The following is excerpted from I Live in the Slums, a story collection by Can Xu, translated by by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Can Xue is the pseudonym of the renowned avant-garde author Deng Xiaohua. Her previous works include Five Spice Street, Vertical Motion, The Last Lover, Frontier, and Love in the New Millennium. Karen Gernant is professor emerita of Chinese history at Southern Oregon University. Chen Zeping is professor of Chinese linguistics at Fujian Normal University.
I’m withering by the day. My old leaves are drooping, and I’m not interested in growing new ones. My bark is dried up and cracking. The day before yesterday, five more of my leaves turned yellow. I can tell that even sparrows and magpies consider me a dead tree from the infrequency of their stopping on my branches. In the past, I was full of delicate new leaves that attracted worms, and so the birds loved to come and catch the worms. Jumping back and forth, they chattered and argued excitedly, as if they were in a meeting. Now they just regard me as nothing more than a rest stop. When they tire from flying, they nap for a while on my branches, and then fly away again. This is because I can’t grow fresh leaves, and without fresh leaves the cute little worms have nothing to eat. I’ve become inessential.
Dusk is the most difficult time. The sun has not completely set behind the mountain. The garden is quiet. Outside the fence, the silhouette of an old farmer occasionally drifts by. The words “Rose Garden” flicker eerily on the garden gate. If I pay close attention, I can hear elegies. In the sky, on the mountains, in the little rivers, underground: singing is everywhere. These elegies are for me. I don’t like listening to them, but the male voice in the distance is never willing to let go of me. He’s really discourteous. Even if it’s my fate, it’s pointless for him to sing to me everyday. Or perhaps he’s actually singing for himself. He’s still being rude in letting his songs travel so far, so widely. When the songs of sorrow begin, I have to be tolerant. I have to be patient until night falls and the person stops singing.
It’s the actions of the gardener that created my current condition. Last spring, when I was a year-old sapling, he planted me in this grassy plot. As soon as I was put into the earth, I knew that the rose garden’s soil was barren. It was mainly sand that could hold neither water nor fertilizer. The gardener simply spread a thin layer of rich soil on the surface and scattered some fertilizer. So though in the garden the flowers and plants looked luxuriant, this was a false impression that could vanish in the blink of an eye. The gardener also took care of me. He gave me some basic fertilizer, and watered me every other day. I adopted an attitude of muddling along. Back then, I still hadn’t realized how painful it was to be a plant predestined to stay where you were planted. When he appeared at the garden gate carrying a bucket of water, I grew excited. My branches swayed, and I couldn’t stand up straight. That was the water of life. The more I absorbed, the better I felt, and I grew more readily. It rains only two or three times a year here. When Mother Nature is not dependable, one can only depend on the gardener. We willow trees rely on the nutrition provided by water. I couldn’t figure out why the gardener had to move me to this sandy land, and sometimes I imagined that this was a scheme of his.
The gardener’s face was expressionless. None of us could figure out what was going on in his mind. The grass, flowers, and shrubs all had a high opinion of this man. I was the only one whose views about him wavered. For example, one day when he was near me he suddenly brandished a hue and excavated. He dug deeper and deeper. With one blow, he chopped off part of my roots. I shook violently from the pain. Guess what he did next? He filled in the hole he had dug and evened it out, and then went elsewhere to dig. He often engaged in this puzzling excavation. Not only did he injure me, he also hurt other plants in the rose garden. The strange thing was that as far as I could tell, none of the other plants complained about him. Rather, they considered their injuries badges of glory. I heard all kinds of comments at night.
Taiwan grass: We generally don’t know how our inner system operates. Although we’re curious, we haven’t received any information about this. It’s the gardener who satisfies our curiosity. Even if we pay a high price for communicating with him, we’re quite happy to do that.
Date tree: I greatly appreciate the way the gardener brandishes his hoe. In fact, he’s much like one of my forefathers whom I haven’t seen. Every day, I tried hard to imagine how he would look. Often at daybreak, I came close to succeeding, but in the end I didn’t. The gardener has remarkable ability. As soon as he wields the hoe, I can see my forefather’s fertile image against the backdrop of the boundless starlit sky. One time, he cut my taproot. That’s when I was happiest. I greeted his hoe with my roots, as if it were my forefather.
Indian azalea: He’s attractive when he carries water. He has aspirations. Otherwise, why would he choose the rose garden as our home?
Dandelion: This is an arid area. Every day I dream of pails of water. It’s when I dream that my fine hair grows. The gardener is so kind. His two big water buckets lead me to dream constantly. Sometimes, I wish he would dig me up with his hoe and throw me into his empty bucket. I hear passersby on the road say that I have a lot of hair. They say I’m not like dandelions in the sand. They don’t know that my luxuriant hair is related to the water buckets.
Wisteria: The gardener is brilliant! Although I don’t love him, I think of him every day. Each time I start thinking of him, my pigment is enhanced, and I become quite beautiful. Some nice-looking people have also appeared here, but I’ve never seen anyone as perfect as the gardener. I’m always wondering how to attract his attention; I’ve never been successful, not even once. It doesn’t matter how ugly I am, or how pretty, he pays no attention to me.
Sorrel: In general, we can’t live in this kind of dry sandy land. But for some reason, ever since the gardener had us put down roots here, we felt that this was the most suitable home for us. The infertility of the soil is good for our species. Why? Because the feeling of being on the edge of death gives our internal being the power to grow again. We hear that those who live in humid areas don’t have nearly as much vitality as we do. The profile of his steady back always gives us strength. He’s our angel. I should say that he’s the one who chose this garden for us. And so sometimes, when we hear rumors that a mysterious sect built our garden, we’re furious!
There are also some faint humming, groaning sounds; I have no way to figure out where they’re coming from. But those sounds are even more meaningful; they make me even more uneasy and curious. It’s fair to say that these hidden inhabitants are the ones who maintain my interest in life. Even if the gardener hasn’t watered me for a long time, and even if I’m dispirited in the state of being more dead than alive, I need only hear that humming and groaning and the shadows within me shrink and all kinds of desires are revived.
It’s hard to say exactly what kind of voice this is. Mostly, it’s a kind of narration without a specific audience, but someone can sense a provocative element in the strange tone. Anyhow, I did.
I couldn’t see any logic to the gardener’s cutting off my water. My roots were still shallow, merely inserted in the layer of sand. I had heard there was good-quality black soil beneath the sandy layer, but it was in a very deep place. Even after growing for ten years, our roots would not reach down that far. Of course the gardener had this much common sense. So did his actions indicate that he had abandoned me? If so, then why did he move me here in the first place? When I was in the nursery, I had no anxiety! Back then, we were ambitious and looked forward to realizing our aspirations after being moved here. In the misty starlight, I saw my destiny clearly many times. Back then, I didn’t yet know it was my destiny; I thought it was merely a dark shadow. Then the gardener came, twice altogether. He was a remarkable person who didn’t talk much. There was a black badge on his shirt, but I couldn’t see the dark pattern very well. I felt strongly attracted to him: the moment he set eyes on me, I swayed wildly. You can imagine the result.
After being moved here and planted along with everyone else, I didn’t change my soaring ambitions. I hoped that I would become the legendary towering tree, a big tree that could invite the stars to dream among my branches. In the nursery where I previously lived, there was an old willow tree like this. His branches and leaves fluttered in midair, covering the entire nursery. The workers in the nursery said they’d never seen such a large tree. They called it the “king of trees.” Back then, whenever I looked up, I saw him. I modeled my future plans after him. I believed he was my future. The gardener smashed my hopes. At first, he placed me in the barren sandy groundY, thus slowing my maturation. Luckily, he was still watering me. While he was doing this, I didn’t grow terribly slowly. Probably, it was my longing for growth that helped. After leaving the nursery, I concentrated more on the speed of my maturation. Later, he abruptly stopped watering me: there wasn’t even a transition.
I still remember the first night of hardships. Because of the hopes I harbored, every moment and every second turned into torment. I thought he would remember this during the night and give me some water. A terrible thirst thrust me into a state between sleep and wakefulness. A person came and went. This person wore a long gown with huge pockets. Each of the two pockets held a bottle of water. When he moved, the bottled water gurgled. Was this the gardener? I could never be sure. The second night wasn’t much better. The infinite quiet caused me to think even more about water. I almost went crazy. The moonlight made me jumpy, as if I had seen a ghost. The other plants in the garden were sound asleep. I was the only one who was awake. For some reason, I felt I wouldn’t die, and the idea that I wouldn’t die terrified me. When I was young, the king of trees told me a story about a tree that walked. I recalled this story, and so I tried to shift my root—the one on my left. I immediately fainted from the pain. When I awakened, it was light.
After those two pivotal nights, my restlessness gradually subsided, and I was kind of resigned to destiny. This didn’t mean that I gave up trying hard to change my circumstances. It was to say, rather, that I did not again entrust my hopes for the future to the gardener’s mercy. I believed that he would not treat me mercifully. He was impassive as he went past me, and his head drooped. His body language said that he felt it was no longer necessary to help me. I should support myself and rely on my own struggle to go on living. Was this possible? We plants could not live without water, and we couldn’t obtain water from the air, either. We could only rely on irrigation. Of course I wanted to become the legendary tree that walked. I tried that three times, each time failing shamefully. How should I struggle? I became confused, as if a hammer were incessantly pounding on me. I saw the gardener carrying clean water from the little river and watering those who were grateful to him (they all worshipped him), while my leaves turned pale because of my terror. Without water, I had only death ahead of me. Of course I was scared.
While waiting for death, I fell unconscious. One morning, an old sparrow awakened me.
I was incredibly surprised that I was still alive. Hardly any water was left in my roots, and most of my leaves had dropped off. The leaves that hadn’t fallen were yellowing in rapid succession. When dizziness surged up like waves, I felt that once I passed out I wouldn’t wake up again. But I was wrong. Not only did I awaken, but I was particularly clear-headed. My perceptions were much sharper than before. On a fresh summer morning like this, a sparrow on my branch kept shouting to her lost child: What could be more moving? I don’t know how she lost her child, but that monotonous sound of complaint that was unique to sparrows struck me as the world’s most sorrowful dirge! What I thought was, Ah, I’m still alive! Only living things can experience this kind of emotion. As I was thinking this, I nearly turned into a sparrow. Each time she called out, my branch vibrated in concert with her, and I saw the image of a small sparrow in her mind.
The gardener noticed this drama between the sparrow and me. He strolled around in my vicinity for a while and then walked away.
Judging by his actions, he wasn’t indifferent to me. So what was he waiting for? Was something going to happen to me? I felt an obscure hope arise, though I didn’t yet know what it was for. I secretly cheered the sparrow on, and the sparrow became aware of my existence. She kept shouting nonstop until she had poured out all her sorrow, and finally she realized that she needed to control herself. She jumped back and forth on my branches, and then suddenly spread her wings and flew to the sky.
Was something going to happen to me? I felt an obscure hope arise, though I didn’t yet know what it was for.
She flew away, leaving emptiness with me. I saw the gardener sneer slyly.
A long crack ruptured my trunk. This crack penetrated to my very center. I would soon lose all my moisture, and death was not far away. Sometimes I awakened early in the morning and felt that I was floating lightly in the mist. “I” had already vanished, leaving behind only a small handful of leaves that were neither yellow nor green. Without the water that was essential to my thinking, all that was left were some inexplicable scraps and clues. Under the blazing sun, I was muddle-headedly reciting, “Go left, go right, go into the grotto.” Whenever I recited this, I sensed that the gardener was hiding somewhere and gesturing to me, but I didn’t know whether he was inciting me or impeding me.
In the years of suffering and the frightening depravity, the rose garden was no better than hell to me—because the gardener abandoned me.
I fainted again. This time, it resembled real death: there was no suffering; in the blink of an eye, I lost consciousness. The last thing I saw was the gardener walking toward me with a saw in his hand.
But I wasn’t cut down by the saw. After being soaked by a heavy rain, I discovered that I was still standing in the meadow. I began drinking water: after being parched and thirsty for so long I felt that the flavor of water had changed! It was the spicy hot flavor that I loathed more than anything. What was happening? Oh, I couldn’t bear it. I’d better not drink it. Still, I couldn’t suppress my thirst. Without giving it another thought, I drank this spicy soup that had fallen from the sky. My withered roots began swelling quickly, and my leaves greened. My peers all around were cheering and skipping, they were so excited. But I was in unbearable pain as if my whole body was on fire. If I could move, I would definitely roll around on the ground, but I was destined to suffer in silence. At the extreme boundary of pain, I lost consciousness again and again. And again and again, I regained consciousness. I heard myself talking incoherently in the heat: “I’d rather die—”
Luckily, the rain ended quite soon. Still in pain, I saw the gardener stop next to me. He caressed the long crack on my body and began to laugh eerily. His malicious laughter infuriated me. I was so angry that I trembled violently, nearly losing consciousness once more. He left quickly and inspected his plants’ growth after the rainfall. Everyone greeted him with cheers because rain was a gift from the gods, an unexpected gift. My response was the only contrary one. I was the only plant in the garden that wasn’t irrigated. Now my swollen roots and my branches and leaves that had suddenly consumed so much water disgusted me. Indeed, I felt not only pain but disgust.
Before dark, the pain finally began to dull, or rather my roots, trunk, branches, and leaves became numb. Little by little, the sun withdrew into the hills, and the air was rain-freshened. Now and then, someone passed by the gardener’s gate. Each person was holding a small red flag. Beside me, I heard the Taiwan grass say that people were going to the hillside where there would be a party tonight to celebrate. “Because this is the first rainfall of the year,” the Taiwan grass said in a gratified tone.
In the gradually descending darkness, I was coming to understand something: in this lifetime, I would never again be relaxed and joyful—qualities that everyone hoped for. I’d better learn to seize an alternative happiness in being parched, tense, and tormented. That sort of happiness was like the gardener’s malicious laughter. If I learned to laugh as he did, perhaps a vast horizon would unfold before me.
The dryness of the next several days led me back to my previous state, but my feeling and my reasoning changed a little. I can describe myself as “composed.” Previously, each time I saw the gardener water the others, I hated him, but now my feelings for the gardener changed all at once. I saw many layers of thought in the gardener’s image: the way he carried the hoe on his back; the way he bent to dig the earth; the way he carried water buckets on his shoulder poles; the way he watered the plants; the way he fertilized; the way he spread manure . . . The more I observed him, the more interesting I felt he was. I believed this skinny guy possessed many different kinds of witchcraft that he would practice on me one after the other. All I had to do was wait, and it would eventually be effective.
This garden wasn’t at all lush. Actually, it was rather bleak. The plants weren’t arranged in any order; they were placed randomly. It was called a rose garden, but there were no roses; there were only some azaleas, chrysanthemums, and jasmine flowers. A few days ago, the gardener brought in two false acacias and planted them next to me. Then he left. He still hasn’t watered them. Yellow leaves drooped from them, but they didn’t complain about the gardener. I knew that all this was just the surface appearance. What differed from the nursery was that the plants here were confident they would survive. I had no idea where this confidence came from: Weren’t they dependent on the gardener’s watering them? What if the gardener got sick, or had an accident? I discussed this with them, but they ruled out my hypotheses; they didn’t want to hear them. As for me, I, too, now felt I would survive. Since I had survived this long without being watered, I had no reason to think I couldn’t go on this way. Oh, what a fantastic garden we were! It was hard to figure out whether this was because of the gardener’s planning or whether it was because of our great effort that the garden was so extraordinary.
In the gradually descending darkness, I was coming to understand something: in this lifetime, I would never again be relaxed and joyful—qualities that everyone hoped for.
Look, the false acacias’ leaves are dropping in profusion. Unexpectedly, the more parched they were, the more they perspired. I thought, When they have sweat out all their fluids, their bodies will be as dry as mine, and then we’ll speak the same language. They were fantasizing now that they would become trees that could freely move around. From their bodies, I could see what the gardener had in mind. As for this rose garden, in fact who was the owner? You’re sure to answer that it’s the gardener. I used to think this, too, but recently I changed my mind. After my observations, I now saw that the gardener’s actions were arbitrary. His line of thinking didn’t come from premeditation; it was innate. Why didn’t he water the false acacias? Because in his judgment, false acacias didn’t need to be watered. Why did he water me at first and then stop? Be- cause he thought I didn’t need water and could still go on living (this was probably true). After being in the rose garden for so long, I felt the future had become increasingly ambiguous. The shadows were thick behind the fence: in the dry transparent air, even more transparent monsters were roaming around. I didn’t need to become a wandering tree; I only needed to stay here and wait for a certain change to occur. Change truly did begin.
At nightfall, a bunch of my roots awakened: I thought they had penetrated to a deep and unfamiliar region. That is, they had grown because of being watered by the spicy hot rain. Now there was still no water in this deep layer of soil where my roots were, but the solid earth unexpectedly imparted a sense of something similar to water. I felt itchy at the ends of my roots: this was an omen of growth. It was also an omen that something unexpected was about to occur. I estimated that my roots had penetrated more than one meter in just a few short days. This could be called “flying.” It was a miracle. No rain had fallen for days, and yet they were still growing. Was I accessing another kind of nourishment to substitute for water? Was the “water of life” that was often spoken of no longer applicable to me? Late at night, I heard the gardener’s muffled voice. After his voice faded away, a tiny cracking disturbance echoed from within my body. The dusty old leaves on my head and face gave off some green fluorescence. This disturbance awakened the acacias next to me: they gasped in admiration. They nearly spoke in unison: “The gardener bestowed such a great favor on the willow tree!” They had no sooner said this than the entire garden erupted in excitement. Everyone was talking at once, but their words were indistinct. Only after listening attentively for a long time could I distinguish a word: fireworks. They were saying I was setting off fireworks. But all I had done was to emit a little light. Why were they making such a fuss?
The disturbance inside me quickly calmed down, and I felt hollow. In fact, I shouldn’t have: Wasn’t I growing, and even emitting light? Wasn’t the gardener secretly supporting me? But I was still hollow. Perhaps I was looking forward to emitting light again the next time? Or because I didn’t understand what was going on? Oh, gardener, gardener, be sure not to give me water. I racked my brains: I wanted to know what that invisible nutrition was. The gardener must know. They all envied me: I was the only plant that emitted light at night; I had gained the gardener’s greatest support.
At daybreak, I was exceptionally hollow. At night, my leaves had nearly all withered. The trunk was even redder, the crack even deeper. I asked myself, Will I die today? Aside from thinking, I couldn’t sense any living movement in myself. I couldn’t even sense my roots. The fence was illuminated by the first rays of light, and the garden’s silhouette gradually came into focus. In the air in front of me, a voice was repeatedly saying, “Who was that? Who was that? . . .” I wanted so much to see exactly who this voice was coming from. I thought that since “it” could utter sounds, it must be something real. But no. The voice came from gratuitous vibrations in the air: it was utterly terrifying!
Carrying water buckets, the gardener appeared at the garden gate. He stopped and glanced at me: after seeing me trembling, he laughed. It was that eerie laughter again! He turned to water plants, paying no further attention to me. The words in the air continued. I heard the Indian azalea say softly, “Shhh, that’s a bear! A black bear . . .”
Could a black bear speak? Why couldn’t I see it? Was I done for? “A black bear. How amazing!” the Indian azalea said.
I thought that since she was seeing the amazing thing, and the gardener had also just confirmed I was alive, I wouldn’t die. Since I wouldn’t die, what was I afraid of? So I also said something. “Oh—hey—hey!”
I had shouted three sounds in a row in midair! Ha! My voice came from this crack. It was surprisingly resonant, crowding out the sound “black bear”! Now there was no “black bear”; there was only my sound of “Oh—hey—hey!” vibrating repeatedly in midair. The plants in the rose garden listened in astonishment. I could still hear the Indian azalea mutter in amazement, “It’s really a black bear. Who can imagine it?”
Only after a long time did the echo of my voice quiet down. I remembered the Indian azalea’s words, and I felt renewed terror. Could it be that I myself was the black bear? In the past, when I was in the nursery, everyone had heard the terrible bloody tale about the black bears. Back then, the black bears had consumed all the animals on the opposite mountain, leaving only themselves. Then they massacred each other . . . The Indian azalea was the most truthful plant; she had never told a lie. Had she spoken the truth just now? As she saw it, in the beginning the voice in midair was mine, and the later one was mine, too. Maybe the gardener had known for a long time, and I was the only one who didn’t? Too dreadful! So scary! HELP! . . . I fainted.
I awakened. Of course I wasn’t a black bear. If I were, I would have eaten the gardener long ago. I wasn’t a tree that could walk, either. My roots were the only part of me that could move, but they could only grow downward. Still, I felt foreboding about the gardener. Just now, he had stared at me again, hadn’t he? He pretended to be bending toward the wisteria, yet he shot a glance at me. That turbid gaze seemed to be coming from my forebears. What was he seeing in me? I—a dying willow—a plant using something whose name I didn’t know to give me the nourishment to survive, a monster that had fainted and then revived and was struggling at death’s door: if I had to look at myself, I would surely be unable to see my- self clearly. I conclude that I must look at my image through the gardener’s eyes. I know that he sees a lot of things when he looks at me, but I can’t figure out what. When I look at him (we plants use our bodies to see), his fixed eyes embarrass me. Out of embarrassment, I can’t look at him very long, and so I have no way of knowing what I look like in his eyes. The only thing I know is: this person has seen through me all along. He’s the sort of strange person who can see everything in his surroundings distinctly.
Oh, I’m so hollow! In this moment, my inner hollowness surprisingly caused me to tremble. I trembled violently; even my roots were trembling deep in the earth. What had I come in contact with? Something was down there! I couldn’t be certain what it was: it was apparently something solid that didn’t move, and yet it also seemed to be alive and movable. I felt that my roots were oriented. Right, they spread in the direction of that thing . . . Did I touch it? No. I hadn’t contacted it, but I was very sure it was down there. When my roots exerted themselves to spread out and engendered this confidence, my hollow feeling lightened a little. But I was still trembling because of the hollowness.
The Indian azalea was still muttering, “It’s really a black bear. Who can imagine it?”
I found her words exciting, and I couldn’t help but say, “Hey!”
This time, my voice traveled to distant places. I noticed that the plants in the garden were listening respectfully. They were no longer astonished. They seemed to be concentrating, and my voice actually lingered a long time in midair.
When the lingering sound vanished, the plants in the garden all began whispering. They were saying “black bear.” Maybe they (and the gardener, too) believed that I was the reincarnation of that savage black bear. But then why were they so admiring? The gardener brandished his hoe in my direction. Did he want to destroy me? No, he was helping me by loosening the soil! It was as if his work were saying: the invisible nutrition in the air could reach my roots through gaps in the earth.
Just then, I saw that walking plant, our garden’s wisteria. The wisteria didn’t walk with his own feet, for he had no feet; he clung to the gardener’s back. He went wherever the gardener went. This was so exciting! A dark color—nearly black—arose on his body. His roots were swaying on the gardener’s back; mud was still stuck on it. No matter how much I thought, I couldn’t figure out how he had flown out of the ground and begun to cling to the gardener’s back. In general, if we plants break away from the soil, the only path ahead is death. This is probably why he hadn’t changed into a walking plant but instead clung to the gardener’s back. He must have plotted this for a long time. Of all of us, he was the one who was hoping the most to walk, judging by what he had said in the past. Now he was fulfilling his wish, even surpassing it. He had be- come one with the gardener. He had become the most fortunate guy in the world. I thought that the precondition for the wisteria attaining his goal was his knowledge that the gardener would not let him lose his life.
The gardener was rushing around in the garden. The wisteria was nervously and excitedly clinging to his back and trembling. I inwardly admired him, but I recognized that I was unlikely to achieve such high-level treatment. He was a vine; I was a tree. Only vines could cling to people. Trees had better stay in the ground and figure out another path. The gardener finally finished what he was doing and reached the place where the wisteria had been before. He took him off his back and planted him in the ground again. I heard the wisteria moan contentedly. He must be very proud of the risk he had taken. But I thought if he had known the result ahead of time, it surely didn’t count as any great risk. As for me, where was my way out?
I had no way out. My way out lay in thinking of a way out. It lay in “thinking” itself. I was still thinking, wasn’t I? I hadn’t yet died, had I? My roots were twice as long as they were when I first came, weren’t they? This was the advantage of plants that couldn’t walk! If I had the same skill as the wisteria, my roots probably wouldn’t run so deep. All right, I’ll stay in this spot. My future is unpredictable. A greater danger is waiting ahead of me. The gardener got ready to go back. He turned to look at me and gave me a knowing smile. He was a person who didn’t know how to smile; he smiled like a dead person. It was in this way that he achieved a tacit understanding with me.
Under the ground, that thing pressed against my root again.
From I Live in the Slums: Stories by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Published by Yale University Press in May 2020 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.