Death Fugue

Sheng Keyi’s Death Fugue, which takes its title from the famous poem by Paul Celan, is an absurdist allegorical tale about freedom and shackles, rebellion and dictatorship.

The protagonist, Yuan Mengliu, is a poet who gives up poetry to become a doctor and moves to a city he thinks is Utopia, only to realize that it is controlled by a dictatorship. In this scene, Yuan Mengliu goes on a walk with a woman from the city.

Yuan Mengliu did not worry about the precise location of the church. The steeple emerging some distance from the forest might be his actual destination, but he preferred a more casual approach. Su Juli’s skirt occasionally flapped against his legs, tapping out a playful rhythm. Several times, Mengliu thought she was about to fall straight into his arms. In the throes of flirtation, his legs felt fresh one minute, wobbly the next, and then stronger than ever, while his chest alternated between feeling full to the point of bursting and completely deflated. His heart shivered like a woman walking on bound feet, trembling and shaking all the way.

Judging by the constant changes in distance between himself and Juli, Mengliu guessed that her feelings must also be fluctuating. He noticed one detail in particular. On the whole journey from the foot of the mountain to its peak, the distance between them dwindled from three meters to just twenty centimeters. At that pace, he estimated that within another hundred meters, the pair would at last achieve an earth-shattering contact.

But Mengliu’s method of calculation proved not to be useful. They suddenly pulled apart, for he had stopped, noticing a round object hanging from the city walls, looking like a dangling tassel bell. The bell, rotating in small circles as it hung from the rock surface, suddenly turned to show a face, pale as a sheet of paper, and baring white teeth. Its eyes were wide open, with protruding blue eyeballs that looked like glass orbs. He felt two rays of blue light before the face turned away again. Mengliu was a battle-hardened man, and he’d seen his share of sticky red fluid ooze from the wounded and dying. He’d seen dead men, and even watched some die. But this lonely, hideous hanging head still gave him a fright. The unlucky, unpleasant piece of human debris was like a gunshot, scaring off whatever fledgling love was in his heart, leaving behind only a few downy feathers twirling in the wind.

Glancing at him, Juli said blandly, “Actually, criminals aren’t so easily executed in Swan Valley. Usually sentencing to forced labor is preferred, since it’s more useful to make them work than to kill them off.” With her hand, she pressed down her floating skirt. Mengliu caught a glimpse of a tattoo on the back of her wrist, a captivatingly beautiful poppy in bloom.

“That . . . why . . .” As he held out a stiff finger, the head—a handsome white man’s, graced with a goatee—turned around, as if complying with his summons. “What was his crime?”

Juli rubbed her fingers along her forehead, where the breeze had blown a few strands of hair into her eyes. She continued walking, then, as casually as if she were talking about nothing more significant than washing up, brushing her teeth, or making her bed, said, “Adultery. He was tied up and left hanging for two days. When he was almost dead, they cut him down and, while his heart was still beating, castrated him, dug out his intestines, ripped out his heart and lungs, then threw them all into the fire and burned them to ashes. Finally,” she turned and made a chopping motion in Mengliu’s direction, “finally they dismembered him and hung his head on the city walls for a week.”

Mengliu’s blood froze in his veins. It was as if a blade had been jammed into his teeth. His whole body ached, and chills ran down his spine. On more than one occasion, he’d heard Hei Chun speak about how to use torture to achieve social stability. Allowing the masses to hear the screams of the condemned and witness his tragic suffering would be a warning that carried more impact on the inner person than any amount of moral education or effort on the part of the legal system could achieve. To be shot was not all that horrifying, since such a quick death was painless. The criminal law’s unique charm, its deterrent force, lay in its ability to make the public quake in terror, bringing them into submission.

What really terrified Mengliu about this case was not the method in which the criminal had been disposed of, but the easy tone with which Juli spoke about it. She employed the same style she might use if she were teaching someone to knit: “Loop the yarn over the right needle, insert the left needle into the loop, left, right....” It was as if she was talking about a ball of wool, a few needles and the deft movements of the fingers as they manipulated them. One would need a strong constitution indeed to keep one’s stomach from turning over when faced with such a casual attitude.

Mengliu was struck by a clear and sudden change as everything around him grew dark. A bitter wind attacked his flesh, and he wrapped his arms around himself.

Soon, he heard the comforting voice of the white-robed priests. With great relief, he turned his eyes toward the dome of the church, where he saw thousands of candles burning, their glow restoring the warmth inside him. Those people in pure clothing, their faces serene, sang hymns of praise in voices like the larks that lived in the forest. He felt a sense of enduring freedom.

“No matter what,” he thought, “with a girl like Su Juli, Swan Valley is a beautiful place.”

Inside the church, the pair stood close together. As his shoulder brushed against hers, he felt her tremble slightly. The warmth of her body moved him again, as if her blood coursed through his veins. He peeked at her. Viewing her profile, he caught a glimpse of an eyelash dangling from her lower lid, and a drop of sweat inexplicably trickled down her nose. For reasons he could not express, he rejoiced in the sight.

This first little bit of physical contact between Mengliu and Juli was the only notable thing about the inside of the church. In order to avoid retracing their earlier route, they left from the rear of the chapel, following a bougainvillea-lined path into the woods. The forest was covered with a variety of flowers. The roots of huge trees were blanketed with lush wild grass, twigs, and fallen leaves, and the creepy crawlers filled the air with a chirping sound from within the detritus. The further they moved into the woods, the more humid it became, and the air above their heads was shrouded in a layer of fog. They breathed in the rich odor of humus, soil, and flora mingling in the fresh morning air. His heart once again warmed, Mengliu felt like he was walking along the paths of paradise, pure angels darting in the folds of Juli’s clothes and her hair, rustling between her legs with each movement. Sometimes he looked at the tobacco growing on the hillside, or at the towering rocks, or the spot where some nameless flowers were in bloom on a strange tree. Other times, his eyes remained on the pleats of Juli’s skirts, only to be interrupted by his sudden sneeze that startled the birds from their perches in the trees.

In a strong, hearty voice, Juli said to him, “It’s cool on the mountain. If you’re chilly, we can go home.”

He waved off the suggestion with his long, slender fingers. He noticed that his hands were so pale they were almost transparent. Obviously the blood flow was slower than usual, and his breathing was ragged too. Still, he did not wish to abandon this journey, now that they were halfway to the “interesting place” to which Juli had promised to bring him. And so, with a pretended ease, he asked, “How many meters above sea level are we here?”

Juli told him they were about 4,800 meters high. Mengliu, having never been at such an altitude, suppressed his feeling of surprise. He made some amusing comment about the elevation, inducing a smile from Juli.

Perhaps it was out of boredom, but Juli began humming a tune to herself. It was one of those old folk songs with a melody that sounded like a Buddhist chant, making her voice bounce like a coiled spring. He instantly saw the angel’s notes tumble to the ground among the leaves. He thought, “Trying to do something at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters would be out of this world.” Then a more specific thought crossed his mind, full of possibilities about how he and Juli might enter an even more spectacular realm.

He perked up his ears and listened. Those notes were like a school of lively fish splashing out from Juli’s throat. With their tails they created a stream of water, spraying the droplets onto his face. The melody flowed from a fresh spring to his ears, entering into the cramped confines of his soul. There, in a sudden burst, green trees sprouted and a cluster of pink camellias gradually bloomed. At this moment, he knew without a doubt that he was in love with her. His rapid heartbeat was certainly not the result of mere altitude sickness. His body alerted him to the fact that this was not love, but lust, and that everything in and around him was waiting for him to take her.

But his mind sharply refuted the notion. How could anyone separate love from lust, any more than one could separate the flavor of chocolate out of chocolate ice cream? The two blended together to form one exquisite taste. Enjoying this private metaphor that he’d come up with, he was pleased. Being with Juli had brought back to his mind a poetic sensibility, and he felt a strong lyrical impulse constantly pulling at his heart. Without realizing it, his thoughts began to follow the rhythms of Juli’s song, and a few lines popped spontaneously into his head:

I am listening to someone sing
“God bless the people whose bellies are full”
And so I think of those without food
Wondering whether they are like me
—Bellies flat, but ears full—
For them are life’s simple joys,
The morning dew on the grass
And a sense of piety in dark times

He got stuck there, and so stopped for a moment, bowed his head, and sought the next line. He wondered at his own gratuitous thoughts for the hungry, those who were too weary with life to change their own destinies — the silent majority who had leaped right into his romantic imagination, squeezing their way into his thoughts. Each line of poetry was situated as if along the outline of a row of corpses, lying here 4,800 meters above sea level, waiting for him to review them. He looked at the silent spaces lying below, at the foot of the mountain where the river flowed through the ghostly quietness, and he felt himself to be like a bell so large it needed several men to ring it, swinging back and forth in a slow, methodical manner.

 
Juli hummed her tune. The hem of her skirt was stained with mud and grass.

He bowed his head and continued walking. There was a layer of fine fur growing on the tobacco leaves, their edges made jagged by the artistry of tiny insects. Riddled with disease, the plant gradually gave up its hold on life, like a weary, emaciated figure making its final prayers before death. Before he could sift through the rapid changes of emotion going on inside him, the next verse came to him, riding the rhythm of the insects as they gnawed the tobacco leaves:

Only the wind enters the wilderness
Beating against the farmer’s gaunt form
Alongside the final rays of the setting sun
It sweeps over the tomb
There harvesting every last stalk
 
When the black cloth of night,
Without the slightest rent,
Completely covers the land
Who can find his way back home?
Contemplate the death of another—
By the time the rod is raised halfway
Destiny will cease its call for mutiny
 
Let us, like this, eat our fill
The sun shining on our bellies
We need no written word
To lord it over us
Each stage of life’s cycle
Is a ringworm settled between my fingers
But I remain master of myself
My ulcer-racked body lying on the earth
Sees next year’s cotton erupt
From my own navel
 
Then, we may all be blank slates
We will break the tyrant’s muzzle
And slowly make our escape

“The tyrant’s muzzle? Mr. Yuan, what did you say?” Juli asked.

Only then did he realize that he’d given voice to his song. The moment he looked at her, he suddenly realized it was Bai Qiu’s poem. One evening several years ago, Bai Qiu had sat by the Lotus Pond of the Intellectual Properties Office and composed it all at one sitting. In no time, it had spread far and wide. By the time the sun had gone down, several influential poets had initiated a movement in which they used verse to stir the soul of the people. In the spirit of the Three Musketeers, they swore themselves to a common destiny in life or death, to honor and loyalty, and to action at the critical moment.

Juli did not need an answer from Mengliu, nor did she wait for him to speak. Pointing ahead, she continued, “We’ve arrived. That’s—”

Looking in the direction she pointed, Mengliu saw in the distance that “interesting place.” Across the gully were the green tiles and flying eaves of a white building surrounded by the vibrant hues of flowers and leaves. Green vines climbed the walls, and purple blossoms dotted the facade, scattered like stars across the sky. Down the face of the mountain flowed a waterfall, looking as if it fell from the heavens, creating a mystical atmosphere. Rising above the clouds was a cylindrical tower constructed of beautiful red brick. At its top hung a giant clock, which was just filling the valley with its music as it struck the hour of three.

“Oh, it looks like a lovely vacation villa.” Mengliu gazed at it for a long time, then asked, “Does it have any significance?”

“Upon reaching fifty years in age, anyone can live there.” Juli’s face wore an expression of longing. “It’s the best nursing home in Swan Valley. I’ve heard that they have everything in there — a library, a cinema, a theater, chess matches, debate clubs, athletic events... or you can just laze about all day on a huge sofa in a coffee house, listening to music and chatting while you consume unlimited supplies of fresh fruit juice. You will never feel yourself a lonely old person living there.”

“Go into a nursing home at fifty years old? Things are very different in a welfare society,” Mengliu said, laughing. “But, I’d rather work till I’m eighty, growing vegetables and rearing chickens in my own garden. I’d never want to live in a communal facility in my old age.”

“But this is policy. It’s all according to regulation.” Juli picked a flower and placed it behind her ear. “Of course, it’s also what the people want.”

Seeing Juli’s girlish action, Mengliu felt that her serious tone was just a pretense.

“The government is subjective. They don’t care what the people want, nor about public opinion.” He looked at the brilliant wildflower behind Juli’s ear. It struck him that it would soon wither, and he felt it a pity.

“Everything is free. What benefit could the government possibly have?” Juli stared at him tauntingly.

“. . . What I mean is, simply put, it may not be quite what it appears on its surface. Furthermore, fifty years, just as a person’s in his prime . . .”

Mengliu hesitated. Suddenly coming to a realization, he said to himself, “Oh, no wonder all I see here are young people. All the middle-aged have already been shut away in nursing homes. Don’t they have any interest in the outside world anymore? Don’t they come out and have a look about . . .?”

“There’s a small self-contained community in there,” Juli said, ignoring Mengliu. Turning her head, she looked fondly and longingly at the nursing home. “Inside, there will one day be one famous old craftsman, creating many strange and wondrous things—and that will be me.”

Mengliu ascended a few steps further up the rock, searching for a better view, but all he could see was the outer wall surrounding the nursing home, blocking the view as effectively as if it were the Great Wall. He saw only the old trees, the flying eaves, the waterfall and path, and the tower that seemed to disappear into the sky. Silence glided over the walls from the garden, coming to rest on the mysterious forest.

© Sheng Keyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Shelly Bryant. All rights reserved.