“In the Ward”

Cheng Yi (trans. Deva Eveland, Remington Gillis, and Yidian Liu)

November 25, 2019 
The following is a story by Cheng Yi 程一translated into English by Deva Eveland, Remington Gillis, and Yidian Liu from Spittoon Literary Magazine issue 5. Cheng Yi 程 was awarded the 24th Rou Gang Poetry Award (under the pen name Tang Fang) as well as the 10th Unnamed Poetry Award. Spittoon, a Beijing-based literary magazine, translates and publishes the best new Chinese writers in English.

The plop of dripping water filled the whole space. Sometimes, and from somewhere, fleeting beams of light would shoot into the ward. Like apparitions, the water drops were briefly illumined as they fell rapidly towards some bottom he couldn’t see. He looked forward to those times. The glittering drips were like infinite stars falling in the night sky. He couldn’t have endured those days in darkness without the ephemeral light, for otherwise there was only sound. When he was awake, he survived by counting each drip. They seemed to come from the depth of some funnel-shaped abyss within his body. He also felt himself within this whirlpool, floundering in a maelstrom of images. These visions swirling around him began to fade again the moment they emerged.

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He imagined that the things he saw were stored inside eyes that stared at him from the surrounding darkness. The eyes were stars, were shining nails that pinned up the darkness above his head. The dome  of eternal night, an infinite dome embedded in her body, completely enclosing him within her. But do you remember him, he who was locked within the chamber, forever closed to us? He who once had the same face as us and spoke in the same voice?

The many craters on his body were spewing out flames, ironing flat the weightless dark. They were soft, infinitely expanding mountains, like white hot nipples on the land. Billowing steam and eruptions of molten rock danced in harmony under the starry blackness.

The magma raged across a pure white plateau, washing over the cloud-ringed cliffs again and again, polishing them with a sacred sheen that glowed beneath the starry heavens. It also flowed through the low valleys, collapsing them. Above, stars adorned a boundless black chiffon, a quilt of thin silk scraps merging into a sea floating suspended in the air. Below, turbulent waves spasmed across the surface of the sea, quickening the beating of the blue pulse. Once the craters started bursting, he couldn’t hold the flames tightly enough inside himself. As he felt himself emptying, she seeped into him from every direction.

He screamed out, twisting the world into a vortex. All of it was on the brink of being sucked into the many maelstroms that wound around his body. Slowly, the world settled into any number of his infinite centers. Every inch of skin that was smoothed by the humid southern air penetrated the city’s tiny pores, the ageless city, the glittering and translucent city rising out of the endless land. She was like a dancer in crystal shoes, her erratic steps both entangling her in a solitary sea and giving her form. She who was outside him, a homeless confession under the stars. The sea was also innocent, crouching like a frog building up its strength, kicking its legs in the face of every past moment in order to leap forward, only to land, again and again, on nothing. Plunging its webbed feet into thin air. He continued treading water inside himself, maintaining a blue purity as he swam towards himself.

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A bridge leading from the outside in, a bridge connecting him to himself? But had he ever really reached it?

The years were trapped like caged animals twisted into unnatural shapes. This was where his body was stuck, he could neither move forward nor go back. He could only wait in silence recalling memories, dwelling on the impossible to make life go on.

“Is he the one you’re always talking about? Forming his own history through the accumulation of memories? He’s nothing but a monkey trying to learn how to walk upright, but we have prepared his monkey brain as the main course. He is locked into the center of the table with only his washed head exposed. This dish is for all of us to share. When the skull is cracked open and the boiling oil is poured in, he can still squeal. Now we all begin digging our long, sharp chopsticks into his head, into his brain mush.” The fragrantly spiced oil coating the delicacy appealed to everyone. Unfamiliar tongues reached into the same center at the same time from every direction. Do you feel like you’re the one being eaten? Where did those tongues come from? So many soft, blood-red tongues spread unrestrained through the underground pipes of your own city, even poking into the buried pipes of your mind, co-mingling with the darkness of the sewers, excreting all kinds of enzymes.

And what about him? Was he only a meal of monkey brains, allowing his skull to be cracked open?

Allowing all the minds, like chopsticks, to stir his brains? Allowing this barrier that looked like a dining table to offer him up in sacrifice to the days he had been through?

The footsteps were getting clearer and clearer. Echoing back and forth. Again and again . . . Those sounds, traveling down through the long spiral passages in the ear, going into that dark chamber from a needle-eye-sized secret entrance at the bottom. He was already familiar with those spiral passages—how could he not be? Through all these years alone he had been traversing more and more of them. Wasn’t he following close behind her through every corridor? Sometimes, some utterances reached down to him through the endlessly looping, spiral halls before plummeting straight down into the depths with no beginning or end. This looping world  of spiral corridors, produced within him a strange feeling, as if while he was inside it, he knew she was outside of it. A bridge leading from the outside in, a bridge connecting him to himself? But had he ever really reached it? Had he ever truly imagined the moment of facing himself?

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Was it an already vanished Atlantis? An impossible destination forever sunk beneath the water? Who was she, if not Atlantis? She was always in an unknown corner, only a name. Or was she a vessel? A vessel inside a vessel. He thought of the first Corinthian pillar standing in the center of the temple, the pillar inside the pillar. Only because of it did the surrounding  space have any sense of holiness. Brightened by beams of light, adorned by kneeling mortals. Or was that the dome of the Roman Pantheon? Those rootless beams of light shooting down . . . He hadn’t seen light for a long time—or maybe he himself was a lonely being of light. He could shine on others, but couldn’t turn his sight inward for even for a moment.

His time dripped through a long IV tube. The transparent threads darted through a labyrinth crisscrossing his body in search of the legendary monster hiding herself in the deepest center. The silvery threads, found in the dark tunnels of his  body. Was he Crete Island, or the offspring of that monster? No, neither, he was simply the giant ball of thread, unraveling himself layer by layer in the maze of himself, exposing every layer of himself until he was naked in the tunnels. The maze’s inward collapse kept pushing the monster towards its end, as if it were writing a poem with its own actions, pushing the possibilities of every movement to an end. But the monster wouldn’t fall from the edge of the end, would it? Perhaps he was the hero, but would he have the courage to kill it?

Those giant bodies, those bodies inside bodies, were convulsing endlessly. His whole body was like two eras divided.

Slight ripples in the air blew gently over his pores, tiny hairs rubbing against his skin like soft algae. This space in the darkness was like a bottomless tunnel, not rough but almost slippery. He was stuck somewhere inside it.

“When that rare light falls through the mesh barrier above his head and bathes his body—though it is only temporary, only a bound image—he is still eager to use it to get through these difficult days. It is such a wonderful image, standing nowhere, no torch to burn him alive, no cross, not even any nails. He is simply stuck there, stuck in pure space, ever since the beginning.”

In the darkness, long, hard objects would jab into his thoughts. They were like the beaks of birds, putting something into him (he didn’t know what). It was uncanny. He couldn’t see anything, and she was simply all around him, but also inside him, and everywhere in between. There were many hers, revolving together for all time.

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The soft tubes entwined him as if he were the heart of the space. They were like soft snakes, biting him, destroying him, and what could he do? What except wait for them to reach into his body from all directions?

The rose-colored petals of his memory were still burning in the sky. Strange voices were still coming from his throat, just as the strange thoughts circling in his head, like eagles, looked greedily down, waiting to peck at his brain. Like a Trojan Horse that had been forgotten so long the hatch had rusted shut, with Priam’s city long burnt to ashes. He was still stuck in there, stuck in the maze of infinite ages. Oh, the pure Helen of his mind.

Countless times he heard the bolt of the door inside him fall, but there was always a hand to reach down and lock it again. That strange body was so unfathomable, every day was so unfathomable, it all sank into soft marshes. Destiny, bound by algae, still trying to peek out. In there, she disintegrated in the air, reforming again and again, falling with each moment into uncertainty. He had never truly seen her. Only when the winged, legless light darted past, could he see something rapidly passing through a gap nearby.

“Every one of you is the jailor of your own soul, and you have carefully locked it inside your own body. Why do you keep it here, locked in this cell made  of flesh? Endless sleep, endless years, endless sex, endless sand, all fly past. Escaping from one room to another room, from one dream to another dream, from one day to another day, from one country to another county. Then what? Then what?”

He was stuck in that space for eternity, until the moment when a silver blade dropped from high above, cutting his body in two. In that instant, his  still conscious mind saw his other half convulsing painfully. The surrounding air also began to convulse about. Then the surrounding space. Those giant bodies, those bodies inside bodies, were convulsing endlessly. His whole body was like two eras divided, the blood flowing from the blade like silver fish cascading down in the darkness. A solitary, swimming light splashed in this abyss, roaming in pure freedom, a pain of pure reality, like a final resting place, the beginning of the end, a ray of light eager to break through the darkness, a ray of naked light.

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The door bolt inside him also began to convulse, as if she were trying to open it with all her might, regardless of the darkness she would then fall into.

Then he lost consciousness. When he woke up again, he found himself the owner of an unfamiliar body.

A multitude of IV tubes connected him to this body, filling him with eldritch dread. The needled heads of the tubes were still like bird beaks, wedged into his head.

The cut was divided into two. One half was stitched up on the remaining part of his body that could still walk, while the other half would remain a mess of blood and flesh, forever separated by the silver blade, unable to heal. Sometimes she would leap into his body from the other side of the cut, then leap back to her former place, always maintaining a breaststroke position, occasionally forming two or three swelling bulges on the desolate cut.


The following is a story by Cheng Yi 程一 translated into English by Deva Eveland, Remington Gillis, and Yidian Liu from Spittoon Literary Magazine issue 5. Spittoon, a Beijing-based literary magazine that translates and publishes the best new Chinese writers in English, is part of the Spittoon Collective (www.spittooncollective.com), which organizes literary events and programming in China and abroad.

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