Peach Blossom Paradise, the first book in Ge Fei's Jiangnan Trilogy, will be published next week by NYRB Classics in Canaan Morse's translation. The novel tells the story of Xiumi, a young woman coming of age during the political upheaval that rocked China at the turn of the twentieth century. In the excerpt below, Xiumi comes face-to-face with her father, a wealthy government official struggling with mental illness.
Father came down from his studio.
He descended the stone steps and entered the courtyard with a white wicker suitcase in one hand and his cane tucked into the crook of his arm. Every room of the estate was empty, all hands called out for the wheat harvest. Sprigs of pine and poplar that had been hung over the lintels in celebration of the Tomb-Sweeping Festival had long since dried into brittle twigs beneath the summer sun. Likewise, the flowers that once covered the dwarf crab apples in the rock garden had been shuffled off by a flourish of green leaves, and the unswept petals lay wind-scattered across the courtyard.
Xiumi had no idea how to react. She had sneaked over here to dry a pair of underpants that she clutched in one hand. But now she’d run into Father.
This was her second time finding blood on her underwear. She had just spent ages crouched by the well, trying to scrub it away. Honeybees had tumbled and buzzed loudly by her head and intensified her anxiety. She had felt an unbearable pain in her stomach like a lead weight sinking right through her, but when she sat on the toilet, nothing came out. She pulled her pants down farther and looked for the source of the bleeding with a hand mirror; when she found it, embarrassment flushed her face crimson and set her heart racing. Confused, she tucked some cotton balls in place, yanked her pants back up, and ran to her mother’s bedroom, throwing herself atop an embroidered pillow and whimpering, “I’m dying, I’m dying, I know I’m dying.” Her mother was away visiting her sister-in-law in Meicheng, and the boudoir was utterly empty.
But the immediate problem was that Father had come downstairs.
This lunatic almost never emerged from his chambers. Only on the first day of the New Year would Mother ask Baoshen to carry him downstairs and install him in the stately armchair in the main hall to receive the family’s blessings. To Xiumi he seemed a living zombie—his eyes and mouth weirdly offset; he constantly drooled, and was so weak that even a cough left him wheezing and exhausted. Could that be the same man who just now tripped nimbly down the stairs and stood before her with a bulky wicker suitcase in hand, looking the very picture of energy and presence? He paused under the crab apple tree and calmly took a handkerchief from his sleeve pocket to wipe his nose. It couldn’t be possible that his disease had disappeared completely overnight, could it?
The wicker suitcase suggested to Xiumi that Father might be setting out on some kind of journey. She glanced reflexively down at the rust-stained wad of cloth in her fist, and in a jolt of panic, turned toward the front courtyard and yelled, “Baoshen! Baoshen! Cockeye Baoshen!” But no one was home, not even the clerk. The petals, dust, and lifeless afternoon sunlight carpeting the courtyard floor ignored her, as did the crab apples, the pear trees, the moss on the wall, and the butterflies and bumblebees perched on it. The blue-green willow leaves outside the front door and the stiff breeze swaying them paid her no mind.
“What are you yelling about? Stop yelling,” Father ordered.
Stuffing the filthy handkerchief back into his sleeve, he turned slowly and regarded her through squinting eyes with a faint opprobrium. His voice sounded deep and gravelly, as if his throat had been scrubbed with sandpaper. This was the first time she remembered hearing him address her directly. Years of hiding from the sun had colored his face as black as soot and tinged his hair a fine corn silk yellow.
“Are you going away?” With Baoshen not there, she knew she had to calm down and assemble the courage to deal with him herself.
“I am,” Father replied.
“Where are you going?”
Father chuckled and raised his eyes to the sky. After a pause, he replied, “I’ll admit, at this point, I still don’t know.”
“Is it somewhere far?”
“Very far,” he said, his tone evasive. His ashen face stared at her without moving.
“Baoshen! Baoshen! Cockeye, where are you?”
Father paid no attention to her raised voice, but stepped slowly over to her and raised a hand as if to touch her face. Xiumi shrieked and dashed away from beneath his fingers. She leaped over the bamboo fence into the garden, then turned to peer at him from a distance, her head cocked and her hands nervously twisting and untwisting her soiled underwear. Father shook his head and smiled. His smile was like ash, or paraffin.
From her new vantage point, Xiumi watched Father pick up his wicker suitcase once more and shuffle his stooped body out the side door of the courtyard. Her heart was pounding, and her mind fluttered with activity. Moments later, Father returned, poking an otterlike head around the doorway and peering around the courtyard, an embarrassed half smile on his face.
“I need an umbrella,” he whispered, “it’s going to rain in Puji very soon.”
Those were the last words Xiumi’s father would ever say to her, though she didn’t know it at the time. Xiumi looked up at the sky: not a cloud in sight, just a vast field of electric blue.
Father found an umbrella by the hen boxes and opened it up. Worms had riddled the oilcloth canopy with so many holes that the ribs showed through, and a good jostling would have left nothing but a skeleton. Father hesitated, then leaned it very carefully back up against the wall. Picking up his suitcase one more time, he retreated backward across the threshold, closing the door behind him as if afraid of disturbing someone. The double leaves of the side door folded silently shut.
From Peach Blossom Paradise, copyright © 2004 by Ge Fei; translation copyright © 2020 by Canaan Morse. Available December 2020 from NYRB Classics. By arrangement with the publisher.