I was extremely devoted to studying Master Song’s craft, surrounded by swaths of cloth and bits of thread, whiling away a boyhood like a plant dyed an unnatural hue, brightly colored, but sick inside, silently suffering.
I would go home once a week, and my parents would poke fun at me. I hadn’t realized it, but my gestures had started to resemble Master Song’s. Brows furrowed, my mother and father would pick at my faults: do you have to run your hand through your hair like that? Why is it you don’t make a sound when you walk? Why do you always dust the chair off before you sit? The chairs in this house are clean already . . . in short, every ordinary act of mine annoyed them, like grit in their eyes, hurting worse the harder they rubbed.
Thankfully, there was good news, too. The holidays came, and they went to Master Song with little presents, and his praise for me put them back in good spirits. Master Song was miserly with praise, but with my parents, for my sake, he loosened up a little. He said, your son Xiaotong is a rare find. I could take on ten apprentices, or a hundred, and not come up with another like him. To tell you the truth, his hands are made for this work. One day, he’ll be a much greater tailor than me . . . I guess people weren’t gossiping about Yingzi yet at the time, but anyway, my mother and father looked at one another and exchanged tight-lipped smiles. In their smiles, I saw a humble family’s thankfulness for having made the right move by dumb luck.
When summer came, Master Song said to me, Now you can learn to take measurements. By then, people were wearing single layers, mostly summer clothes, making my job easier, and the materials were cheap, so it depended on the job, but mostly we made good money.
Master Song had me start with the older women. These old women were either so fat they’d lost their shape or so skinny they’d never had one. I made them mostly broad-collared shirts and capris with baggy legs, clothes that fluttered when the wind blew, easing the heat.
I didn’t mind measuring the old women. The odor of old age would waft from their shriveled lips, their throats would quiver, the flaps of skin beneath their chins would jiggle, and their voice boxes would bob, but they could never get any words out. Eyes fixed on me, they would suddenly start to laugh, reach a hand out and rub my head: this Xiaotong, he’s so dainty and delicate, just like a little girl!
It wasn’t the first time in my life someone had said that, and it didn’t strike me as strange . . . maybe I was paler than before, maybe I was a little thin . . . but I was fine with the way I looked. A tailor wasn’t supposed to be big, swarthy, and muscle-bound. Later, if I wanted to, I could put on some weight. Like Master Song, I could wear a long gown. It would look good on me.
“Now, stand. Lift your arms. Straighten up. That’s it. Relax. Breathe in, breathe out. Legs together. Legs apart.”
I even learned to talk like Master Song, speaking softly to them as my hands moved. But as they listened, the old women always started laughing, so hard sometimes they sank to their haunches, as if I’d cracked some side-splitting joke.
Things went on for a while that way, and Master Song said I could start measuring younger women. Coincidentally, among the first group of women whose measurements I took was Yingzi. She had brought along a dotted purple cloth.
The dots were dazzling, and the fabric was extremely slippery, so that if your attention wandered while holding it, it would spill to the ground like water. It was certainly a special cloth. The women gathered around to gawk.
The cloth had no hold over me. I stood to the side, extremely tense. It was Yingzi who made me tense. I must have suddenly recalled the rumors. Watching as she too gestured at the cloth, I realized she was just as unaware of the rumors about the two of them as Master Song. I was ashamed, like a co-conspirator in a crime. At the same time, I was deeply disgusted with these women for starting the rumors, then turning around and acting innocent. What a scene—twenty years ago, I stood outside the circle of the women, as if standing beneath a stage, outside the spotlight, my inner being ceaselessly seething, suffering pain I can barely describe now.
What Master Song said had slipped my mind: when you measure a woman, put your heart and soul into it, as if she were your mother, your sister or your future wife . . . measure them wholeheartedly, sincerely, with love . . . but how could I love them now?
Master Song talked the women into letting me measure them. Truth be told, they weren’t hard to convince. Seeing my pained expression, they spoke up for me: That’s right, let Xiaotong have a try, can’t have him playing apprentice forever.
The young women always seemed to tower over me, though I was slightly taller, and I would tiptoe around, trying not to touch them. When Master Song did the measuring, they would say nothing, as if silently savoring the experience. But they weren’t that way with me. They always had something to say, and sometimes they would even turn their heads. Though their bodies went along, their hearts were hardened against me.
Needless to say, this affected my mood. I worked quickly, leaving out the instructions to “suck the air in” and “let the air out” when I measured their waists. After all, they had buttons and belts. It wasn’t as if they’d wind up with bare bottoms if their pants didn’t squeeze the life out of them.
Finally, I came to the last of the women, Yingzi. Suddenly, my mouth was full of drool, and I felt a sensation like the urgent need to pee. I could never have imagined, when I took hold of the measuring tape and approached Yingzi, preparing to measure her waist and chest . . . palms sweating, making an incredible, silent effort . . . that this would happen:
Without moving an inch, Yingzi said softly, but firmly, I don’t want Xiaotong touching me. I don’t want Xiaotong touching me.
A moment of awkward silence went by, and the other women began turning this way and that, like foraging ducks, looking to Master Song, then Yingzi, then me. They were obviously overjoyed. If they had had wings, they would have flapped them, summoning the flock.
I saw that Master Song was frozen. He made a fist, brought it to his mouth, and exhaled. It was a wintry gesture, and I knew he was at a loss.
Erm. A lightbulb went on above my head, and I stepped in, stammering, so it’s like this, all right, I’ll take all your measurements, and after that, Master Song will take them again, and that way, your clothes will fit all of you perfectly, like always . . .
Pleased with my ingenuity, I watched as the women deflated. They were happy about their clothes, but sad to see the stalemate broken.
That’s right. Master Song quit breathing into his hands and explained to Yingzi, And then, I’ll measure you again, after all, we have to be extra careful with that fancy cloth.
But Yingzi wouldn’t give an inch: Then measure me now. I don’t want Xiaotong touching me.
In the end, another woman snapped irritably, Oh, I see, Yingzi’s body is so much nicer than ours, it’s made out of gold, and only Master Song can touch it, isn’t that right?
Yingzi seemed to sense some hostility forming, or maybe, she felt some secret of hers had been exposed. She cast an indignant glare at the women around her, suddenly snatched up the cloth, turned, and left us all behind. She was clearly angry.
I was more embarrassed than anyone . . . here I was, an apprentice, trying to take a loyal customer’s measurements, ending up creating a scene. At the same time, I felt offended, and defeated, pounded to a pulp. Yingzi had put me back in my place, the place of any other man, except Master Song.
Yingzi was obviously unwilling to cooperate, and the other women were like hungry honeybees spying a crushed flower, buzzing and swarming, in a mad rush to tell Master Song the rumors, juicy ones like a bunch of plump grapes . . . all was not well with Yingzi’s husband, physically that is, word was when he came home from sea, once every few months, he didn’t sleep with Yingzi. Yingzi might have been married, but odds were no one had made her a woman. Many men had their sights set on her, trying everything they could to come close, but she coolly rebuffed them all. By the looks of things, she only had eyes for Master Song. And on the women went, tripping all over one another, recounting all the rumors haphazardly, but fully, as if to prove their loyalty, as if leaving out the tiniest tidbit would be an affront to Master Song’s dignity. They were elated, and excited, to finally fill in a character who figured unwittingly in the drama, the poor, good-looking, likeable young tailor . . .
Master Song stood by the table, bracing himself, standing still, shaking his head from time to time, as if to shut off the ceaseless stream of talk. His expression was panic-stricken. He looked like he’d been beaten senseless.
Finally, some of the women, tired and satisfied, shut their mouths and shot Master Song a glance, sizing him up like a lone gleaming jewel in a hurricane’s wake, saying to one another, Time to get going. Then they made hurried exits.
Only when the women were gone did Master Song tumble into his chair, weighed down by worry, as if withered vines wrapped his body.
Ohhhhhh. He let out a long, long sigh. I pondered the sigh for a while, but it didn’t seem to be implying anything.
* * *
That evening, very late, Yingzi visited the shop alone.
All these years later, a grown man now, when I remember that evening, I can’t help wondering what was happening in Yingzi’s inner world, what she was really thinking.
Yingzi, the village’s rose. When a girl blossoms into a beautiful woman, people tend to forget her thoughts and her inner being, all the more so in a backward village like Dongba, where people saw only Yingzi’s looks, a real tragedy. Living in solitude, her husband always away at sea, was this woman’s heart swept by tempestuous waves like a stormy ocean? Her solitude and yearning, her love and her longing, what could she do with them, where could she put them?
It seems to me she chose Master Song as her outlet. Master Song was an excellent choice, he was clean, considerate, and tight-lipped, and as a lover, surely he was superior to the crass country men—anyway, since the latter constantly boasted of their physical prowess, if any one of them had gotten their hands on Yingzi, the entire village would have heard about it.
Maybe it was dubious affection born out of boundless solitude, and insatiable physical and spiritual yearning, that gave Yingzi the courage to break out of her cage, to shatter a married woman’s bonds, and visit Master Song’s shop in the dead of night . . .
I guess it was because I slept on the street side of the bed that I was the first to hear the knocking, like a pitiful little bird pecking patiently.
The Song family shop was not too big, with one bedroom for his hunchbacked mother and another for the two of us, a kitchen in the back, and a spacious shop room in front, facing the main street, where in the evening wooden planks were put up, shutting the store. It was this wooden door on which Yingzi was softly knocking.
Master Song and I slept in the same big bed, cozied up under different covers. Since it was my job to put the lights out, sweep up, fetch things, and wait on the family, I slept on the outside, and he slept on the inside. While sleeping, Master Song was just like he was during the day: extremely quiet, making not a sound once he lay down, never rolling around, chit-chatting, snoring or talking in his sleep. I was at the age where I was sleeping a lot, and I was not a light sleeper. But to my surprise, I heard Yingzi from the very first knock.
Master Song must have been awake too. I looked to his side of the bed, but he wasn’t moving. All I could see was a very vague shadow in the dark.
I gave a little cough, but still he didn’t move. Was he asleep, or was he awake? I wasn’t sure.
The knocking went on, and I rolled out of bed. When I pushed aside the planks, Yingzi towered in the doorway. The instant I cleared the way, she sidled in, and just then Master Song’s mother lit the lamp, and Yingzi emerged from the darkness into the light. I noticed she was carrying the fancy dotted cloth beneath her arm. Her expression was extremely awkward, but she steeled herself and greeted Master Song’s mother: I came to have some clothes made.
Master Song stepped out from the inner room, already wearing his long gown, face wiped clean of any expression, not even looking tired. He casually waved away his mother and me: go back to sleep, nothing to see here.
His mother returned obediently to her room, but before she went, she winked, though I didn’t learn what the wink meant until later.
I crawled back beneath the covers. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep, and I found my eyes fixed on the feeble light shining beneath the door.
There was no sound outside, no sign at all that there was anyone there, not even the sound of panting. I stared off into nothing, my eyes probing the darkened depths . . . I don’t know what they were doing, but now that I’m older I can imagine, and it might have been something like this.
After a while, I heard the cloth being unfolded, and Master Song’s palms gliding down its length, and then he took out his little notebook, unfurling the cloth tape measure in a practiced motion. Deep, deep in the night, to my surprise, Master Song was getting ready to take Yingzi’s measurements.
I thought I heard Yingzi say something in a sorrowful tone, but her voice was muffled, and soon went silent. Maybe she got her point across with gestures and looks, but anyway, I couldn’t hear clearly. Master Song said nothing, but after a while, he seemed to stop moving his hands, no longer preparing to make clothes. I’m sure he shook his head, or maybe he nodded.
Suddenly, I heard Yingzi start to sob, trying with all her might to keep her voice down, the sound full of frustration and despair. Wrapped snugly in the blankets, even I felt her sorrow, and I couldn’t help getting angry on her behalf, hot blood coursing through my body. I wished I were a grown man so I could rush out, wrap my arms around her, and comfort her—at that moment, I seemed to suddenly understand so much, what a woman was, what people did in the dark. Before then I’d been muddle-headed, hopelessly naive, but in an instant I had awakened . . . Yingzi’s true beauty lay not in her appearance, but in her solitude, in the way she didn’t quite fit in. I liked hearing her sobbing so late at night.
I don’t know if Master Song let her rest her head on his chest, or kissed her ice-cold tears, or rubbed her back as she lay there, helpless and beautiful . . . in any case, it was still totally silent outside. Oh, Master Song, who would have guessed your heart was hard as steel? Yingzi cried for a while, trying to hold back her sobs.
I’m leaving, she said softly, distinctly, without a hint of emotion. At this I felt a jolt of panic, as if I’d watched a flower suddenly wither.
Master Song returned to the bedroom, took his clothes back off, and climbed into bed.
A while later, he asked, Xiaotong, are you asleep?
No. I was a little upset with him. There had been no need to be so cruel to Yingzi.
Master Song climbed gingerly beneath the blankets with me, his body burning hot, as if he had a fever. He wrapped his arms around me from behind, as if he were embracing a block of ice.
Xiaotong, I’m not feeling well, let me . . . lie with you a while. There was desperation in Master Song’s voice. I had never seen him so soft or so weak. His hot breath brushed my neck. For a moment my body went stiff.
Xiaotong, I used to . . . have I told you this before? Every time I take a woman’s measurements, I get all . . . agitated. I spread their arms and legs, I have them make all sorts of little movements. When I measure them I touch them almost everywhere, I measure the chest when I make a shirt, and the crotch when I make a pair of pants, so I mean it, there’s no part of their bodies I haven’t touched . . . each time, I get all excited, all stirred up inside . . . Xiaotong, you’re not a kid anymore, can you understand? And then, when I’m finished measuring, I’m tired, and satisfied, as if I’ve climbed to a mountaintop . . . I go in back and wash my hands, calm myself, and move on to the next woman . . . but when it comes to, well, being with a woman . . . do you understand? When it comes to being intimate with them, I can’t, it feels dirty, and disgusting . . . I can’t do it . . . not even with Yingzi . . . she set her sights on the wrong man, why did she have to choose me?
Master Song seemed to burn still hotter, and I felt his body tremble slightly as he drew still nearer. I was tense, stiff, frozen in place.
Can I get you a wet washcloth? I asked, searching for some reason to climb out from beneath the blankets.
No thanks . . . just let me hold you. Don’t move. Master Song was like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood, refusing to let go. When I at last stopped moving, he began softly, tentatively caressing the small of my back and my rear. The palms of his hands were gentle and dry, seeming to hypnotize me . . . amid all the tension, feeling trapped, I somehow began to doze off and fell asleep in his arms.
That evening was like a dream. In the dream, I heard Yingzi sobbing ceaselessly, the most sexually intense sound I’d ever heard. I felt my penis swell with blood, and then . . . someone seemed to be touching it, squeezing it, releasing its pent-up agitation . . . I felt like I had finished a long run, exerting all my energy, feeling sweet as honey, reeking of something raw.
It was my third year with Master Song. I was fifteen.
Master Song, I think, was around thirty-four.
Not long after, word came that Yingzi was gone. She had moved to another village to live with a distant cousin.
When I heard the news, I couldn’t be consoled. It was the worst tragedy of my life. Suddenly Dongba felt big and empty, and nothing in it interested me anymore. I was drained of energy, bereft of hope, but I couldn’t tell anyone why. I couldn’t go see her. I hadn’t had the chance to say good-bye. My pathetic crush on her couldn’t develop normally, and it couldn’t die.
The village was abuzz. The local people loved their hometown. How could she up and leave? For a while, she was the talk of the town. The autumn harvest had ended, and now that there was no more farm work, their tongues picked up the slack, busier now than their bodies had been. On the tips of their tongues, Yingzi danced her last dance in Dongba.
Master Song’s hunchbacked mother heard what happened too, or anyway, she heard something. One day, before dark, she had me put out the door planks, closing up shop.
She did not make dinner, but called Master Song and me to the table anyway. The age-scarred, uneven table had nothing on it at all. Tears and mucus streamed down her face. On the evening’s menu were her incoherent abuse and tearful blame.
Son, why don’t you get this over with? Marry a woman and bring her home, I don’t care who. She can be ugly as a crooked cucumber, shriveled as a date. I’ll even wait on her, she won’t want for anything . . . it’ll be a hundred times better than people talking behind my back.
Son, tell me, that night, nothing happened between you and Yingzi? She came so late, when the stars were already out, and hurried back before dawn. What do you think she was she doing here? Can’t you take a hint? By god I wish you’d made a move. At least then they’d shut their mouths . . . but they’re all saying you’re more yin than yang, I can’t stand people saying you’re not a man . . .
And you treated Yingzi like trash. Want to know why she left? You stabbed her in the heart, you made her lose face, now no one respects her, you dragged her name through the mud . . . Son, don’t you get it, everyone wants you to sleep with her . . . there are a hundred people waiting for you to loosen her up, so they can follow in your footsteps . . . all Dongba is waiting for you to do something, but you’re good for nothing, you’re the butt of all their jokes, you get her ass delivered on a silver platter and don’t know what to do with it, now I can’t even stand to step outside . . .
His hunchbacked mother didn’t hold back for my sake. I was mortified, recalling the dream I’d had that night under the covers with Master Song, wracked by jolts of anxiety and pain. More yin than yang—what a thing to say. It had a sickening ring.
I stole a glance at Master Song. He had bowed his head and averted his eyes, utterly helpless, not responding to any question, not explaining himself. He seemed to think if he just sat there and took the abuse, soon enough it would all be over—maybe it wasn’t the first time mother and son had had a row. I thought, given Master Song’s age, he should have long since taken a wife. He had put off marrying for all these years, and all along his hunchbacked mother had been heaping abuse on him. It was just that no one else knew. I was the first outsider to get a glimpse of the grand show.
In the end, she sputtered and fumed for half an hour, seeming to get it all out of her system. Her hands like withered vines stroked the table for a while, then she went to the kitchen to boil water. Logs snapped in the stove, in place of the answer Master Song didn’t give, an answer the world wouldn’t have understood if he had.
Stomachs empty, we returned from the kitchen to our room. Suddenly, Master Song softly chuckled, saying, Looks like she left her cloth.
I knew Master Song was talking about the fancy dotted cloth. That evening, Yingzi had stormed off, leaving it behind.
Now, twenty years later, who knows what corner of the earth that cloth has ended up in? No doubt it is tattered, moth-eaten, a shadow of what it once was. But, at this very moment, I can still recall it clearly, I can see it, and touch it . . . the afterimage of its dazzling dots imprinted on my eyes, the weighty feel of it lingering in my hands. I watch Master Song fling it out with a flourish, and it opens into the air, like a big bird spreading its wings . . . the translucent but not transparent cloth blocked people’s vision, like the veil between life and death.
Master Song stood, went to the outer hall, hung the oil lamp high, and went to work.
He rummaged for Yingzi’s precious cloth, and started in without any measurements, face half-lifted, staring into emptiness, pausing to think, then acting decisively, without even a measuring tape, without tracing the cuts, like a blind man in the dark, snipping the gleaming black scissors with stunning audacity, like plunging a plow into virgin soil, magically stopping when he should have stopped, and going when he should have gone, as if he knew Yingzi’s figure by heart—as if, like I said before, he was possessed by spirits, and these spirits, with hands ordinary people couldn’t see, had slowly, meticulously caressed Yingzi’s body, caressing the parts that stuck out, and the parts that sunk in, caressing the warm, delicious parts, caressing the moist parts, tracing entrancing, undulating lines, which Master Song’s shining scissors now retraced . . .
I watched from the side with wide-open eyes, as if reading a holy tablet, glimpsing some being descended from heaven. I knew it was the only chance I would ever get to see such a scene, to watch someone working the scissors so masterfully . . . above our heads the oil lamp swayed, casting Master Song’s shadow over the finished and half-finished garments on the rack, all women’s clothes, his shadow seeming to disappear into the broad bosoms and slender waists of the women . . . then, he stooped low, unveiled the new sewing machine that until now a cloth had covered, sat down before it, and treaded the pedal to the needle’s clack. The new machine clattered, sharp and clear, the staccato bursts of sound touching my heart, stirring my soul.
Without knowing why, I wanted to cry. Who was Master Song sewing for? For Yingzi? For himself? For me? Had he seen that, since Yingzi’s departure, I had been depressed, filled with frustrated longing?
The long night deepened like water, until we were wading in it. Master Song seemed to glow brighter by the moment, and when he finished treading the pedal, he snipped long narrow strips from the scraps of cut cloth, and started to twist them together, and I could see, he was coiling the knotted buttons, the most difficult part to make, the part he’d spent the most extraordinary effort on when he made the qipao for Madam Yan . . . I rushed over, to offer help, but Master Song just smiled and turned away, rebuffing the hand I held out . . . I don’t know how much time had passed, maybe only two or three hours, when Master Song suddenly tapped the scissors at me, and lifted his hands, and I lifted my gaze to follow, eyes bleary with sleep, to see the dotted cloth had become a stunning qipao.
It was the most beautiful qipao I had ever seen, a qipao no woman would ever wear.
Now, I could face Yingzi without feeling guilty. Master Song, seeming to have set down a heavy burden, talked aloud to himself. When he lifted his face, I saw ecstasy in his bloodshot eyes.
“Scissors, Shining” © Lu Min. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Michael Day. All rights reserved.