Free!

“I’m free!” Scarlet shouted, waving a letter at me. She was down in the street, holding onto her rolled-up pant legs, knee-deep in floodwater. From where I stood on the balcony, I could see her craning her slender neck upward, looking rather like a small flamingo about to take flight. “My mom’s dead! I don’t have to do it anymore! I’m free!”

It was early summer, 1989. It had been raining for seven days straight and builders’ rubble had choked the storm drains of Guangzhou, a city overrun by construction sites––hence the flooding. Rotten watermelons and feathers from diseased chickens came floating downstream. (Even though floods don’t have an upstream and a downstream, downtown received a cross-section of the trash from the wealthier upper levels, so the effect was much the same.) Under the surface of the piss-colored water, I imagined shark-toothed crabs that fed off people’s heels and multiplied with the speed of bacteria. I couldn’t actually hear what Scarlet was yelling as she stood in the flood, but my mind was full of distressing images of crabs in the sinister bubbles and ripples that swirled around her skinny body.

That year at the Silver Spring Salon, Scarlet was the genie to my Aladdin. Without her, I would surely have ended up as a prostitute.

I remember that just a month after I arrived at the Salon, the boss woman took me one night for a meal at the White Palace with an Indonesian man, who sat between us and squeezed her plump arm with a little too much familiarity.

“She’s too young, we can’t keep her. You take her, put her in charge of the fruit and the cigs in your store, or whatever . . .” the boss woman said indifferently, jabbing the gaps between her teeth with a toothpick, after a large meal.

“I can’t look after her! She needs a woman,” the Indonesian said with a leer.

“I don’t want to go!” I said fiercely.

“You don’t want to go? And who’s going to look after you? You want to be a streetwalker? Off you go then . . .!”

“No, I don’t!”

“No? Then you take her away,” she addressed the Indonesian, “and hurry up about it, before the cops come knocking and accusing me of keeping underage girls.”

“But what about my suitcase and my clothes? And I haven’t told Scarlet . . .”

“What’s that damn girl got to do with anything? She doesn’t have time to look after you! If you like her so much, then you pair up with her, you’d make any john a nice twosome and I’d split the profits six to four with you! How about that?” said the boss.

“Whatever are you putting ideas like that into the girl’s head for? She doesn’t know what you’re talking about.” He turned to me and said soothingly: “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you. You can forget your old clothes, I’ve got new stuff for you, toothpaste, toothbrush, everything . . .”

And the two of them bundled me onto the last ferry to Huangpu Port. As the ferry made its way across the murky waters of the Pearl River and we pulled into land, I felt the Indonesian’s hand on my bottom. Stubby fingers, yellowed from forty-seven years of smoking rollups, administered a savage pinch . . .. Twenty-three years later, I can still feel that pinch on my behind, the way a germaphobe forced to clean out the toilets during the Cultural Revolution remembers the feeling of the human shit that seeped into the webs between her fingers.

Cell phones did not arrive in China until 1987, and it was only a well-set-up businesswoman like the boss, with her three gold rings and her jade Buddha pendant, who could afford one. I was fifteen, and all I possessed in the world was ten yuan and twenty cents, the remains of the money I had sneaked from my dad’s drawer before I ran away. (I had spent most of it during my wanderings through half a dozen other cities.) There was no way a girl like me, daughter of a butcher in a meat-processing plant, could get hold of a cell phone except by selling her body or stealing. So how on earth could I get a message to Scarlet, I wondered, as we crossed the dark, spume-capped waters? She was my genie––when I rubbed my ring (not that I had a ring, not even a copper one), she would don her papier-mâché wings, soar high above Guangzhou’s red-light district, and fly for miles until she caught up with the ferry, landed a magic carpet on the deck, and bore me away.

As soon as the Indonesian led me into his grimy store, I began to plot escape routes. The store was housed in the west side of a brick courtyard building and was stacked high with bottles of cheap pop, cigarettes, and sweets. It had an upstairs room made of planks of wood, tacked onto the flat roof. On the floor lay two sweat-stained mah-jongg mats, one of which had a girl’s high-waisted, georgette lace skirt as a cover, and two wicker headrests. There was an old-man stench that would have made even a rat flee. To be precise, it was the stench of an animal pickled in formalin and then wind-dried, and it permeated everything in the loft, from the dishes of fly-blown, leftover dumplings, to a Hawaiian shirt hanging from a peg, to the sunglasses and false teeth in the cupboard . . ..

There was no toilet upstairs, you had to go down, out the back, and across a courtyard partly roofed over with asbestos sheets. It looked like a restaurant was using the space to butcher meat. In the middle stood a huge chopping block covered in blood and entrails. Nearby was a deep well full of slimy water snakes. The Indonesian’s squat toilet was a hut, red-brick walls on three sides, a door on the fourth, and a sheet of asbestos on top. As soon as I discovered this hidey-hole, I locked myself in with the iron hook fastened to the inside of the door, and resisted all the Indonesian’s threats and entreaties to come out. In this one-meter-square space, I stood pressed against the wall, staring eagle-eyed at the sliver of a moon in the sky and blinking once every six seconds as if I was sending an SOS to Scarlet through the darkness. I stood there all night until a gate used by the restaurant workers clanged open.

I sped out of the courtyard and down to the quay. As the first ferry of the day pulled in, Scarlet, my genie, magically appeared on the top deck, ruthlessly raking the quay with her eyes. The first rays of the sun bathed her skinny body and barely visible breasts in solid gold.

From then on, Scarlet and I were inseparable, the Silver Spring Salon’s pair of mandarin ducks.

I slept at Scarlet’s side, and the other five girls lay higgledy-piggledy on the floor around us. Our bedroom was built onto the shop front balcony. Three or four days of every month, Scarlet had painful periods and didn’t have to work. She would spend all day in our balcony-top room, her feet propped on the windowsill. She said that having her feet raised helped with the cramps. We slept on a hard wooden floor that had been roughly daubed with reddish-brown paint, on faded, ant- and cockroach-infested grass mats laid over tattered mattresses. The girls lay flat on their backs drenched in sweat, their pale bellies and thighs looking like fish laid out to dry at the Shangxiajiu docks. After a seven- or eight-hour shift spent serving the clients on all fours, it was a relief for them to be able to lie down. I also remember that Scarlet kept a little low-wattage hot plate made of what looked like mosquito coils , on which she boiled eggs. Scarlet was always planning to pierce her ears when the weather was cooler, but every time she tried, the hole got infected. She told me the eggs were a secret remedy handed down from her mother: you rolled boiling hot eggs over the earlobes until they flamed up red and went soft and numb like boiled corks. Then you sterilized a needle in fresh ginger and pushed it hard through the earlobe. It was easy enough to say it, but the pain always reduced her to tears.

“Do you want me to do the other ear?” I asked. I was so upset by her pain that the needle I was holding trembled. “Of course!” she yelled. “Otherwise, the good luck’ll be blocked. Coward! What are you scared of? Here, give the needle to me, I’ll do it myself!” She clenched her teeth on a towel and faced the mirror, tears dripping down her cheeks. Pulling down on her swollen, red earlobe, she ruthlessly thrust the sharp needle through the closed-up hole from last year.

She was talking about her mother’s good luck, not her own. Two years earlier, her mother had developed cancer of the uterus. The family had sold their pigs and cows, but the money had not paid for even one chemotherapy treatment. At the time, Scarlet was working in Dongguan in a factory making rip-off bottles of a brand-name shampoo, and sending almost every cent back home not just for her mother’s treatment but to help put her elder brother through university too. She put herself on a daily diet of three pickled mustard buns, but one day, after a particularly painful period, she collapsed with acute anemia. As she was obviously unfit for work, the factory hostel threw her out. A couple of the male workers carried her off the premises and dumped her in a half-built, abandoned building. She was hazy about just how she came to Guangzhou but found herself there with a new name, Scarlet. She was nineteen, with long “phoenix” eyes that lifted at the corners and sultry lips. Before she started work, she used to adorn her fake chignon with a red fabric flower whose twisted petals looked a little like a canna flower unfurling at dawn (though I’m still not sure if that was what it was).

Scarlet and the girls worked in a rented room near the Silver Spring Salon. It was partitioned into cubicles, each just big enough to hold a double mattress and a bedside table bare of anything except an electric fan that emitted strange bone-crunching noises. Sometimes I took a john over there after he’d had his shave. I took a stiff old towel with me and we waited in the corridor outside the cubicles listening to the moans and cries coming from the beds inside. I wondered how he would treat Scarlet, this man with his neck covered in hair trimmings, his feet tapping an anxious dance on the floorboards, and a cigarette between his lips on which he pulled with the intensity of a blood-sucking mosquito. We heard once about a hooker who bit her client when she was giving head and got all her teeth knocked out.

“Not all the johns are like that,” Scarlet told me one day when she was painting her nails. “They’re just like us, can’t make a living off the land so they make the journey here from the back of beyond to grub together a bit of money. That’s not easy either, if they’re lucky they get work as laborers, if not, they lug around a suitcase full of mosaic tiles, making two yuan on each suitcaseful they sell. That all gets sent home at the end of every month for the wife and kids to spend. To pay us ten or twenty yuan, they have to skimp on food or cigarettes . . ..”

From the start of summer onward, the Guangzhou sun blazed down so fiercely it could easily take a layer of skin off if you didn’t watch out. The heat wave was followed by torrential downpours, and the thermometer soared to 93 degrees. In that humidity, we felt like we were trapped in a giant steamer, our flesh sluggish and every sense dulled. Scarlet had dreams that a hand emerged from the darkness under the bed when she was with a client and, just as he was finishing, gripped her by the throat and pressed down on her windpipe until she suffocated. Soon after these dreams, she got the letter from home, and said she reckoned the hand was her mother’s, trying to take her to her death and into the afterlife.

We started looking to the future. Scarlet reckoned I ought to go home because at least I had a home to go to, and I was just wasting my youth hanging around here. She was probably right. Ever since I’d come back after running away from the Indonesian’s store, the boss woman had not paid me a cent in wages, and had even cut down my meals from three a day to two, lunch and dinner. I didn’t get my lunch until about three o’clock because that was when the girls got up. I got up at six in the morning and did all my duties on an empty stomach––sweeping up the hair trimmings, polishing the mirrors and the razors, washing the girls’ clothes, watering the lucky bamboo, letting the clients in, washing their hair, handing the barber the rollers and the perm formula, walking a mile to the nearest cheap farmers’ market through storms and blazing sun to shop for food, accounting for every cent to the boss woman on my return, then standing bent double, rinsing the rice and preparing the vegetables, on feet so exhausted they could hardly support me.

“Go home!” Scarlet kept urging me. “Listen to your mom and dad, don’t get into fights with them, do a bit of cramming then get into a good school, and who knows, you might end up getting into college. You’re so much luckier than me, you know that, don’t you? I can never go home.” As she talked on, she searched my palm for evidence of my future achievements.

“I’ve made up my mind what I’m going to do,” she went on. “I’ll go to Shenzhen. There’s someone I know from my home village who works in a dyeing and weaving factory. It’s probably not much money but it’s clean work. I really want to clean up my life . . .” And she raised her eyes and gazed up as if an azure blue sea had appeared before her eyes.

When I finally decided to go home, it was as if a load had fallen from Scarlet’s shoulders. She ripped open the lining of a padded jacket, snipping the seams with a pair of scissors, and dug out of the cotton wadding a roll of notes fastened with a thin elastic band. She flattened out the notes and divided them in two. She put 200 yuan, all in five- and ten-yuan notes, into a needlework bag embroidered with pink and green lotus flowers, and gave it to me. Then we waited till the boss woman was out and went to the railway station to buy tickets to our separate destinations for the next day.

On the bus on the way back, Scarlet suddenly decided she wanted to take me to see the lanterns. “The whole city’s under water, what lanterns?” I asked doubtfully. Scarlet insisted there was a display of lanterns in the Workers’ Palace of Culture, she said she’d seen it in the newspaper her glutinous rice dumpling was wrapped in. So we got off the bus, sloshed through the floodwater and over the road under a lowering sky. The Workers’ Palace of Culture had been built in the 1950s on the site of an old Confucian school from which the ghosts had long departed, leaving only a few goldfish that blew languid bubbles in the soupy brown water of their pond. We held up our trouser cuffs and, carefully avoiding the filth and the broken branches that littered the ground, finally reached dry land, in the shape of the marble steps. In front of us, the entrance door was locked. Never mind the lantern display, not even the two lanterns hanging from the eaves had survived the storm. “How nice and cool it is!” Scarlet pursed her full lips and whistled in relief, unabashed at the change of plan. “When did we last get a breath of wind? Let’s go and find a draft. There must be a draft around here!” That was the kind of person she was––no sooner did an idea occur to her than she made it happen. So we found our draft, between two high walls. It was so strong it blew our hair till it streamed up behind us with a sound like a shakuhachi.

Our boss made a show of being grief-stricken when Scarlet told her she was not coming back after her mom’s funeral, but got over it soon enough: “You want your ID card back, right? Fine! But you’ve got to work one more night.” “But my mom’s died! She’ll be waiting to see me before she’s cremated! You’ve been a mother, dammit, surely you understand!” They argued to and fro, neither giving way, until Scarlet, enraged, burst out with: “If you don’t let me go today, I’ll set fire to the place! I mean what I say!” And she grabbed a wig hanging from the mirror and hurled it into the incense burner. The boss woman had a specially built redwood shrine that housed her life-size Bodhisattva and lit incense sticks on the first and the fifteenth of the each month.

“Ai–ya! Why are you dragging the Bodhisattva into this? Take that wig away, quick! If the shrine catches fire, there’ll be divine retribution for you!” yelled the boss woman, slipping her cell phone from her bag as if she was going to call her protection guys. Scarlet glanced meaningfully at me and at the boss’s phone. Obligingly, I began by tipping the bowl of scalding rice porridge I was holding over the boss’s feet. “You ungrateful little . . .! Now you’ve gone too far!” she shrieked, almost sobbing. The argument went on for another couple of hours, and finally two teenage bouncers turned up and Scarlet and I each got a beating with rubber flip-flops.

“You never got rail tickets for today, did you? It’s Saturday, they would have all sold out. Once someone’s dead, they’re dead. You still have to earn money, and you can use your earnings to buy some nice incense for your mom, aren’t I right? Besides, all the time you’ve lived here, I’ve gone without nice things to keep you in food and clothes. Haven’t I always treated you fairly? Look, I’m begging you, just work tonight and I’ll give you back your ID tomorrow first thing in the morning,” the boss woman wheedled, rubbing mercurochrome solution on Scarlet’s purpling bruises.

Scarlet finally gave in. She rushed upstairs, fuming, rummaged through a pile of glittery skirts she was about to throw away, and put on a mini-skirt. Then she smoked her way through what must have been half a pack of cigarettes, and left the Silver Spring Salon with an overweight john. “Get an early night tonight, don’t wait up for me,” she told me, “and don’t miss your train tomorrow. If I’m not back by the morning, you go on alone!” As she gently patted me on the shoulder, she whispered: “Take care on the journey! Keep your money safe!”

She had left her red silk flower behind, and it sat on the windowsill, where the neon streetlights shone on it, turning it a cold blue, then violet.

That night I felt as if I was lying on a deck that streamed with water, sweat-soaked and chilled to the bone. Sometime near dawn, I was jolted awake by the shouts of police raiding the premises, apparently tipped off that the boss woman was “harboring underage prostitutes.” I was handcuffed and taken to the police station as “evidence.” When I categorically denied it, a policewoman led me to a windowless room furnished with an iron bedstead and a squat toilet and lit by a twenty-watt bulb around which the moths were desperately fluttering. I cried and cried and, despite the policewoman threatening me with an electric prod, kept bashing the cuff chain against the bed. Finally, two days later, my pig-butcher father appeared, ashen-faced and solid as a great lump of minced meat, at the prison gate. I prepared myself for one of his sudden outbreaks of violence––I dried my tears, sat up straight, and pulled myself together. But my father showed no signs of raising a hand to me like he used to. In fact, he acted uncharacteristically calm. I watched as, by the light of the anti-mosquito lamp, he made a red fingerprint at the bottom of a sheaf of documents with his index finger. Then we were loaded into a police van and driven for a couple of hours to what looked like a hospital. I was shut into an examination room with an iron door and barred windows, and told to take my pants and underwear off and lie down on a narrow, half-length bed. As the woman doctor and her female assistant ordered me into position, they chatted between themselves about the doctor’s toddler son. “He does nothing but eat! He’s only 94.9 centimeters high but he weighs 17.8 kilos already!” exclaimed the doctor as her icy, gloved fingers reached into my uncontrollably trembling vulva. “But that’s quite normal! You shouldn’t worry!” her assistant reassured her. Having completed her examination, the doctor noted the words “No obvious tear to the hymen, normal urine and secretions, no evidence of pregnancy or STDs” on a form and handed it to the policewoman.

The whole way home on the train, I sat silently looking out of the window. A thunderstorm was brewing and in the lightning I seemed to see a white-faced circus clown, teetering along a tightrope high in the clouds, gripping his balance pole. Down below amid the floods, Scarlet and I, alone and far apart from each other, craned our necks to watch the same show.

Back home, I was sent to a young people’s mental institution and was forced to do psychotherapy, still a terribly painful memory. When I was eighteen, I was accepted at Beijing University and, after graduation, traveled far from home and then abroad. Twenty-three years have passed and I still have no idea what happened to Scarlet. I only know that the shark-toothed crabs did not devour everyone’s heels and that apparently the Workers’ Palace of Culture is being converted into a foot-bathing center.

May 2013, Guangzhou

© 2013 by Wang Bang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Nicky Harman. All rights reserved.