs that could be labeled as antiques.
“Heavy rain continues to pour near the lower reaches of Changjiang River….”
A young man walks past the hallway entrance and sound from a show playing on TV travels through the window pane from the announcement room. The old lady on duty would always stop him for idle conversations :
“Hey, lil’student did you1 know? This is the residence hall for faculty staff, a student like you shouldn’t be entering the premises.”
But today, the old lady didn’t inquisite him, perhaps it’s due to her being in a daze, or her failing vision, in the darkness she did not detect him passing by.
He let himself up to the third floor, and knocked on the familiar door.
The door creaked open and revealed a woman behind the door: “It’s you?”
The young man whispered: “Professor Xie”
Although it was very late, and the young man being an unwarranted guest, she was still his instructor. Moreover, he was also someone who was closest to her out of everyone else from this school, so after a moment of surprise, she still ushered him inside.
She made a cup of tea and added a few slices of ginger to it. It was raining outside so she felt that the ginger would help the young man warm up since he looked wet and cold. The hot ginger tea can help relieve the cold.
Professor Xie placed the steamy hot cup of ginger tea on the coffee table: “When did you return?”
“Just today.” the young man stood uncomfortably in front of the sofa.
Professor Xie: “Take a seat”
Only then did he take a seat, his fists clenched atop his knees, cautious, he did not make a move for the cup of tea.
“Why didn’t you let me know of your return beforehand? It’s so late and there’s still buses heading to the school?”
“How did it go with your family matter?”
The young man went silent for a moment, then lowered his head while picking at the hole in his jeans.
“My mom wants me to quit school”
Professor Xie fell silent.
He’s already a university student. Whether the student wanted to continue studies or not, the school does not have the right to an opinion on this. She had spoken to the mother of the young man standing before her previously, a promise to waive the tuition for struggling families, hoping the mother would allow her child, who worked hard to make it into University to finish his studies.
Yet the mother sharply refused ——
“Study what? Chinese? Who doesn’t know how to speak Chinese? You guys are just trying to extort money!”
She patiently reasoned with the mother: “Your child is very talented, as you can see, he’s only in second year, stopping halfway would be such a pity. Moreover, if you’d just wait two more years until he finishes his studies, it would be easier for him to find a job when he integrates into society. I asked him before, he wants to become a teacher. With his grades, he’d have no problem passing the exam for Teachers. This is his dream, and the work is very stable.”
“He’s not able to become a Teacher! It’s not as if you haven’t seen his face?!”
The words from the mother were like a blunt knife, chopping down between invisible electric currents.
Professor Xie was furious, but she didn’t know how to respond.
“I want him to return home and work! We’re out of money! Stop wasting time! That face—that face…even though you’re educated, so what? What kind of school would want this kind of teacher?”
What kind of face could that be?
Professor Xie’s room had an incandescent light turned on, the wattage was low so it was dim but it still illuminated the young man’s facial features.
Professor Xie was already used to his facial features, however for those seeing it for the first time would gasp in shock — Half of his face had the yinyang condition, it was undetermined what kind of sickness he had suffered from before however, from his forehead to the base of his neck were all covered in purplish-blue marks like it was covered by a piece of rotten flesh.
A ghastly sight, bare/exposed it was abnormal.
“Don’t get close to him, it might be contagious”
“Hey! Yin-yang man!”
What accompanied him with this face throughout his years of growth were verbal abuse and ridicule that followed him like a shadow.
Because having this illness, and because this illness can’t be hidden, looking so ugly, he couldn’t even know where to begin to hide. The youth had his fair share of supercilious glances. Regardless of how much he furthered his studies, or how gentle he was with others he will always be like an evil dragon wandering amidst the bright sun and blue skies. Never to receive fair treatment.
There are very seldom individuals who can be like Professor Xie, who is able to discover the other half of his face that is normal, that looks complaisant and gentle.
He is always bearing the ridicule from others with his gentle yet numbed feelings. Sometimes he even finds himself laughing along with others almost as if he really had done something wrong.
But what could he have done wrong?
Professor Xie bears in mind that when it comes to education, he is always the most serious about it compared to everyone else, sincere and dutiful. When it comes to group projects he’s always discreetly doing the most work. When others bully him, he always suffers in good temper and doesn’t speak much.
“It’s okay professor, I’m already very happy that you can chat with me. Before, when I was in the village, when the others saw me they’d always make a detour. No one has ever listened so attentively to me like you do.”
“My classmates are also very nice, at least they don’t throw bricks at me”.
He says this in a serene manner, but his head was hung low, his shoulders hunched. Having to bear all the heavy insults for such a long time resulted in his posture to deform and his spine to bend.
She later said to him: “After evening self-study, if you’d like, you can come to me for individual tutoring. If you don’t understand something, and need my help, don’t be afraid to ask.”
He smiled embarrassed, the normal half of his face flushed a bashful red.
In the two years that she’s known him, she’s grown accustomed to him knocking on her residential door with his hunched back. He’d bring his completed thesis, essays, even the poems he’s written to her for her guidance.
Nowadays there are more people who like to curse but very few who like to write poetry.
Yet he still writes with determined dedication.
His classmates would make fun of him, saying a hideous person writing hideous things, we’re so jealous, and even more so jealous of your rotten grape skin2.
He would smile, then earnestly go back to writing.
But now, he can’t even do that anymore.
Professor Xie reminisced about the past and was deeply affected. She gazed at the boy pitifully.
The young man said: “My reason for coming here was to bid you farewell. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“….ya, you can say that”
The young man paused: “Professor, if my illness wasn’t on my face and was in some other area, then everyone would treat me with a little more kindness. Wouldn’t that be great.”
Professor Xie’s eyes couldn’t help but start to redden. At this point, she’s already tried her hardest, it is only a pity she wasn’t his family. She’s not able to make the final decision and is not able to save him. With the young man’s family, a day is another day. His mother regrets allowing him to go to school, afterall, there was another child in the family without any illness and is only in middle school. The one with the illness should come home while the healthy one goes out.
She also thought that the mother did no wrong, since as a mother, she had to decide what to give or take for the betterment of the family and so she was being fair.
“You….the thing you left at my place last time, you had wanted me to review your thesis, I haven’t finished reviewing it—–”
Professor Xie felt her tears on the verge of falling, so she frantically tried to change the subject.
“But I had already carefully read the beginning, why don’t you delay your leave application, wait until I finish my review…”
”No.” He said with a smile and shook his head, “When day breaks, I’ll be leaving.”
She was overwhelmed with regret. Why does it feel as if there’s still time?
Why stay up all night?
Why, go shopping, make conversation, and hold all those meaningless long meetings?
Here lies a student’s dream about to shatter, and a heart about to stop beating. Her, being this young man’s last professor, can’t even offer him a bouquet of flowers.
“It’s alright.” He said, “Nonetheless, I have written my last poem, may I gift it to you?”
She nodded her head.
He then pulled it out from his backpack and presented it to her. The page was really thin, upon holding it, it’s as though no weight could be felt.
She read it word for word, phrase by phrase. It was a love poem, an inseparable reluctance to one’s love. It was fiery and exhilarating yet careful. She has read many poems written by many master poets. From ancient poems like, “Whence shall moonlight shine, while curtains sway, our hearts together, yet as tears dry and flow, only time remains discernable3.” to the modern days “My eyes be the more beautiful because you are in it.” Yet at this moment, nothing could compare to the work written on this paper by the young man.
He didn’t give away anything, as though revealing it would have led the rhythm and flow astray.
The young man was a poet, he knew losing poetic essence would mean disparity of romantic order, and thus leaving only embarrassment.
“This is the poem I left for you.”
The ugly side and the normal side of his face showed only gentleness.
“I’m sorry, professor, I really couldn’t afford anything to gift you.”
“There is nothing that could be better than this,” she turned her back towards him, trying to suppress her sobs, “ you, you should eat something, let me find you some pastries.”
Borrowing time whilst she rummaged through her cabinets to control her emotions, Professor Xie took a can of butter cookies and placed it on the coffee table.
The young man politely thanked her, and under Professor Xie’s gaze, he finally carefully touched the tea cup, but quickly withdrew his hands, and gently said: “It’s so hot”.
She touched it too: “How so? It’s lukewarm”
Nonetheless, she still went back and poured him a cup of cold water.
The young man held his favourite cookies, and slowly drank his water.
After he finished eating and drinking, the night was still long.
He said: “Professor, could I stay a little while longer to read your books?”
The young man laughed, feeling a little helpless: “I’m about to leave, yet I’m still troubling you.”
“It’s no problem, you can stay longer if you’d like…. That’s right, when you’ve returned, send me your mailing address, I’ll send you any good books that I find. You’re so smart, even if it was self-taught, you wouldn’t do half bad compared to others. Professor Xie could only draw comfort from conversing, “If you need help in anything, you can find me on WeChat.”
The young man gazed up at her: “Thank you.”
A moment of pause.
“If only everyone else was like you, then maybe…”
He lowered his head and didn’t finish his sentence.
The one thing she had most at her place were books. With consideration to his ugly appearance and how apparent his illness was, whenever he goes to the library, he’d always be the center of attention. Thus, she invited him to the faculty residence hall and let him use her private collection to study.
The young man thus spent all night at the faculty residence hall to read, as though he wanted to use this night to bring back all the literature home with him.
He seldom gets to do what he wants as he’s never stayed too long, afraid he’d be inconveniencing the professor’s normal routine. But today was an exception.
Professor Xie didn’t blame him for his last act of willfulness, it’s just that she had stayed with him for the rest of the night, and was in fact getting a little sleepy when she subconsciously fell asleep.
In a haze, she suddenly heard the young man say: “Professor Xie.”
She mumbled a reply.
“There’s still one last thing, I’d like to apologise to you for”
“Previously, when theft happened in the classroom…. The other classmates often lose their things, so they couldn’t have been able to find the culprit, which resulted in you being criticized4. Those stolen items were actually taken by me.”
She groggily woke with a start, but her body was too exhausted, so the heaviness prevented her from getting up.
The young man said with visible sadness : “But it wasn’t because I wanted it, I didn’t take a single cent. They always make fun of me, so I actually harbored some resentment towards them. I took their bags and threw them into a field and burned it all to the ground. When they started to suspect me, you didn’t question me, rather you even stood up for me. When in actuality, the person who did it was me.”
“I don’t have the courage to admit this, I’ve only ever been human, even a good person at that, in the eyes of one person”
“That person was you.”
“Professor, am I too vain?…. But even if you too became disappointed in me, I wouldn’t know what to do anymore. You’re the only person in my life where I could find acceptance”
Towards the end, his voice gradually got smaller and smaller.
Yet his eyes were clear, almost transparent, as though some baggage were lifted.
“——The most regretful thing I’ve ever done would only be this….Professor Xie, I’m really sorry. It would seem the illness has spread from my face to my heart. If there were to be a next life, I really wish to be a normal person…… I don’t want to be so ill that I’d have my right to love taken away from me.
A strong gust of wind swept through the windows, it blew and stirred the papers on the table as though it was soul searching.
Soon after, everything returned to quietness.
The tea on the table had turned cold.
When Professor Xie woke up early the next morning on the second day, she found that she had slept through the night at the reading table. The place was spotless, the young man knew manners but this time he didn’t wait to bid his farewell to the professor and had already packed up and left.
Feeling a little pang in the heart was inevitable, she got up and made her way to the living room, her eyes groggy from sleep.
When she looked down onto the coffee table——
As though someone had dumped a bucket of cold water over her head, her eyes grew wide in shock!
The tea she had poured for the young man yesterday, had formed into ice, but……but……
The room temperature was clearly at 27/28°C degrees!
How can this be? How could this be?
She stared wide eyed at her place and began searching. More and more traces made her heart chill further and further. The tin box of butter cookies, she had definitely watched him eat it yesterday, yet looking at it now there was no shortage from the ones that were eaten. The water from the tea cup although frozen, the water level remained the same as when it was first poured, and lastly——
Lastly, the unspoken love poem on the single page, the contents were engraved into her heart, he had only left this piece of paper as his parting gift.
The paper was missing.
Or in other words, there had never been a piece of paper..
She was close to trembling when a sudden “ding” rang out, her cell phone vibrated, which startled and made her jump. She flung her arm across and swiftly grabbed the phone only to find the notification to be spam. She sighed in relief, then a thought came to her as if she had just awakened from a dream, and thus swiftly dialed the young man’s number.
Du. Du. Du.
Her heart beat to the rhythm of the dial tone.
The call went through.
The person who picked up the phone was a familiar voice belonging to a middle aged woman, rough but at the same time carrying some remnants of crying. She exchanged a few words with the young man’s mother on the other end of the line.
She felt her heart plummet into an imperceptible black hole.
She heard it——
“It’s you guys! It’s you guys again!! I haven’t made the move to call you! And yet you end up calling me first!”
The woman was making accusations, whatever she had said at the beginning, Professor Xie already forgot. Her mind was drawing a complete blank, she only heard the forlorn shrill cry like an awakening blow: “He’s dead! Dead!”
This made her blood run cold.
“It’s all because you guys bewitched him!! He quarreled with me, then ran out. It was raining heavily outside, the police said there were some cable lines down…5
Professor Xie’s ears buzzed.
The furious onslaught of slander mixed with sorrowful cries, she could only barely manage to catch a few phrases, such as, ghosts and charms, and practices of farewell not meant for the world of the living.
The woman on the other end broke out in sorrow:
“What are you looking for? What is there to look for?!”
“Yesterday was the first 7th day6 since his passing!!!”
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- Footnote: The old lady speaks with a Shanghainese accent. The word ‘you’ is pronounced differently/different character to reflect the accent.
- Footnote: I REALLY struggled with this one but all in all “酸死了，比你的烂葡萄脸皮还酸”——-酸死了 literally translates to sour to death, which refers to feelings of jealousy or envy (similar to that first sour tinge you feel when you bite into a lemon). The last part 比你的烂葡萄脸皮还酸” literally translates to, ‘it’s more sour than the rotten grape flesh of skin” which is a metaphor comparing colour of the grab to his yinyang face (his skin is purple, aka grape coloured) and also the sour that comes from a sour grape. So in conclusion, they’re making fun of his condition while ridiculing him for writing poetry. They aren’t jealous, in fact they’re just making fun.
- Footenote:Sorry I pulled this from my ass and basically took the story behind the quoted lines from Moon Night(月夜) by Dufu(杜甫) and weaved my own poem to reflect the meaning behind it to the best of my abilities. It is not a translation, but a fabricated piece of poem from yours truly (so please DO NOT QUOTE ME). I think it’s more important to get the nuance/connotation across than direct translating it. The line ” 何时倚虚幌，双照泪痕干。” is saying when will I return to Fuzhou, and depicts a couple leaning against the empty window curtains in front of their bed, enjoying the same moonlight like today. This moonlight taking away the tears from the both of them. It refers to an ideal of peace in the world; and tears represents the sadness from all chaos in the world. Lastly, that the flow of time is clear.
- Footnote: If a student does something wrong the blame would normally fall on the teacher for not bringing them up right.
- Footnote: In case there are some of you who don’t know, but cable lines sagging or down could be in contact with an energized power line making it very dangerous during a rain storm. Could cause severe electrocution.
- Footnote: The first 7th day (basically the 7th day since the person’s death) is significant in that it is the day the soul returns to meet with their family. Family normally would not wish to meet with the soul as it is rumoured that the soul would not be able to reincarnate if they met.