Excerpt

“Notes from the Underground”

Bao Huiyi 包慧怡, translated by Feng Tianyi and David Huntington

December 19, 2018 
The following is a story by Bao Huiyi 包慧怡 from Spittoon Literary Magazine. Spittoon is a Beijing-based literary magazine that translates the best new Chinese writing into English and is part of the Spittoon Collective, which organizes events and programming in China and abroad.

Another year and I think I should say goodbye to the island for good. For four years I’ve moved from one enclosed space to another, and this last winter I descended several moldy steps to begin living in an underground room.

On the day I got the key I found several tiny snails on the carpet probing the wall. It’s a mystery how they got here. They must have traversed two doorsills and felt out a path from the overgrown courtyard. Another possibility is they came in the front door, but in that case they would’ve needed to learn how to climb stairs.

The corners of the bathroom and the windowsills are home to more than a few spiders’ webs, which I’ve been too lazy to clean. Even if I tried to grab the spiders I might have ended up killing them, and compared to mollusks spiders are easy to get along with. In my previous residence a huge long-legged spider wove a web above my showerhead, and every night it dangled over me. At first it was strange being naked with it, but over time we felt more like old Adam and Eve (though I couldn’t discern its gender). When I took down the nozzle I was careful not to spritz it.

My hair loss is getting serious. During my morning comb I get a few good clumps every day. I usually open the bedroom window, still barely dressed, and toss it to the yard. Only a small part at the top of the window can open, and the hair is so light and silky it clings to the frame. Recently, walking my bicycle into the courtyard, I saw insects like spiders but darker and harder climbing my hair like a rope bridge up to the window. It got a little unsettling, so I cleaned it up. Still, it’s hard to stop tossing hair into the yard, as there’s a sort of funereal pleasure to discarding little pieces of yourself.

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A wasp’s nest is hiding somewhere deep in the brickwork, between the roof and the bedroom wall facing the garden. I don’t know exactly where. I can only see the wasps coming and going, buzzing and droning, twenty or thirty of them at least. Every time I go hang up clothes in the garden they have me on tenterhooks. Lying in bed at night, I can hear from deep behind that wall an ever-so-gentle knocking. It could be a woodpecker (though I’ve never heard pecking like that), or it could be a secret midnight meeting in the hive. But I can’t quite believe such small insects could produce such hard sounds. At first I was too afraid to sleep, afraid that the swarm might break through the wall and in the morning I would wake to discover myself sealed in golden beeswax, unable to move. But with time I began to like this image. I’ve long wrapped myself in layers of invisible beeswax, so why fear another? Since then I’ve been sleeping like a log.

Apart from this—and a slug I once found in the kitchen on a midnight trip to the toilet—the basement has been a calming place. The dining table in the kitchen is used as a desk, where outside the window you hear the whistling northern wind. All year round the temperature here is lower than on the surface by seven-to-nine degrees. By August I had already turned on the heater and begun sleeping under an electric blanket. When October came even the heater wouldn’t do. There is a fireplace. The slightest vibration upstairs sends clumps tumbling down. Judging by the cracked and pitch-dark walls inside, it must have been used recently. But even in the bitter cold I’m still afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning, so instead I boil a pot of eggs and let the steam bubble out. In less than ten minutes its warmth has snaked through the room. I close the door between the kitchen and the bedroom to keep the steam in, which dances in the yellow glow of the hanging bulb and covers the window in droplets. Sometimes I light candles (being mostly awake at night) and the flames form inconceivable designs among the droplets and glass.

There are six households in this building. Because I live underground I don’t often meet the others. Except for Mark who regularly goes to the garden to feed the cats, almost no one passes by the yard, the garden, or my window. There are four resident cats: fat Prince Ryoma, very fat Doraemon, thin Luo Xiaohei, and broken-tailed Ishizu. Ishizu is a black and white cat with upturned eyes and human features. She looks like one or two people I know.

Prince Ryoma and Ishizu often lie on my kitchen windowsill. When reading and writing at the table I lift my eye to see them arching their backs, exposing their fluffy tummies or trying to stretch themselves into leopards. Or they gaze at me through the pane, unwaveringly, as if looking through me. The landlord won’t allow the cats to enter, even putting little green boxes on all the windowsills that emit a low-pitch noise unbearable to cats. The noise annoyed me so I discretely shut it off and went to the garden to feed them. The cat food I prepare is not as good as Mark’s. The cats only eat it when particularly hungry. Ishizu sometimes eats a meal and then waits on Mark’s window meowing for more, which makes me look down on her a little (sigh).

Mark is an electrician who somehow always stays home in the daytime. I think he must be as unwell as I am, or maybe worse. His hands tremble when he talks with people, his voice is piercing, and he speaks too fast because his nerves make him speak more than is appropriate, all symptoms I could not be more familiar with. The first time we talked was in the garden. I was hanging up clothes and he was feeding the cats:

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“Ahh . . . Cats understand me more than anyone.”

I laughed. I am probably a bad person. I can’t bear human warmth. Even if I am like Mark and I rely on cats to get by I’d rather not tell you.

“The other day I was across the road. Luo Xiaohei saw me and she shot across dodging lots of cars . . .”

I said, “Really? So sweet.”

What an awful thing to say. I spoke without thinking. But honestly, at that moment, I really couldn’t think of any other way to say, “I’m happy for your happiness.” (At that moment the feeling seemed genuine.)

Understanding? A friend I once liked wrote, “After dark on the bus, people and ghosts fall in love with each other/It’s so fucking lively you’re afraid of arriving.” But I think I’ve been running madly towards the finish for a while now.

Blood stains often appear in the yard. At first, I thought it was some dwarves celebrating Passover and I mopped it up. However, it wasn’t long before the spots of blood could once again be seen scattered around, sometimes as far as the windowsill, making me suspect this place had been cursed. Later, I discovered it was the result of Doraemon and Ishizu, Doraemon and Prince Ryoma, Prince Ryoma and Luo Xiaohei, or Luo Xiaohei and Ishizu fighting. This probably explains why poor little Ishizu’s tail was broken and wrapped in red silk—Mark must have taken her to the vet. I stopped cleaning up the blood after that, because fighting is bad character and cats are no exception.

Doraemon is the true reigning king. Sometimes I forget to close the top of the kitchen window and I return to find him tramping on the table, the candles and cups and incense tray that had been sitting on the sill all scattered on the floor. I suppose we aren’t very close (of the four wild cats he roams the most, sometimes only returning once a week). He leaps up from the windowsill and tries to get out through the opening. But this side of the window has curtains, so he clings frenzied to the white cotton and has to claw for ages before he can escape over the high frame. He disappears with a thud and leaves me standing in a pile of incense dust and facing a curtain with a few hundred gashes. I would have opened the bedroom window to let him out, but he gets so impatient.

The island has entered the rainy season, and the nights are growing colder and colder. Ishizu is forever crouching on the iron chair in the yard, watching the light in my window after dark. I want to call her in, but it seems she couldn’t care less. This is how through these lengthening nights in my underground room, hearing the wind and rain through the window, I am gradually buried by the cards and documents piling on the table. Looking back on my pale and lackluster life, I feel an overwhelming tranquility, kind of like the half-dried rose that was given to Emily.

地下室手记

作者:包慧怡

再过一年,我想,就该向岛屿正式告别。四年来我不断搬家,从一个封闭的处所到另一个,而这次,在冬境的最后一个冬天,我走下若干发霉的台阶,住进了地下室。

拿到钥匙的第一天,在地毯上发现了几只蜗牛,小小的,探头探脑伏在墙沿。它们是怎样长途跋涉,钻过两道门缝,从屋后荒草丛生的花园蜿蜒抵达此地,实在没有线索。另一种可能是它们从正门进来,可是那样就要学会上下台阶。

浴室角落和窗台上有不少蛛网,懒得清理。用手抓的话,难免会不小心弄死,何况比起软体动物,和蜘蛛还算能融洽相处。上一个住处,一只硕大的长腿蛛就筑巢在莲蓬头上方,每晚淋浴的时候,它就在头上晃来晃去。一开始还不习惯这样和它赤裸相对,渐渐也就找到了前伊甸园式的放松(实际上,也搞不清它的性别),拿下喷头冲洗时注意不浇到它。

掉发很严重。每天起床梳头可以捋下好大几簇,这时往往还衣冠不整,便打开卧室窗顺手抛向院子——只有高处的一小部分顶窗能水平打开一道缝。无奈头发太轻,常常丝丝缕缕挂在窗框上,时间长了,有次去院里推自行车,看到一些貌似蜘蛛却比蜘蛛黑且硬朗许多的虫子,正以我的头发为吊桥,奋力向窗子高处攀爬。这才略有些害怕,清理了一番,但还是难改往院子里抛头发的积习,有种在抛弃自己身体的,天葬似的快感。

卧室屋顶和朝花园的那面墙之间有个马蜂窝,在砖缝深处,我看不见具体位置。只看见马蜂一刻不歇地在那里进进出出,嗡嗡嗡的,至少有二三十只。每次去园里晒衣服都提心吊胆。晚上躺在床上,总会听到那面墙深处传来轻轻的叩击声。也许是啄木鸟(但我并未听过这种鸟啄木),也许是蜂窝里正在进行一场午夜秘仪?可我怎么也无法相信小小的昆虫能发出这样坚硬的叩击声。一开始也会怕得睡不着,生怕砖墙被蜂群攻破,早上醒来发现自己被封存在金黄的蜂蜡里动弹不得。然而渐渐开始喜欢这意象,我早已用看不见的蜂蜡把自己层层封裹,如何还怕多裹一层?逐渐睡得不省人事。

除此以外——以及有一次半夜去上厕所,发现一只蛞蝓爬进了厨房——地下室真是个让人安心的地方。仅有的餐桌在厨房里,充作书桌,隔窗常能听见外面北风呼啸。这里的气温常年比地面低7-9度,所以在八月就开了暖气,睡前要开一会电热毯。到了十月,即使有暖气,渐渐也坐不住。倒是有个壁炉,平时楼上稍有振动就会不断往下掉渣,根据它焦黑开裂的内壁,判断过去常有人点火。但我害怕一氧化碳中毒,于是冷得实在不行时就煮一锅鸡蛋,让蒸汽突突突地冒出来,要不了十分钟,屋里就会暖意缭绕。我关掉厨房和卧室之间的门,小心保存着蒸汽。蒸汽在头顶吊灯的黄色光晕中跳舞,窗上凝满水珠。有时点上蜡烛(醒着的大部分时间都在黑夜里度过),火苗会在玻璃上的水珠间隙形成不可思议的图案。

这栋楼里共有六户,因为住在地下室,平时不会遇见别人。除了每天定时去花园里喂猫的马可,几乎没有人会经过院子、花园、我窗前。至于猫,常驻的有四只:胖子菊丸,大胖子刚田武,瘦子小黑,断尾的伊西斯。伊西斯是一只奶牛猫,丹凤眼,五官像人,像我认识的一两个人。

菊丸和伊西斯经常趴我在厨房窗台上。在餐桌上看书写字,一抬眼就看见它们弓起背或露出蓬松的肚子,把自己拉伸成一只豹子。或者就目不转睛地隔玻璃看我,定慧双修。房东嘱咐不能让猫进屋,甚至在所有窗台摆上一个绿色小盒,间或发出据说猫无法忍受的低分贝噪声。我觉得吵,偷偷关了,只去花园喂食。我准备的猫粮似乎不如马可华丽,猫们只有特别饿时才吃得起劲。伊西斯有时吃完一顿,又会蹲点到马可窗下咪呜乞食,这让我略有一点瞧不起她(啊)。

马可是个电缆技术员,但不知怎么白天永远在家。我想他应该和我一样病得不轻或者更甚,和人说话时双手会颤抖。他的声音非常尖细,语速过快,因为过分紧张总会说得比合适的更多,这些症状我都再熟悉不过。第一次说上话是在花园里,我在晾衣,他去喂猫:“啊……猫是最富有同理心的生物啊。”我嘿嘿笑。大概自己生性邪恶,忍不了温情脉脉,即使和马可一样靠猫续命,最好你们不要知道。“那天我在马路对面,小黑一看到我就横穿马路跑过来,一路躲闪着各种汽车……”“真的吗?多甜啊。”我真是坏到家了,说话不过脑子。但那一刻,确实想不出别的办法来表达 “我为你的高兴而高兴。” (那一刻,这心情似乎是真的。)

同理心吗。我曾喜欢的姐姐写过,“天黑后巴士上人和鬼都相亲相爱/ 妈的热闹得让你害怕到站”,可我自己大概已经向着终点一路狂奔。

院子地面上时常有血迹,一开始以为是矮仙们在过逾越节,颇用扫帚蘸水扫除了一番。但是屡扫屡败,血斑依然四处散落,有时蔓延至窗台,让我怀疑此地受了诅咒。后来发现是刚田武和伊西斯,刚田武和菊丸,菊丸和小黑,或者小黑和伊西斯打架所致。这大概解释了个子最小的伊西斯的尾巴为什么断了,用红丝线缠着,也许是马可带去看的兽医。那么我也不再清理血迹,既然打架是拙劣天性而猫也不能例外。

刚田武真是霸王一样的存在,有时我忘关厨房顶窗出门,回来发现它正在餐桌上徘徊,放在窗台内侧的香托、蜡烛和水杯翻了一地。毕竟和我不熟(四只散养的猫中属它最居无定所,有时一星期才回来一次),从窗台一跃而上想要翻出顶窗。可是窗的这一侧挂有窗帘,刚田武狼狈地吊在白纱上抓挠了半天才窜上高高的窗框,咕咚一下消失不见,留下我站在一堆香灰里,面对千疮百孔的窗帘摊手——本来要开卧室窗让它翻出去的,真是性急。

岛屿进入雨季,夜晚越来越冷。伊西斯总是蹲在院子里铁椅的软垫上,整夜看着我窗内的灯光。想要招呼她进来,对方似乎也并不稀罕。就这样,地下室的漫漫长夜,风声雨声入窗,我渐渐被满地满桌的卡片和文献埋葬。想起至今为止苍白而乏善可陈的人生,内心倒也平静无比,像半枯的玫瑰终于献给了爱米莉。

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From Spittoon Literary Magazine Issue 4. Reproduced with permission. English translation copyright © 2018 by Feng Tianyi and David Huntington.




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