In the summer of 1989, I was assigned to work in an electrical engineering company in Nanjing. My train pulled in at one in the afternoon, and as I walked out of the station—two big bags slung over my shoulder—I was ambushed by a mob of peasant girls delegated by hotels to pester for business. The sweat was pouring off me, and I was not in the mood. Get lost, I told them, I live here, I don’t need a hotel.
The clueless cousin of mine who’d said he’d come and meet me hadn’t showed up. I’d told him to leave me alone, but he wouldn’t give up on the idea. So I decided my best option was to search out a shady place to get a cold drink down me while I waited. The Nanjing summer has this talent for making you feel like an internal organ—hot, sticky, visceral, the blood pulsing through you—trapped inside the crowded body of the city, squirming, wriggling, jostling in inescapable heat.
The moment I sat down by a phone booth, I was set upon, yet again, this time by a number of vexingly self-confident females soliciting for another kind of custom. Who the hell thinks about sex when they’re getting roasted alive? Maybe you do; but just the idea of it made me feel sick. After expressing their very poor opinion of me, and salting their assessment with a few bonus obscenities, they and their substantial buttocks sashayed off in the direction of another unfortunate. Just as my ears were joyfully anticipating a moment of peace, they tuned into a voice from inside the phone booth behind me.
The delivery was fast, relentless, intensely rhythmical, the two most frequently recurring phrases “Great fuck!” and “You’re fucking dead!” And the laugh: an aural whiplash, far, far outside the repertoire of sounds associated with the conventional human voice production. The voice warmed me, anchored me, convinced me I’d chanced upon an old friend in unfamiliar circumstances. But when I turned to identify the speaker, I discovered I’d never met him before in my life.
He stood—tall, burly—one hand propped against the wall of the booth, the words charging unstoppably out of him. I stared at him through the dark brown glass, I couldn’t help myself: the longer I listened to him, the harder it was for me to accept I didn’t actually know him. Soon enough, he noticed me too, and glared menacingly back. I went on staring, obliviously. After a little while, he hung up, stormed out of the booth and pushed me, hard, in the chest. I noted a coiled snake tattooed on his right arm. He was, I realized as he squared up to me, a serious physical presence. I might, it crossed my mind, have found myself some trouble.
“What the hell were you looking at me like that for?” I no longer recognized his voice; it was completely different from the one he’d used a few seconds ago on the phone—to me, it was as if he’d just stuck a new face on.
“I was just thinking we might have a friend in common.”
“You and me?”
“Do you by any chance know Da Ma?”
“Are you a friend of his?”
“Yes, we were at college together in Beijing. I thought you—”
“Hmm. Well. Forget it then. Not out of love for that bastard Da Ma though.”
He drew a cigarette out of my shirt pocket, lit up, then strode round me and off in the direction of the Number One bus stop.
“D’you know where he lives?” I shouted after him.
“I’d like to know where the lying bastard is myself. He’s a dead man when I find him.”
All this happened on my first day in Nanjing. I’ve since wasted a full five years of my life here, but not once has my path crossed Da Ma’s. Of course, neither have I particularly sought him out; he wasn’t that good a friend. For me, like a lot of my classmates, he was the sort of friend you’d be happy to bump into by chance; not the sort you made special efforts to look up. He was as he talked: edgy, restless, furiously impatient. So I suspected he’d already left Nanjing some way behind him. But I was sure he’d stayed here a while; he’d left his mark on the place.
Of the friends that I was to make in the city, three had encountered Da Ma. I spotted them, and the unmistakable style of delivery they’d picked up from him, instantly. None harbored particularly warm feelings towards Da Ma—they had all, it appeared, suffered at his hands—and none knew his present whereabouts. But listening to them was like listening to Da Ma himself, like being back in his company.
Da Ma’s way of talking—exhilarating, bewildering, overwhelming—was, it is no exaggeration to say, like an acutely infectious disease, or communicable fungus; and once it had got you, trouble never tended to be far away. To anything or anyone that pissed you off, the only appropriate response was: “You’re fucking dead!” For happenings at the other end of the gratification spectrum, “Great fuck!” enjoyed an equally broad application. Beautifully economical—you may, or may not agree. I can still remember Da Ma’s favorite rhythm of speech, and it went something like this:
(For added authenticity, accompany with vigorous agitation of the arms, à la Da Ma.)
My second day at college, our whole year was sent to northeast China for a month’s training in a People’s Liberation Army barracks. Freshmen these days are that bit more delicate than we were, that bit more flaky, so they get sent for three months—a supremely expeditious means of improving organization and discipline in the new cohort. From Day One, I burned only for our final test: the shooting range. At school, I’d been a crack shot with an air gun—and a bad place for small, inoffensive birds to find themselves around—and I was desperate to show off to my new classmates.
Eventually, my moment of glory drew near. Identically rigged up in our army uniforms, we sat in formation on the drill ground, awaiting orders under an angry sun. When your name was called by the duty captain, you stood up, formed an orderly line, then proceeded into the shooting range—ten at a time, because there were only ten targets. I soon picked up on a student in the row in front of me: short, skinny, more fretfully impatient even than I was, rattling incessantly, indiscriminately away to the people on either side of him, neither of whom seemed particularly keen on taking any notice. After the first round of gunshot rang out, he yelped and leaped up from the ground.
“They’ve fired!” he shouted hysterically round at us. “They’ve finally fired!”
Laughter scattered across the drill ground. His shouting done, he then made as if to charge off in the direction of the shooting range, but was captured and hoisted back into line by the sunburned soldier in charge of maintaining discipline. He reluctantly sat back down, muttering away to himself all the while, drawing further laughter from his audience. A number of his comrades-in-arms tried to provoke more of a performance out of him, but he wasn’t having any of it. There he stayed: cross-legged, sulkily stum.. This unremarkable-looking, slightly undersized individual, I may as well reveal now, was Da Ma.
Our department, I remember, had drawn the short straw that day: we’d been scheduled to shoot last of all, after every other class was done. After two scorching hours serenaded by other people’s gunfire, we were just about catatonic. I’d have left if they’d let me. Of course, though, when the captain called my name, I perked up again fast enough. Da Ma was fourth in my group; I was seventh. The captain took up position behind the student in front of the first target and barked: Lie down! We all complied. My hands were trembling as they loaded the gun. From excitement, naturally. When everyone had taken aim, we waited for the captain to give the order to fire. I took several deep breaths, savoring the acrid scent of burnt gunpowder hanging over the range.
It was at this instant that Da Ma, at target number four, sprang up and pointed his semi-automatic rifle at the people to his left.
“Freeze! Or you’re fucking dead!”
Screaming, the girls in front of targets one and two curled up into balls on the ground, covering their heads with their arms. Fucking hell! the boy at number three began gibbering, that gun’s loaded! Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck!
“I know,” Da Ma replied. “That’s why I told you to freeze. Hands behind your head!” The captain, still in front of target number one, turned an interesting grayish-white. Stop screwing about, you little bastard, he snarled, then began to approach Da Ma.
Da Ma swung the gun directly at him.
“Freeze!” he shouted again. “That goes for you too! Stay where you are!”
The captain stopped, dumbfounded, in his tracks. To my eternal regret, my prostrate position meant I was unable to see for myself the expression on Da Ma’s face; it was something I could only guess at, through the ghastly pallor with which the captain’s face had responded. The two of them squared off at each other—how long, I can’t remember, but what seemed like a good long time. Suddenly, we heard laughter, Da Ma’s laughter, gusting over the drill ground. Considering his joke to have drawn to a tidy, natural close, Da Ma placed his gun on the ground, then lay back down, as if readying himself to shoot. The captain immediately charged over, grabbed hold of the back of Da Ma’s collar, yanked him up onto his feet, then pushed him out of the shooting range. “What the hell,” I remember a bewildered Da Ma protesting, “what the hell…”
When we returned to campus at the end of that month, Da Ma was briskly, severely punished by the university administration. Although, according to our teacher, the authorities had been remarkably lenient. I don’t know whether Da Ma truly was as unbothered as he acted. At any rate, on he went, exactly as before, scuttling from one dormitory to another, rattling unstoppably away at anyone he found there.
Within a term, everyone who roomed with him talked like him; and principally to complain about him. Within a year, I think that everyone in our department had at least a touch of Da Ma about the way they talked; it was an unavoidable, incurable condition. Da Ma struck me as someone permanently on the edge: his tiny hands always flailing about, as if desperately trying to grasp hold of something. But what?
In truth, if I’d been forced to spend every day in his company, I wouldn’t have been able to put up with him any better than his roommates. Da Ma had a trick of rubbing things in when you were unhappy, or in difficulties; his exuberance seemed to feed off your own troubles. There was something about him that never quite meshed with the rest of us, that made us wary. And so he took to spending more and more time off campus, getting mixed up with dubious characters, and dubious outcomes. How had Da Ma got that new cut on his head? we’d often be asking ourselves. Where had he got that designer jacket from?
One Saturday afternoon, in the first semester of our third year, he tiptoed across one of our dormitories and gave a significant push to a classmate on window-cleaning duty. Fortunately, as he was only three floors up, the ejectee wound up breaking nothing more serious than a leg. Da Ma, as ever, vigorously defended himself, in distinctive Da Ma tones: It’d been a joke, he protested, how was he to know his victim wasn’t holding on properly? I believed him, that it really had been a joke, but this time, Da Ma had gone too far.
When the moment came for Da Ma to pack up his things and go home for the last time, our teacher tried to console him—in rhetorical rhythms learned from Da Ma himself—to get him to see the bright side. Great fuck! Da Ma responded cheerfully enough, then got up to leave. But as he reached the dormitory door, he burst into tears, sat himself down on the floor and refused to get up. You don’t have to leave today, the teacher backtracked, you can stay on a bit longer. But sooner or later, you’ll have to go. We watched and listened, as Da Ma’s sobs grew louder, more heartbroken. After he finally returned home, for good, we often thought of him. On account of his still owing us money, or meal tickets.
My second year in Nanjing, I met my girlfriend, Xiao Chu. One summer’s day, at a Chinese fast-food place, I heard a girl on the table next to me talking very emphatically to her escort—a quiet, docile-looking young man, who had politely set down his chopsticks to dedicate himself exclusively to listening. I walked over and told her I needed to ask her something. Although this overture would eventually lead me to become Xiao Chu’s boyfriend, at that moment in time, that enviable position was filled by her current dining companion. It was Da Ma who sent this particular ball of fate spinning unexpectedly into my lap, knocking me off-balance into the quicksand of romance. Thanks, Da Ma—I think.
“Do you know someone called Da Ma?”
“Doma? Who the hell’s he?”
“No, Da Ma. Da–Ma: D–A–M–A.”
“You fascinate me. You are fascinating. But I don’t know a Ma Da.”
“It’s Da Ma.”
“I don’t know a Da Ma either. Anything else you wanted to get off your chest?”
And that—that was how it all began between us. For ages, Xiao Chu refused to believe that Da Ma genuinely existed. She thought it was a standard pick-up? line of mine, that I was in the habit of walking up to pretty girls and asking them if they knew Da Ma. But my faith in my own judgment was not so easily shaken, and I conducted a careful investigation of her colleagues at the advertising agency where she worked, of her relatives and former boyfriends. Not a whiff of Da Ma.
“Xiao Chu, did you always used to talk like that?”
“How should I know?”
“Listen to me, you must have met Da Ma at some point. Maybe you didn’t know what he was called.”
“O.K., here’s the deal. If you shut up about Da Ma right now, you can see me again.”
“I’m not joking, you must have—”
“One more Da Ma, and you’re fucking dead!”
I was determined to trace out the path of infection. Pointless obstinacy on my part? If you’d heard Da Ma, and heard Xiao Chu, you’d have seen what I mean. Just as I hit a cul-de-sac in my investigations, something most unexpected occurred. I suddenly realized that I had fallen in love with their temperamental subject. While, of course, this inevitably furnished me with further opportunities to look for clues, it also rather distracted me from the job in hand. For the time being, the whole Da Ma puzzle had to be set to one side. Having said that, though, it was impossible to shut him completely out of my mind, because it was through my fights with Xiao Chu that our relationship began to get somewhere.
The pattern went something like this: there’d be a minor fight every day, a major one every three. Now, when it comes to arguments, I’m no pushover—I’d probably get the better of you—but Xiao Chu was in a league of her own. Once she hit her stride, it was like she was possessed: if I closed my eyes, there Da Ma was, in the room with me again, flinging his hands about like a lunatic. Arguing with him, or her, was like playing squash against yourself: the harder you hit the ball, the faster, the more deviously it came back at you. Exhausted, defeated by the end of each row, I felt only tender humility before my all-conquering antagonist, and it was in the calms that followed the storms of our fights that our feelings for each other deepened.
Soon as we’d finished a big argument, Xiao Chu would tidy her hair, then drag me out to the eastern suburbs of Nanjing to take photos of her. I’ve never known anyone with such a passion for being photographed. She’d had three boyfriends (not including me; the present incumbent didn’t usually feature in her statistics), and each had left her with (at least) one souvenir photo album; all specializing in one subject. As Number Four, I enjoyed the great good fortune of being able to study, at my leisure, the subtle differences and variations between my predecessors’ aesthetic perspectives on, and understanding of Xiao Chu. I felt, I must say, that making an original contribution to this already well-populated, exhaustingly documented field of endeavor represented a significant, perhaps an insurmountable challenge.
Xiao Chu’s best and oldest friend, one Lian Xiang, worked in the coloring and enlarging department of a mimeographing service. For years now, she had been logistically facilitating Xiao Chu’s photographic mania. I had no great love of Lian Xiang: of that delicately drawn face of hers, dulled by melancholy. She was always bringing the worst out in Xiao Chu. This Lian Xiang, I might as well tell you, had from Day One gone out of her way to make life difficult for me. In all the time that I’ve been seeing Xiao Chu, not once has Lian Xiang given me the opportunity to get to know her better. She once told me that she’d done self-defense. Why should I have believed her? With the benefit of hindsight, though, take it from me —I should have believed her.
But the worst of the whole business was that, almost every day, Xiao Chu and Lian Xiang would curl up in bed together, debating and discussing anything—everything that came into their heads. There seemed to be no limit to the things they had to say to each other. And sometimes, inevitably, they got onto the subject of me. Don’t think I underestimated Lian Xiang intellectually—far from it. I’ve no doubt at all that she spent most of her time advising Xiao Chu on the most treacherous techniques for keeping me in hand. All this, of course, was conjecture on my part. Maybe I should have hired someone to kidnap her and sell her off in some remote rural area, to clear the field for me with Xiao Chu. Would this have been a solution, I wonder? It was, in any case, an idea I got from Lian Xiang in the first place, via Xiao Chu. At any rate, this Lian Xiang gave me one mighty pain in the neck. Now she was someone I wanted to say You’re Fucking Dead! to.
Where was I? My relationship with Xiao Chu is another story altogether. A writer, gentle reader, is an individual of iron self-control. If I seem rather to have lost it here, it is entirely down to the mischief of one Da Ma.
Sometimes I felt sorry for Da Ma: watching him wandering in and out of our department’s dormitories like a stray dog, ignored by everyone. So, one day, in the bathroom, I flashed him a friendly smile. He made straight for me. Events, I immediately realized, might have taken a turn not necessarily harmonious with my own best interests.
“Would you consider yourself a friend of mine?” he asked me, very solemnly.
“Up until now—yes.”
“And after that?”
“After that—I don’t know.” By which I meant, if he let me get on with washing this pile of clothes that had been moldering in a bucket for six long weeks now, then—then, I’d be willing to give the question serious thought.
Da Ma nodded, closed his eyes, breathed deeply a few times, then suddenly opened them again, wide.
“I have to tell you something. I have to tell someone—today. If I don’t tell you, I’ll tell someone else. But it might as well be you. Last night, I slept with Li Yuyu.”
“You heard me.”
“What I mean is, why the hell would she…” Li Yuyu was our English teacher, a recent graduate of Beijing Foreign Languages College, tall, well-built, strong on self-esteem. She admitted very few Chinese into her circle of male acquaintances. While Da Ma, by contrast, was short, skinny—undersized in probably all respects.
“I know what you’re thinking. So did she—to begin with. So that’s what I made my main line of attack. I talked at her all night. Standing up, of course. In her room. I knew I’d break her. About five in the morning, just as it was starting to get light, she yawned and said to me, all right, you win, get into bed. Ka-ching.”
Before I’d recovered any useful degree of facial composure, Da Ma erupted into great raucous gasps of laughter.
“All right, I’m done. Get on with your washing.”
Listen to me, listen: I never believed him, not from the very start. Truly. Was I jealous? I don’t know. At any rate, all that term, Da Ma was certainly full of the joys of spring. And whenever English class came round, he diligently caught up on his beauty sleep in the dormitory. Nor did he hand in any work. The fruits of his labors? A round two credits for English. But when something as extraordinary as that happened to Da Ma, no one gave it any particular thought, because there were always far more perplexingly extraordinary things to get your head round. There were only two words to describe the whole strange business: Great Fuck!
While I was at college at the end of the 1980s, debating was just starting to take off as an extracurricular activity in Chinese universities—there seemed, at that time, to be rather more things worth arguing about than there had been in the past. As the competition rules were not as perfectly regulated as they are now, I quietly suggested to our teacher that Da Ma represent our department in the specified-subject debating contest organized by the college chapter of the Communist Youth League. He had, you could say, a popular mandate to be chosen. Far from declining the honor, Da Ma used it as an excuse to borrow ten yuan’s worth of meal tickets off our teacher.
As soon as we learned his first-round opponent was the Department of Marxist-Leninist Thought, we knew things were going to get messy out there. Before the debate, I eyed Da Ma on the right-hand side of the speakers’ platform, unlocking his shoulders, shrinking back into his seat, looking rather ill at ease in his new environment, while preparatory chaos—endless tugging on wires, setting up of microphones, and so on—reigned in the hall around him. By the time the referee formally opened the debate, Da Ma was fast asleep. Waking, with a start, to an insistent poke on the shoulder, he slowly hauled himself to his feet, looking more than a touch disoriented. An unforgettable night began. There he stood, through practically the whole debate, his flow of words staunched only, and very occasionally, by repeated, high-volume interventions on the part of the referee. Within minutes of beginning, he had succeeded in enraging everyone present—his opponent, the audience, even our department. Within another few minutes, the entire room was on fire.
It was not until proceedings were far advanced that the referee realized the passionate, if rather unstructured, debate ongoing had only one point in common with the contest’s prescribed topic: both were in Chinese. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he got up, and wound his way around the referee’s table, and over to Da Ma. Comrade! he tried; no response. He then tapped Da Ma on the shoulder; no response. He tapped him again. Da Ma spun furiously round:
“You’re fucking dead!”
Our department, I hardly need say perhaps, lost the debate. It was too much to expect Da Ma to play by other people’s rules. We shouldn’t have done it to him. At the end of the contest, his face running with sweat, Da Ma stared down at the floor, too ashamed to look anyone in the eye. Little did he realize that he was by now a campus celebrity. This seems as good a moment as any to annotate another favorite rhythm of Da Ma’s:
After this heroic exposition in 4/4, Da Ma would sometimes surprise us all with a skittering development in 12/8:
Alternatively, if he happened to be in a good mood, or if his audience were female, he would throw a touch of syncopation into the mix:
This is how he begged our head of department not to expel him:
Now this one, let me tell you, was no picnic to get the hang of, gasping the semi-quaver rest at the start of each of the first four beats. Try it yourself—you’ll see what I mean.
Could I be missing Da Ma—just a little?
I began to notice, to my distress, that Xiao Chu was growing more extreme in her behavior. One day, in a clothes shop, she decided she wanted to try on a red T-shirt on display. So I looked around for the fitting room. When I turned back, I discovered she’d already pulled off the top she’d come out in, in front of everyone in the shop, then—with no sense of urgency, or self-consciousness—was putting the red one on instead, surrounded by an embarrassed audience of innocent bystanders, of whom I was surely the most embarrassed.
On April 1st, one easy phone call from her comfortable office left me kicking my heels uselessly about a local beauty spot for an entire afternoon. Just once a year—that, I could have handled. But Xiao Chu decided to let me savor the rich hilarity of being an April Fool as many times and in as many ways as it popped into her head. Quickly enough, I got wise to her and began trying to second-guess whether this or that assignation was a fool’s errand. I always got it wrong. Then there’d be a scene—crying, screaming, the works. I would be reminded, repeatedly, that she hated people who didn’t show up on time. Xiao Chu, I’m sure you’ll have realized, was becoming a real cause for worry. What was the source of the problem?
“Listen to me, Xiao Chu. I’m begging you now: you have to change the way you talk.”
“What way?” She was rocking back and forward on her chair.
“The way you talked just then. The way Da Ma talks.”
“Here we go again. Who the hell is this Da Ma? Male, female? Animal, vegetable, mineral?”
To prove how serious I was about the whole business, that day I ransacked all my cupboards, cases and boxes, in search of a picture of Da Ma. All I could find was a group shot, of four of us, taken in our first year at college, in front of the summer palace at Chengde. Da Ma’s hair was wild, his eyes glazed, gazing off into the middle distance. An enormous, baggy white vest flapped excessively about him; he looked, in short, a vision of loveliness. The young man with a crew cut, to the right of the group, bursting with youth, vitality, the promise of great things—that was me.
“Look at you! Great fuck. You look like you’ve just rolled in from the paddy fields.”
“It’s him you’re meant to be looking at! Him! That’s Da Ma!”
“You could have pointed at any of them and said he was Da Ma, for all I care.”
“No, look again. That’s Da Ma. There’s no one else like him.”
“I’ll give him this, he looks a damn sight more fun than you.”
“Thanks for that. Thanks a lot. If he was here right now, then, I suppose you’d be panting after him the moment he opened his mouth.”
There was a brief, terrifying silence, while Xiao Chu stared at the ground. She then flung her head back and screamed “Bastard!” at me, two tears trickling down her cheeks. I didn’t have a chance after that; not after the tears.
One outcome of that day’s argument was the violent bisection of my precious piece of photographic evidence. As luck would have it, though, both Da Ma and I escaped entirely unscarred. When I had a moment to subject Xiao Chu’s behavior to a reasoned analysis, I concluded that her response indicated she was not, yet, an entirely lost cause. There was still the possibility of measure and control to her anger: after all, when directing her fury at the photograph, she’d lashed out—whether accidentally, or on purpose—not at me, but at a thoroughly unexceptional classmate of mine I couldn’t have cared less about. I’ve always been an optimist; it’s one of my most appealing characteristics.
From then on, whenever Xiao Chu and I were together, I would deliberately try to keep conversation to a bare minimum, to replace speech with gestures wherever I could. This was the first and most fundamental plank of my new strategy: to give Xiao Chu as little opportunity to speak as possible.
But one thing Xiao Chu was not short of was people to talk to; she always had a captive audience in Lian Xiang. And so I decided to seek Lian Xiang out, to warn her of the likely consequences. This, it should be plain, was the action of a desperate man. One weekend, I invited the two of them over to my place for dinner. I’m sure you can understand what a painful sacrifice this represented for me.
Lian Xiang, by this point, I’d met a few times, without her making any kind of meaningful impression on me. This time was different, though. That evening, I caught the quality of intense quiet that muffled everything she did. She spoke so softly, you’d miss it if you weren’t listening out; she padded along as silently as a cat—suddenly you’d turn and find her there, standing next to you. You know, I was starting to feel I wouldn’t have minded a girlfriend like that. I was warming up to pointing this out to Xiao Chu. Maybe it would force her to take a long, hard look at herself. Maybe it wouldn’t. It was, in any case, a Plan B.
When Xiao Chu was in the kitchen, I grabbed the opportunity to explain my concerns to Lian Xiang. Xiao Chu must have caught something of it, because she began yelling from the other room: Stop talking about me! Or you’re fucking dead!
But I had to tell her—whatever the consequences. I poured the whole thing out, as concisely as I could, then looked across for a response. She managed a faint smile; it didn’t bring much light to the rest of her face.
“You really think there’s something special about the way this Da Ma talks?”
Yes, yes, I repeated, over and over. But still I lacked proof—hard, conclusive proof. In the end, I resorted to digging out that old photo again. A cloud of melancholy passed slowly across her eyes.
“What did you just say he was called?”
“That’s Da Ma?”
“That’s Da Ma.”
A week later, Xiao Chu called on me. She looked exhausted—all her usual, restless aggression seemed to have left her. The moment she walked in, she asked me for a cigarette, then lay back on the sofa, completely absorbed by the act of smoking. I watched her, nonplussed by her new, weary serenity. I liked watching her smoke, I liked observing the intense concentration she brought to it—I could almost taste the pleasure of it myself. Her first cigarette finished, Xiao Chu drew another out of the pack, then, finally, began to speak.
“So you were telling the truth, after all.”
“What d’you mean?”
“About Da Ma. He really does exist.”
“Of course. You should have believed me in the first place.”
Xiao Chu lit her second cigarette. Tantalized by the smell of tobacco, I lit one too. In the calm, deliberate tones in which she was speaking today, I glimpsed a warmth, a gentleness I’d never noticed before.
“Lian Xiang’s met Da Ma—did you know?”
“More than met. She spent a night with him. Just one.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“Yes. But he didn’t tell her his real name. He called himself Li Jin. The address and phone number he gave her were false too. So when she tried to get in touch with him, she got nowhere, of course. That was a year ago. Where d’you think the bastard is now?”
“How should I know? Somewhere.”
“Maybe he’s dead.”
“Who knows. Does it matter?”
“I hope he’s dead.”
While I digested all this, Xiao Chu stubbed her cigarette out. I wanted to find out more, but her silence gave me pause.
When Xiao Chu looked back across at me, her eyes were shining with tears. “How could Lian Xiang have got so hung up on someone like that? I can’t get my head round it. That Da Ma, he doesn’t deserve her.”
Though I had half a mind to argue, I kept it to myself. It would have been asking for trouble. But at least I was a step closer to solving one of my problems. I had finally got to the bottom of why Xiao Chu talked as she did. Via that one night of passion, Da Ma had somehow, mysteriously, got under Lian Xiang’s skin then, even more mysteriously, made his way under Xiao Chu’s—that much I knew. And that is all I can tell you about this episode from a past life of mine.
In the autumn of 1993, on the highway that enters Tibet from Sichuan, Da Ma was stabbed through the liver, and died instantly. This I learned from an electrical engineer called Chen Ran who, the summer before, had set off on foot with my old classmate from Xi’an, in the northwest. They’d had no particular destination in mind, only to travel as far as they had money. As far as they could. “Halfway through, Da Ma told me he might not go any further than Tibet.” At this point, opposite me, Chen Ran paused, and sank, deep, into recollection. He seemed to age with every second that he spent in its company.
About half an hour later, his spirits appeared to recover a little. “In truth, though, Da Ma brought it on himself.”
It had been evening, still very light, but the highway was completely deserted. After clambering up a slope, they saw a man heading down the other side. Chen Ran suggested they take a rest, and Da Ma agreed. But after he’d put down his bag, Da Ma suddenly set off in rapid pursuit of the man in front. Soon, he was at his heels. Chen Ran watched as he pulled out his dagger, and shouted:
“Give us your money! Or you’re fucking dead!”
This was probably the third time on the journey that Da Ma had tried cracking this particular joke—one of his favorites. But also, it turned out, the last. Slowly, the man turned round to face his comic assailant. Before Chen Ran had got a good look at his face, Da Ma’s dagger was lodged below his own ribs.
Now I come to think of it, I probably should have written a more careful, a more profound piece about my friend Da Ma. But I know the attempt would have been doomed. Because, in truth, I didn’t really understand him. No one who’d spent any kind of time with Da Ma managed to work him out. But everyone remembered how he talked: thin lips slightly parted over blackened teeth, the syllables forcing their way desperately out: You’re fucking dead.
Here, as a final appendix, is that ancient, vandalized photo of Da Ma, by which I hope to leave you with a slightly more lasting impression of him.
Translation of “Da Ma de yuqi.” Copyright Zhu Wen. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Julia Lovell. All rights reserved.