As the Splendid River flows through Yong’an City’s center and heads east, it separates into the Lotus and Peacock Rivers in Luoding District. The sorrowful beasts live in a housing development on the Peacock’s southern bank, in the north-eastern quarter of the city.
These old buildings, their walls thick with ivy, are known as the Leye Estate. They were originally built as dormitories for the Ping Le Cotton Mill, where many of the sorrowful beasts have worked for years, ever since they first came to Yong’an City from the south and settled here.
Sorrowful beasts are gentle by nature, and prefer the cold and dark. They love cauliflower and mung beans, vanilla ice cream and tangerine pudding. They fear trains, bitter gourd and satellite TV.
The males of the species are tall, with large mouths and small hands, scales on the insides of their left calves and fins attached to their right ears. The skin around their belly buttons is dark green. Other than that, they’re just like regular people.
The females are beautiful—slender figures with reddish skin, long, narrow eyes, ears a little larger than normal. For three days at the full moon, they lose the ability of human speech and squawk like birds instead. Otherwise, they’re just like regular people.
Sorrowful beasts never smile. If they do, they can’t stop—not until they die. Hence their name.
If you look back far enough, you might trace their forebears to a poet from ancient times, too far back for there to be any evidence.
Male sorrowful beasts are skilled with their hands, which is how they ended up weaving textiles. The females, being good looking, often work as salesgirls in the fabric stores. The people of Yong’an City come shopping for textiles to this dilapidated little district all the way across town, just so they can catch a glimpse of these attractive beasts.
Legend has it that a sorrowful beast’s smile is so beautiful, no one who sees it could ever forget it. But no matter how many jokes you tell them, they never laugh, let alone smile.
This makes the loveliness of the female beasts all the more to be prized and pitied, and the tycoons of Yong’an City take pride in marrying them—the females can mate with people and produce human offspring. The males can’t do this, and so Leye Estate is filled with desolate bachelors, while the ladies end up in the wealthy district to the south, having fled so fast their feet barely touched the ground, their faces like ice.
At one point, the city’s zoologists raised an outcry in the newspapers: if things went on like this, these rare creatures would surely go extinct. And so the government passed a law: sorrowful beasts could only marry their own kind. If they wished to couple with a human, special permission would be required, and could only be balloted for once every five years.
As a result, having a beast-wife became an even greater status symbol, and the extra demand from the elite greatly increased the government’s revenue.
Lefty, an artist, was the friend of a friend. The stories about her and the sorrowful beast had spread far and wide among our circle, but few people knew the truth of the matter.
One day, she came up to me at a party and said, “I know you specialize in beastly tales. I want to tell you a sorrowful beast’s story. Are you interested?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I have to pay you something.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“That’s the rule,” I said, “I have to give you something.” I smiled, but her face remained blank.
She said, “I’d love a vanilla ice cream.”
I bought her one, and she devoured it with gusto.
I’d smoked two cigarettes before she finally spoke.
She said, “My sorrowful beast died last week.”
Lefty met the male beast at a time when the Ping Le Mill was doing badly—all the salesgirls had run off to marry tycoons, leaving no one to sell the goods. Many mill workers had been laid off. She first encountered him at the Dolphin Bar—he’d walked over and said to her, “I’ve just lost my job, could you buy me a drink?”
She looked up at him. He was very tall, with a serious expression, the skin of his face shiny and unwrinkled. “All right,” she said. As they drank, Lefty noticed an exquisite fin behind his ear.
She said, “You’re a beast,” He answered, “Yes, and I’m out of work.”
That night, he followed her home, and she tamed him. His name was Cloud. He slept quietly at night, didn’t talk much, loved baths, and ate nothing but three vanilla ice creams a day.
If anyone turned on the TV, he’d let out a shattering howl and his eyes would flash red—his beastly nature revealing itself.
Lefty stopped watching television. When she got home, they’d sit at either end of the sofa, each reading a book. When he was happy, he’d let out a long cat-like rumble, but he never smiled.
At night they slept together, Cloud in the nude. His physique was just like a human male’s. The skin around his belly button was green as the sea, even a little translucent. Lefty often found herself mesmerized by that patch of skin. “It’s so beautiful,” she’d say.
She stroked him, and he purred like a contented cat, but they couldn’t make love. “It’s because you’re human,” he explained.
They slept in each other’s arms, like a couple of beasts.
It was a lovely time. The male beast was even more nurturing and resourceful than a human girl—he cooked for Lefty and washed her clothes. The food was mostly vegetarian, and the laundry had a strange fragrance. As Lefty ate, he’d watch from across the table, his expression tender. She thought of him almost as her husband.
This all happened last May. Lefty painted quite a few portraits of Cloud, and held a very successful exhibition at Evergreen Gallery. Everyone knew she had a sorrowful beast as her model, with long, sturdy legs, a flat, greenish stomach, and bright, empty eyes. Standing or sitting, he became an object of affection for all the young women in the city.
I saw that exhibition. The first rumors I heard about Lefty and the sorrowful beast were from our gossip king, Charley. “That Lefty girl definitely slept with him,” he said.
I said, “Male beasts can’t do it with humans.”
Charley sniggered. “You believe that?”
Yet I did believe he was a pure beast. In one of Lefty’s paintings, he sat on a windowsill, not a stitch on him, clearly exposing the scales on his calf. His expression was a little shy, and therefore captivating. Everyone thought how beautiful he’d be, if he would only smile.
But he didn’t.
If he smiled, he would die.
“He’s dead,” said Lefty now. She sat across from me, taking great mouthfuls of her ice cream. She looked terrible, not smiling either.
Lefty said that on the night of a full moon, they had heard a long cry, like a phoenix. Cloud’s eyes had widened. In a panic, he ran to open the door. A girl was standing outside.
Even in the murky light of the corridor, you could see she was gorgeous. She couldn’t speak, she just let out another cry, then hugged him tightly.
Lefty asked her to come in and gave her a vanilla ice cream.
The girl’s skin was flushed, as if blood was about to seep from it.
Cloud said, “She’s sick.”
This female beast was his sister, Rain, who was married to a rich man from the southern district. Now she clung to Cloud as they walked to the living room. They got her to drink a tincture of woad leaf, and still she wouldn’t stop shrilling. Cloud didn’t know what to do, so he called the human husband, only to have him snap in frustration, “She keeps screeching, and I don’t know what she wants—after all, I’m not a beast!”
Cloud hung up and hugged his sister, kissing her cheeks over and over again. Both beasts were now letting out similar cries. Sitting in the armchair across from them, Lefty phoned her ex-boyfriend, Dr Fu.
The doctor hurried over, looking—according to Lefty—more handsome than ever before. He nimbly took Rain’s temperature and blood pressure, then said she was pregnant, and gave her an injection.
Lefty called Rain’s husband, who was so overjoyed he could barely speak. Practically in tears, he choked, “Thank the heavens, an heir for the Wang family!” Lefty hung up in a rage.
Next thing she knew, a Mercedes-Benz was pulling up outside.
When they said goodbye to Rain, she was still shrieking nonstop, though her skin was regaining its color now.
Cloud was all sweaty, and went to take a shower. Dr Fu paced around the living room, then suddenly embraced Lefty and said, “I’ve missed you.”
They stayed with their arms wrapped around each other, reminiscing about bygone days, touching and kissing, their breaths urgent. As they tangled, the splashes from the bathroom were like the warm embrace of ocean waves.
The next morning, Cloud was dead.
Lefty said, “He never smiled. I don’t know how he died.”
I said, “I don’t know either.”
The artist looked distraught, which made her even more beautiful. She said, “I want to know how he died, I was practically in love with him.”
That night, the party ended abruptly. Outside the clubhouse, I saw Lefty and a man drive off in an expensive sports car, tires squealing with glee.
The man next to me couldn’t stop praising her. “Ever since she got herself a sorrowful beast, she’s a new woman. Her paintings are more stunning than ever, and so is she—wonder when I’ll find one for myself.”
He turned to me. “Aren’t you supposed to know about these things? Go find me one.”
“It takes destiny for a human to tame a beast,” I said.
He wasn’t having it. “How many beasts are there in Yong’an City? In the end, who knows who’s taming whom.”
I laughed. “If you’re scared, you should leave.”
“No one who comes here is able to leave,” he said. “This city is too full of monsters, too enchanting, too bewitching. A paradise for artists and wanderers.”
I thought of Lefty as I walked home. I’d heard that when she first arrived here from the north, she was as coarse as gravel and had a strong country accent. People laughed at her behind her back. And now, many years later, she’d become an elegant lady with lips the color of blood, as if she’d been in the city all her life.
The sorrowful beasts came to the city many years ago and never left, never mind the dire warnings of zoologists, never mind floods or droughts or recessions or wars or stock market crashes or epidemics. They just stayed put in Yong’an, their numbers stable, like an eternal riddle.
Fifty or sixty years ago, Yong’an had a great many beasts, and human beings were just one breed among them; but then war broke out, and amid this unrest, people battled the beasts for an entire decade. This period of history vanished from the annals. It wasn’t all that long ago, but everyone knows, or pretends to know, only the barest facts about most of the beasts vanished, driven to extinction. The sorrowful beasts survived, and became the most populous tribe in Yong’an City.
But no human could truly understand the mysteries of these creatures’ existences. The females married out, but the males couldn’t mate with people.The sorrowful beasts came to the city many years ago and never left, never mind the dire warnings of zoologists, never mind floods or droughts or recessions.
I went online to search for information about sorrowful beasts, trying to find out how Cloud might have died, but I found no leads apart from these scraps.
“Maybe he ate too much bitter gourd and it killed him,” I joked.
I called my university professor, a renowned Yong’an zoologist. “Have you researched sorrowful beasts? I need to know what could suddenly kill them, apart from smiling.”
He was silent for a moment. “Meet me for coffee tomorrow, we’ll talk then.”
In the morning paper, I read a story about Lefty in the entertainment section—she’d been spotted on numerous dates with the son of a well-known construction magnate. In the accompanying pictures, they were drinking at a rooftop bar, the man young and dashing, grinning smugly. You could make out Lefty’s side profile, an eye-catching hoop dangling from one ear, her features exquisite. She was calm and melancholy, unsmiling.
I took a sip of tea, and then another, and wondered if she was still in love with the dead beast.
The phone rang just then—my professor again. “Have you seen today’s paper? The picture of the lady painter?”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about—it was her sorrowful beast who died.”
A long silence. “Listen, it’s best if you don’t go poking into this.”
“Why?” I asked. “Do you know how that beast died?”
“He may not have died.” Another pause. “His soul might be immortal.”
I laughed. “You’re talking about the City of the Dead?”
The City of the Dead was a place that, according to legend, lay beneath Yong’an City. Humans and beasts, cars and roads, rock bands and their followers, all living forever. Every mother scared her child with this horror story: “Don’t spend too long reading in the toilet, because while you’re distracted, a soul might rise up through the pipes and possess your body.”
This gave us all a healthy fear of lingering in the toilet, and it was only when we grew up that we realized we’d been tricked.
When I was still a little girl, I used to squat by the toilet for a long time, staring, hoping a soul would float up to talk with me.
Human or beast would be fine. If one showed up, I’d say hello.
That’s the sort of courteous child I was. It was sure to like me.
The phone was buzzing, the signal weak. The professor said, “Anyway . . . what I meant was—” We got cut off.
I visited the female beast Rain in the wealthy district to the south. She greeted me politely in the hall, her belly already faintly swelling. “I’ve read your novels. They’re very good.”
She was drinking iced chocolate, and her skin glowed pearly pink, her voice soft and warm. She sat in a corner of the room, back to the light, eyes gleaming black.
A sense of unease prickled me. “I’m here to ask about your brother.”
Rain’s face was blank. “Brother? I don’t have a brother.”
As I gaped at her, the security guard briskly walked in from the outer chamber. “Madam isn’t feeling well, miss,” he said.
“You should come again another day.”
He was very tall and expressionless, the spitting image of a sorrowful beast, though he was human. With a big, strong hand, he led me by the arm. “This way, miss.”
Rain remained on the sofa, watching me guilelessly. She said, “What’s wrong?” Her ears were a little larger than average, making her look like a temple Buddha floating among the clouds, unaware of worldly torments, asking his acolytes, “If they’re hungry, why not just have a meat bun?”
That night, at the Dolphin Bar, I ran into Charley with his new girlfriend, a timid-looking lady who sipped a glass of orange juice and sat silently next to us.
I bummed a cigarette off him, and told him what had happened that morning. “It’s infuriating,” I said, “Getting pushed around like that.”
I blew smoke right at his face, and he frowned as he waved it away. He said, “It’s not like you’re new to this, didn’t you know this would happen? You can’t blame anybody else.”
Our local government was on People’s Road, a cluster of unappealing squat grey buildings, with guards standing ramrod straight by the front entrance. Too many to take in at a single glance. God knows how many documents were pumped out into the world each day to be circulated, proclaimed, or peeped at.
Among these were the regulations for marriages between sorrowful beasts and humans: beforehand, the female beast should undergo hypnosis or surgery to eliminate her beastly memory, and have monthly hormone shots to suppress her beastly nature. This meant all beasts with human husbands had amnesia. They didn’t know who they were, or even that they were beasts. They sat in their sumptuous living rooms, waiting for their husbands to come home, then disrobed and got into bed with them, perpetuating the human race. Yet when the moon was full, they’d recover their beastliness, losing the power of speech. Afterwards, they forgot what had passed in those two or three days.A new type of hormone was being invented that would leave the beasts unable to remember anything of their origins, ensuring they would remain human all their lives.
It seemed a new type of hormone was being invented that would leave the beasts unable to remember anything of their origins, even when the moon was at its roundest, ensuring they would remain human all their lives. They’d still be unable to smile, though, let alone laugh—if they did, they wouldn’t be able to stop, and then they’d die.
I phoned my professor and asked if there was really any such thing. He flew into a temper and yelled, “If there isn’t, then who wrote that article for you? The one on this topic, just three months ago? I can’t believe I taught a loser like you. Imagine ending up as a novelist!”
I quickly hung up, then picked up the receiver again, meaning to call Lefty, but I couldn’t make myself do it.
Nights in Yong’an City were full of animal cries of no discernible origin. I was born here, and got used to it early on.
My mother used to tell me, “You can’t be sure that beasts aren’t people, or that people aren’t just another type of beast.”
But that wasn’t how things were. People would always be scared of beasts.
I put down the phone again. Someone was sobbing quietly, someone was hugging me tightly and weeping. Someone was saying, “Hello, hello, hello.”
I lived alone on the 17th floor of Peach Blossom Villas, the Splendid River visible in the distance. My spacious flat was empty, but still I heard crying. “Stop that,” I said.
But it continued.
The painter Lefty was behaving a little erratically.
She kept calling to tell me stories about her and the beast. I understood she had no one to talk to, and asked, “What do you want in return for these tales?”
She didn’t want anything, she already had everything, and she’d never get anything again.
Now and then, I’d see her in the papers. A beautiful artist will always have someone to love her. A young, wealthy human male, his eyes full of exuberance. On the phone, she sobbed, “I’ve been getting these headaches recently, I’m always so confused, I don’t know who I am.”
She couldn’t find her sorrowful beast, the one who belonged to her. She’d tamed him. He’d stayed with her, mostly silent, drawn to dark and damp places, fond of ice cream, sweet-natured, empty-eyed, preferring to go without clothes, to wander naked around the flat—and she’d painted every one of his movements, the mesmerizing green patch on his belly that somehow seemed to be expanding.
She said his body was cool, which made it hard to keep your hands off him on summer nights. At times he’d let out a low moan, at times he spoke, but mostly he preferred the former. He was a beast. The scales on his leg gave off such a dazzling light.
Perhaps he really was the descendant of a poet, melancholy by nature.
I went back to the gallery where she’d held her exhibition, but all the portraits of Cloud had already been sold. I asked the owner who’d bought them. He stammered and refused to tell me, so I deployed Charley’s name.
“It was Mr He,” said the owner. “He Qi.”
He Qi. He Qi. I quickly found the face—I’d just seen him in the papers. He was Lefty’s boyfriend, the prominent Yong’an construction magnate’s son.
Excerpted from Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Melville House. Copyright © 2021 by Yan Ge.