Mr. You from the antiques shop was fifty-four years old, but still a young man in the eyes of his acquaintances and friends. His skin was smooth and unwrinkled. He had beautiful, slightly melancholy eyes.
In the past he had been the kind of handsome young man girls welcomed. At school the teachers doted on him. His personal life was hardly smooth sailing, but there were no life-or-death crises. His nature quietly settled into shape apart from anyone’s notice. Now people believed him to be an antiques appraiser in reality as well as name. Almost all of the antiques in the city underwent his evaluation.
A stranger looking at Mr. You would have seen no trace of time’s passage on that face—he looked too much, in fact, like someone a little over thirty. Only people who knew him well could discern the subtle signs on his face. Cuilan, for one, had recently seen his age with her own eyes.
She had run into Mr. You by chance. Disturbed by Wei Bo’s problems, she was walking down the street aimlessly when, without knowing why, she stepped into the antiques shop. The lobby was filled with samples of bloodstones, calligraphy and paintings by famous people, and porcelain utensils. The owner of the antiques shop came out to greet her and attentively sized her up, making her uncomfortable and a little angry. Then he said, “Ms., you’ve finally come. He is upstairs waiting for you.”
“Do you mean Mr. You? Why would he be waiting for me?” she asked.
“You’ll know when you go upstairs.” He pointed to the staircase.
There was not a ray of light in the hallway upstairs. Cuilan hesitated. Which of the rooms was Mr. You’s? A small animal, probably a cat, tugged at the leg of her pants.
“Come in.” Mr. You’s hoarse voice came from the right.
Cuilan pushed the door open and entered. He sat by the bed and seemed the whole time to be in a stupor. A bright incandescent bulb illuminated him from overhead. The flesh on his face hung loosely, forming two large bubbles under his eyelids. It was the face of an elderly man. Bewildered, Cuilan wondered, How does he make the skin on his face stretch taut? The room’s furnishings were unusually plain, nothing beyond a wooden bed and a chair. Several pieces of his clothing had been tossed into a built-in closet, which stood half-open. Mr. You, usually so elegant, lived here!
He must have caught a cold. He coughed a few times, then strained to say, “There are no rivers that cannot be crossed, Cuilan. You understand this principle.”
While speaking he also showed the ferocious smile she had seen before. It made her a little nervous.
“I am the guardian of the treasures stored underground. The treasures don’t really need me to guard them. In the dark they stay in place in methodical order, secretly mocking me. Cuilan, you’re an expert. What do you think of my condition now?”
“No, I’m not an expert. I work at a gauge and meter factory.” Cuilan’s mind strained as she spoke. That incandescent bulb irritated her. “I think you’re a pessimist. You should go outside to play. You’re very handsome, all the girls like you. There won’t be rivers that you cannot cross. You’re not like me, I’m such a mess. Recently I feel like I’m heading toward a dead end.”
“See, we can share our sorrows with each other here. What’s the weather like outside?”
“It’s a sunny day. Put your clothes on and go downstairs. I’m leaving.”
“Wait a minute! Look inside the closet for me. I’m too scared.”
Cuilan walked over to the enormous closet and pulled the door all the way open. The scene before her eyes made her fall back two steps. An exceptionally pretty woman was lying underneath the clothing. She raised herself, revealing a bizarrely thin and scarred neck.
“I am the vagrant A Liang. I have an incurable illness,” she said.
“Hello, A Liang. I find your face familiar.” Cuilan looked attentively at her.
“I’m your cousin Niu Yiqing’s neighbor. I had nowhere to stay until I found this place. I think it’s safe here. Mr. You is very good.”
“That’s because I love you,” Mr. You responded from off to the side.
“Cuilan, I have lost my hometown.” A Liang, whose name meant “light,” raised one palm into the light and gazed at it, murmuring. “You already know our hometown is no longer on the surface of the earth. Every day I sniffed here and there along the ground until I found the upstairs of Mr. You’s building. I know this place is my home, even though my being here harms Mr. You.”
“Nonsense, ridiculous.” Mr. You stood, shaking his head vehemently.
Cuilan turned around to ask him, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve already helped us, Ms.,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You’ve brought in fresh air from outside. This is exactly what we needed. People who live in antiques shops have trouble breathing because of the ghosts and spirits surrounding them.”
Cuilan stared in shock at the flabbiness of the skin on his face. She thought the skin might fall off as she looked at it, revealing the skull inside. She averted her eyes, but that face would not release her and oppressed her more and more. At last her head grew dizzy. She cried out and sat down on the floor.
After a while she heard Mr. You talking quietly with A Liang.
“Whether or not to cross the river is your decision,” he said.
“There are too many people. If you think we should cross the river, then let’s cross. I won’t leave you.”
“We’ll go across to that side, look around, and then leave. What do you think of this plan?”
“I’ve already seen my father. He swept all over with a broom. He probes everywhere.”
“If you don’t want to see your family, we won’t cross the river.”
“Good, we won’t cross the river. Someone outside is calling Cuilan.”
It was the owner calling to Cuilan from the shop. She went out following the sound. He clutched her hand and pulled her down the stairs.
After Cuilan left, Mr. You’s face began to transform. From the top of the forehead, like a silkworm sloughing its skin, the face became smooth piece by piece. Finally, he regained his youthfulness, with the same appearance as when people outside saw him.“He sat by the bed and seemed the whole time to be in a stupor. A bright incandescent bulb illuminated him from overhead. The flesh on his face hung loosely, forming two large bubbles under his eyelids. It was the face of an elderly man.”
“The air in this room is poisonous,” he said to A Liang. “What do you think of me now?”
“I can’t see your face, only a ball of light.”
The two of them went downstairs hand in hand to eat. They passed through the antiques shop and went into the restaurant across the street. The antiques shop’s owner stood at the entrance staring at their backs. He saw Mr. You’s body send out flashes of electric light.
Mr. You ordered several light dishes. They sat down and ate.
“When I was in the countryside, they said my life was worthless, that I would fall into a demons’ den,” A Liang said.
“They were not entirely wrong. You’re not afraid, little one?”
“I’m excited. I like this kind of life.”
A Liang’s wan cheeks suddenly flushed with two red spots.
“That’s good, that’s good,” Mr. You said, as if thinking of something, “but I’m not sure of living like this. I can’t even say how many years I’ve lived.”
“I’m not afraid. Why are you scared when night comes?”
“Because my heartbeat is too loud, deafening, louder than a drum in my ears. Especially while I wait for them to come. Haven’t you heard it?”
“I haven’t heard it. The night is so quiet, I don’t hear anything at all. I’m worried about you. I want to help, but I can’t hear anything, or see anything . . .”
“No one can help . . .”
He put down his chopsticks with an absentminded look on his face. He pointed to the bare wall opposite, wanting to say something, but saying nothing.
The owner of the restaurant came over and said to A Liang, as though there were nothing strange, “Mr. You has seen that river again. We should follow him, because his whole life has been difficult.”
She simultaneously plucked a lily from the wall and gave it to Mr. You as though performing a magic trick. A Liang said, “Oh,” and took some time recovering her composure.
Mr. You stuck the lily in the buttonhole of his suit and walked to the counter to pay the check.
“I want flowers, too,” A Liang said, pointing to the blank wall.
The owner reached out and plucked at the wall twice, but her hand remained empty.
“Thank you,” A Liang said humbly.
“There is a strong negative energy in the antiques shop. He’s been on guard for so many years, his destiny is almost consumed. Don’t leave him, no matter what. Mr. You will walk to the dark end of the path he has started. He’s that kind of person. We have watched him for twenty years from this side of the street. Look, he’s waiting for you to go over.”
A Liang drew her arm through Mr. You’s, and they slowly walked down the street. Her full attention was on the lily in Mr. You’s pocket, that fresh bloom. A Liang thought, Only Mr. You suits this type of flower. Her mind became brighter.
They walked a long way, reaching the road to the outskirts of the city. A Liang was confused by her own strength. An uncle of hers saw them and stopped, surprised, at the side of the road. He stayed there until they had walked far into the distance. He was her actual uncle, her father’s brother. He remembered her having been mad for several years, but the A Liang he had just seen was like a dewy lotus flower. He suspected he had mistaken someone else for her.
“Listen, the production team’s bell,” A Liang said.
The two of them sat on a wooden bench beside the road. A Liang rested her head on Mr. You’s shoulder.
“I understand now that the lily bloomed specially for you. We people from the countryside have a few secret routes mapped in our heads. I wandered through the alley off of Plum Street that day. All the alleyways in a place like that look exactly the same. Afterward a lamp lit somewhere inside of me, and I walked and walked until I reached your shop. You were looking at that vase with a magnifying glass when you turned around and saw me. You showed me upstairs, then went back down again to continue your work.”
Mr. You said nothing. He knew this was love. He knew he was a fool! His ideals now made him seem like a hypocrite. Couldn’t A Liang die at any time?
He drummed up the courage to say three words with an effort, “I’m not worthy.”
A Liang gently stroked his back and continued, “The gutters in the village are also route maps. I looked back and forth until they were familiar, recorded fast in my mind. That man just now was my uncle. He enjoys moving back and forth through these ditches and pools more than anything else. I would sneak behind him and discovered the secret. I had gone to the city once before. There’s actually no difference between the city and the countryside, or, if I had to say what difference there is, then it’s that the city is even more lonesome than the country. Once the sky is dark, and I start to think of the antiques, I cannot feel my body around me. I don’t call out to you. I know you are somewhere very, very far away.”
He could finally speak. He said, “You are my beauty. I will carry on resisting, for you, for myself. Next time, shout to me. I will shout back to you.”
They stood and turned home.
A swallow flew past. A Liang thought of her mother. Would she return to the village if her mother were still alive? For her this was a troubling question.
The sky was already dark when they got back to the antiques shop. Mr. You opened the door with a key. It was dark inside, too. The electricity was out, an everyday occurrence at the shop.
“They’re already here. Go and hide,” Mr. You said.
He pushed A Liang away and disappeared among the display cabinets.
A Liang’s whole body turned cold. A firefly lit and then went dark inside of her. She groped her way to the wall, feeling along it to the stairwell. There was someone squatting on the stairs. It was the antiques shop’s owner.
“After I got off work I came over to look around. There are three electricians repairing the circuits.”
“Owner Zhu, have I brought more chaos into the store?” A Liang asked in a quiet voice.
“No, it’s nothing. Besides, I’m not afraid of chaos. The three of them, I mean the electricians, are upset. The repairs are getting more difficult. It’s the kind of damage that doesn’t leave any traces behind. The shop is tottering, about to collapse. Mr. You always takes charge. Are you going upstairs? Go to the room and stay there. Mr. You cannot fail. You should believe in him.”
A Liang felt her way to the door, but couldn’t open it. She sat down in the hallway. She sensed, as usual, an eerie stillness. Even though Mr. You would share his woes with her after every incident, saying he was tired and out of breath, or close to a collapse from which he might never wake, A Liang did not hear anything. She had asked Mr. You about this, and he had said, “That is because you are at the center of the turmoil.”
All of a sudden she felt wet plants on the wall, a large quantity of them, probably flowers. Oh, the entire surface of the wall was spread with roses.
“Hold on, hold on!” she said.
“I’m here . . . near you . . .” His voice was faint.
A Liang pressed her face into the roses, the thorns pricking her cheeks. She thought, “How good, I also have flowers that bloom for me. I’m not afraid of dying. The sensation of death must be good.”
She thought again of the three anxious electricians, imagining them as figures clambering around the hall of the antiques shop like monkeys. Some person or wild animal swatted her from above. Rose petals fell onto her face. She stood, feeling happy.
From Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. Published by Yale University Press in November 2018 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.