Li Ch’iao (pen name of Li Ch’i) has been in poor health since childhood. In the autobiographical sketch provided for his Self Selections (Li Ch’iao tzu-hsüan-chi, Taipei, 1974), he mentioned that when he was seven he was attacked by malaria for a period of one year. This narrow brush with death convinced him of the precariousness of human existence, paving the way for his immersion in Buddhism later. “After I have studied Buddhism for some years” he writes in the short preface to Self Selections: “I have found that many phenomena of life, be it social, natural, or scientific, can be explained, within the limit of my understanding, in terms of Buddhism.” “The Spheric Man,” though strikingly similar to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” in its evocation of unintelligible horror, is an effort to explain the absurdities of life in the Buddhist scheme of existence. Summing up his life at forty in 1914, Li Ch’iao confides to us that he will spend the rest of his days in “teaching, writing, and cultivating mountain orchids. [Of course] I will continue to read the Buddhist scriptures and retain my habits as a vegetarian.” A prolific writer since 1962, he recently crowned his achievement with a trilogy of epic proportions chronicling the fortunes of the island from the early Chinese settlement up to near the end of the Second World War. This trilogy consists of three novels totaling about one million words: Cold Nights (Han-yeh), The Deserted Village (Huang-ts’un), and Lone Light (Ku-teng), all published by Taipei’s Yüanching Press from 1979 to 1980.
Translated by Marston Anderson
Chin Chih-sheng had stayed in bed for two days. No one had ever seen or heard of a strange illness like his. Even that learned authority on internal medicine, Dr. Liu, just knitted his brow.
Two days ago the weather had suddenly turned cold. As the dim morning sky lightened, Chin Chih-sheng’s bladder burned unbearably with the night’s accumulation of urine, but he couldn’t shake off his drowsiness. Reluctant to open his eyes, he fumbled his way to the toilet. This was a happy, beautiful moment. He quickly undid his buttons—
Suddenly a hot, wet sensation passed down his leg. He opened his eyes. His mouth gaped. He was still snug in his blanket! To think that a full-grown man could wet his bed! But with his shame was mixed a secret pleasure, the kind of satisfaction a child feels after playing pranks or raising hell.
As he came out of the toilet, the clock on the wall read half past six. His four children and wife were already up. Seeing that his wife hadn’t noticed him, he slipped quickly into the bedroom and thrust himself under the covers.
“About one hour left, you hear? Slouch!” His wife’s voice was penetrating, even at a distance, but once he determined that at least she wasn’t standing at the head of the bed grinding her teeth with her arms akimbo, he could afford to ignore her. He decided to sleep another thirty minutes—no, fifty minutes; if he rose at 7:20 or a little later, he could still make it. What’s a few more minutes anyway, he thought.
He carefully tried to nurse what was left of his drowsiness, but his pants leg was icy cold, raising goosebumps all up his calf and thigh, even as far as his waist. He couldn’t sleep, but he really wasn’t willing to get up. He let his thoughts wander idly; that was always more pleasant than climbing out of bed.
His wife was grumbling again, this time close to his ear. This was still nothing to get anxious about, since he had long ago cultivated a special skill: to his wife’s prattle, his colleague’s stares, his boss’s roars, he could “listen” attentively for a long time without letting his nerve centers impart any meaning to the sound waves they received. To use psychiatric jargon, he had a sensory but not a cognitive recognition of them: he merely heard a roaring sound, what might be called “cacophony.”
Evidently his wife was letting loose with her ineffectual tongue as usual. Now he heard the sound of cloth rubbing against cloth. It was his wife taking off her ragged pajamas and dressing for work. Suddenly a disturbing image appeared, as if projected on a screen: the skimpy bra, the swollen breasts, the plump round buttocks, which had not been affected by the poor quality of the food the family ate.
“Mei-chi, I’ve failed you in every way!” This familiar, repulsive phrase bored its way out from his heart’s core. “Good-for-nothing!” He borrowed his wife’s expression to chastise himself.
After scolding himself coldly this way, he immediately offered himself some sympathetic consolation. “Chin Chih-sheng, you’re a good man, a sincere good man. You’ve been wronged! You deserve to see better days. Don’t worry, though, with any luck they’re coming soon. But you’re too weak. Height, 170 centimeters; weight, 50 kilograms; blood pressure, 99 over 60, too low; you’re anemic.” Brooding, he fondly stroked his own lean cheeks, then smiled dejectedly.
His body was curled up in a ball under the covers. He now arched his back even further and drew in his neck, burying his head in his breast. He hugged his folded legs tightly and let his palms touch his rump, making an almost perfect sphere. This was a habit he had formed long ago—he didn’t remember when. This position, or rather the stimulation this position gave to his joints and muscles, produced in him an indescribable joy.
There was, of course, another secret known to no one: he felt most protected and secure when he chose to sleep in this position. It gave his partner in bed no point of attack from any direction.
The room was quiet and lonely now; his wife and four children had left. The clock had long ago struck 7:30. He knew the moment had arrived. He drew a deep breath, and pushed himself out of the blanket.
But for some reason his whole body maintained its position, and to his surprise his limbs were heavy and intractable. This was a very uncomfortable sensation.
“Is it my anemia that made my arms and legs numb?” he thought, feeling a wave of pity for them.
Finally he managed to get out of bed, but his limbs were still stiff, and if he did not stay fully alert, they seemed to contract. If he didn’t get on his way soon, he would have to ask for the day off, which was a frightening thing, since the procedure demanded close contact with the boss. He would have to drag his immovable frame in to pay homage to the boss’s oily pink mug.
At 8:01, after signing in, he sat in his place and arranged the official documents on his desk. Then he went to the lavatory. This was another habit of long standing. Every morning, as he looked over the documents with their dense web of numerals, he felt a sinking in his bowels and his rectum dilated. It didn’t matter if he’d already relieved himself, or skipped breakfast, like today.
He liked to squat on the toilet and let his mind wander. This was especially true when he was squatting on the tiny old-fashioned toilet at home. With the door shut, it was so dark he couldn’t see his own hands. He could make faces or quietly curse his enemies, with no chance of being found out. But the ten dollars it cost to have the sewage dredged each month was really too exorbitant, and if his wife were to clean it out he’d have to help out too. His pleasure was dampened by this thought.
The company lavatory, though it was bright and spacious, was vaguely oppressive. He felt alone and vulnerable, but so long as the doors and windows were locked up tight, he would be secure and fearless again.
“I am the greatest man in the world!” He said in a voice loud enough for himself to hear. And with the index finger of his right hand he wrote it out carefully on the white tiles, again and again.
This singular habit—that whenever he entered the lavatory he would unconsciously recite this sentence several times in a whisper—had originated in high school. He had been a rather prominent student, exceptional in class and a marvel on the exercise field. He was a member of the school’s volleyball and table tennis teams and, from his junior year, captain in charge of raising and lowering the flag.
Then an unfortunate incident occurred during the first term of his senior year. It was the day of the twentieth anniversary of the school’s founding, to be celebrated with a martial review and various drills. As captain, after reporting the number of students to the principal, he called out, “Let the review commence!” Just as he drew his breath to yell out the command, something gave at his waist, and a chill ran down his legs—his belt had burst and his trousers slid down, revealing his white thighs!
He froze, as ripples of uncontrolled laughter arose. He yanked up his trousers furiously and fled through a gap in the ranks. Suddenly the sharp burning sound of laughter exploded. He hid in the lavatory, his whole body trembling and soaked in a cold sweat. Then his tears poured out.
“No, no, it isn’t true! It must be a ghastly nightmare!” This pleading cry rose from his heart.
“I’m a good student, a remarkable athlete!” He comforted himself. “Someday I’ll be the greatest man in the world!”
This was a crippling assault on his psyche. Since that time, he had become quiet and reserved, and he walked with his head down, not daring to look others straight in the eye. Painfully shy, like a young girl, he would blush bright red if anyone looked at him.
From that time on, he would repeat this sentence every time he entered the toilet: “I am the greatest man in the world.” Since the day he noticed this inexplicable habit, he had resolved many times to break it. But after several attempts to suppress it, he found the habit had a force of its own, pressuring him harder and harder until he was no longer able to contain it, and he had to blurt the sentence out. Later he realized this sentence was like a sedative or a wonder drug to relieve his heart of its nameless anxiety. He had only to say it softly in the restroom, and both body and mind would relax, refreshed. It was a wonderful feeling, like that of a badly constipated man after a good shit.
Because of his family’s poverty, he couldn’t continue his education. One after another, his hopes had been dashed. By the time he had married and become a father, he had also withdrawn from his idealism, and gradually grown old. The only two treasured means of relaxation for him were to drink a cup or two of wine behind his wife’s back, and to hide in the toilet and repeat this sentence.
Today he felt very uneasy. Random thoughts flickered uncontrollably in his mind, making him miscopy three numbers in succession. He longed to chat with someone, or idly hum a few notes. But his supervisor was sitting right behind him, and to his right was the self-important section chief Wang, whose mouth seemed to be permanently sealed by adhesive cement. On his right was Miss Yang: whenever you lifted your head by accident and caught her glance, she would purse her lips, wrinkle her nose, and roll her eyes, as though you were making a pass for her tender young flesh! That youngster opposite him was the most hateful of all. When they had first met during summer break this year, he had grabbed Chih-sheng’s palm and nearly broken his hand off shaking it: “I’m a graduate of the Foreign Language Department of National X and Y University. How about you, Venerable One?”1 Pshaw! Damn the smartass! A Venerable One at 42? I’m a graduate of a private high school, how’s that? He ground his teeth and swallowed hard.
“It’s a lonely world! A desert!” He cried out to himself, and miscopied a “7” as a “9” again.
Work let out at 5:30. He left the office as quickly as possible, but didn’t rush home. After work he usually paged through books at the stalls by the post office, then pored over the advertisements and preview posters at a couple of movie theaters. If he went home too early, he would be the one to cook dinner.
The clocks in the watchmaker’s shop already pointed to past six before he decided on a direction, lowered his head, and directed his steps homeward. Walking with his head down was also a kind of pleasure: for one thing, as long as you avoided the busier thoroughfares, cars would yield to you if you walked slowly, head lowered; for another, it meant you didn’t have to bow and scrape publicly before Foreman Puss and Chairman Cur; third, you saw no one and could pursue your own thoughts at will, as in the toilet.
This was a broad, smooth asphalt road. The vehicles in the fast lanes tangled chaotically, like ants running from a destroyed anthill. Motorbikes brushed past him, letting out a string of farts. Several times the streamers on the handlebars of these hell-on-wheels brushed against his earlobes. He lost his temper and yelled out at the top of his voice, “Hey! Damn you!”
Annoyed, he kicked an egg-sized stone with his right foot. The stone egg rolled a considerable distance before stopping, only to be kicked again by his left foot. As he conveyed this amusing stone egg along the road with him, a rare smile broke through at the corner of his mouth. This stone made him think of his boss, whom they all called “Rotten Egg” behind his back. He remembered “Rotten Egg” chewing out that youngster opposite him this afternoon:
“Idiot! To think you went to college! I’m warning you: make that mistake again, and you’re finished! Now out of my sight! Get rolling!”
“Yes sir, Mr. President. Please forgive me this time . . .” The youngster stifled a sob in his throat.
“Out of my sight! Get rolling! The farther from my sight the better!” Rotten Egg slammed his fist on the desk.
Everyone in the office held their breath as this “sound effect” emerged from inside the boss’s room. When the youngster came out like a whipped puppy, Chin Chih-sheng kept his head lowered as though hypnotized, not daring to look at him. But in his heart he was screaming, “Serves you right!”
Rotten Egg liked to point at the noses of his subordinates and scream, “Out of my sight!” Then after three seconds or so he would add the words, “Get rolling!”
Of course Chih-sheng had had his share of this kind of scolding. At first he had been really upset and considered quitting in a huff, but when he thought of the uncertain future ahead, and envisioned his wife’s expression and his children’s faces, he had to close his eyes tight and swallow it. Later, as he grew accustomed to the scoldings, he became insensitive to them, and even a bit amused by them. He had once gone as far as to make a record of the scoldings he had received on a calendar he kept under the glass on his office desk—each time he was reprimanded, he would make a mark. A half year later he had accumulated more than fifty marks.
Now he kicked the stone egg so that it went rolling to a distance; the rock was still controlled by his feet. As he kicked it, he imagined the pleasure of rolling. Rolling was truly a marvelous manner of traveling! Fleet as a deer dashing through the forest at night, to roll forward and back, from quiescence to movement, and again from movement to quiescence, was to move without leaving a trace.
Suddenly he thought—no, one should say that the brooding of months and years suddenly materialized as a concrete, integral idea: he felt that if one were to abandon the human standpoint, that is, to give up the human aesthetic prejudice, then one would find that the human form was certainly loathsome and comical to look at: an elliptical lump of flesh which, for no reason, put out four thin strips of flesh, all about equal in length, two from each end. To this another small lump of flesh covered with black thread was attached by a short stump of flesh. The appendages gave the whole a threatening bearing, combative and full of animosity.
Thus, what was basically wrong with the human form was probably the unfortunate four strips of flesh. If you cut them off, or if they disappeared, man would be a most amiable, lovable creature—a ball of flesh. You had only to say once to this soft, compliant ball of flesh, “Roll!” and it would roll out of sight, quite naturally, without any argument . . .
As he walked he brooded over these profound questions, and once home, he sprawled stupidly on a ragged rattan chair and continued his ruminations.
His two boys were playing table tennis; the white ball was pitched playfully and nimbly from side to side by their paddles. His two girls were juggling, each with four small beanbags. Their little hands moved rapidly, rotating the beanbags in turn, one in the hand, three in the air, eight between the two, up, down, up, down. How marvelous it looked!
Before he knew it, he was transfixed by these beanbags. He borrowed two from his daughters and imitated their juggling game. The soft round beanbags felt comfortable in his palms.
“If only I were still an eight- or nine-year-old child!” He felt a deep envy for his children.
But an eight- or nine-year-old child must go to school. There was no freedom at school. Better six or seven. But three or four was better yet, or two or three years old, resting on his mother’s breast, without a care or worry. How fine! he thought. Brooding to abstraction, he wrapped his two arms about his chest, and clutched his arms with his fingers, as if sunk in the faded dreams of childhood.
“Hey! You still sitting there?” His wife’s hoarse cry came suddenly from behind him.
“Huh . . . what is it?” He looked about anxiously. The children were no longer there, and the lights were still off.
“Everyone’s waiting for you,” his wife grunted, and stamped into the kitchen, from where her cold remark emerged, “Good-for-nothing!”
“Daddy, dinner’s ready!” his oldest daughter called in a sharp voice.
He quickly dismissed his wife’s abusive words, but when he caught sight of what little food they had on the table, the echo of his wife’s lament became audible again: “Good-for-nothing!”
After dinner, his children finished their homework and went to bed at a little past eight. This was the time his children used to go to a neighbor’s house to watch television, but a month ago he had suddenly received an unsigned note: “Mr. Chin Chih-sheng: Please restrain your children from crowding around our windows and peering in. It’s not that I would deny others a view of my television, but dark shapes outside the windows constitute a psychological threat to the people inside. . . .” From then on he and his wife had laid down the law: it was no longer permitted to “take a peek” at other people’s televisions.
After his wife had tidied up the kitchen, she took out her cashmere yarn and began knitting. This provided a side income, bringing in three or four dollars every evening. On Sunday, when Chih-sheng took over the cooking, she could knit an entire sweater and earn eighteen dollars.2 During the week, his wife worked ten hours a day in a textile mill (eight hours according to the original contract, but everyone “willingly” worked two hours overtime), yet in the evening she still labored at this exhausting, eye-damaging handwork. It made him uneasy, and he had once tried to learn the knitting himself, but he was too clumsy and ended wasting the yarn.
“Chin-sheng? . . .” his wife asked him as she knitted.
“Yes? What is it?” Half-conscious, he was on the verge of dozing off.
“You should find a job on the side to supplement our income,” his wife said, yawning.
“I . . . I’ve tried, but . . .”
“The rent is due in three days. To renew the lease, they’re sure to want three months’ rent in advance.”
“You think they can drive us out if we don’t pay?” he flared up.
“They have our contract in their hands. If we don’t honor it, they might go to our guarantor to make trouble!” his wife reminded him rather coldly, staring at him with her nose wrinkled.
“But we don’t have the money! Don’t you remember, we have just paid our oldest child’s tuition.”
“What’s more, your brother sends word he wants three thousand dollars from you by the end of the month to build a grave for your parents!”
He closed his eyes. He had to find a way not to listen.
“You don’t care?” His wife struck the table with her knitting needle and glared at him.
“How can . . .” He stood up, shook his head, blinked, and bit his lips. He turned about and glanced down at the ground, hoping to bore in somewhere and hide, but there was no crevice anywhere. He felt an irritating twinge in his nostrils as he said, “But I’ve given you every cent of the money I’ve earned!”
His wife followed his words with her favorite phrase, and he couldn’t help but intone in unison with her in his mind: “Good-for-nothing!”
That night he dreamed he had somehow returned to his childhood days when he had just learned to walk. This was a welcome, friendly setting for a dream: the balmy spring breeze, the lazy spring sunshine, his mother’s benevolent smile, her loving caresses, her kisses . . .
He was startled awake the next morning by the slam of the door as his wife left for work.
His wife and children had all left. He heard only the ticking of the old clock. Still curled up deep in the covers, he slowly and greedily savored the aftertaste of his dream. Or rather, he pretended to forget that it was time to rise, hoping by some chance to continue his dreaming.
“I’m still a child who’s just learned to walk! On my mother’s breast. . .” he told himself.
“No, I still cant walk. I’m an infant. . .” He practiced sucking under his blanket.
How could everything be so familiar? It was as though he had seen and felt these things only yesterday! This was an extraordinary sensation: everything partly true, partly false. Everything seemed on the point of vanishing, and yet also slowly coming into being. He felt agitated, exhilarated. But with his excitement was mixed an inexplicable tragic isolation. Something was about to be born, something about to expire. Amidst this growth and destruction, he felt clear headed one moment, muddled the next. His heart beat madly. He heard the weeping of an owl, or an infant.
Suddenly, for an instant, a bright white light flashed in his eyes. The white light gradually turned pink, then bright red. He discovered himself wrapped in some soft, crimson membrane.
“That’s it! I’m back in my mother’s womb! I’m hiding in the placenta!”
Yes, this time he clearly saw, or rather, he clearly perceived his environment: his back was arched, his neck was coiled tightly, his four limbs were curled about his chest. From his navel radiated blood vessels and the placental membrane. This was the tranquil, solitary space of the womb. The amnion and placenta nursed him well. How snug he felt! He found himself lying feet up, head down, as though cradled, gently rocking. A round ball of flesh. . . .
He discovered that he had indeed become a round ball of flesh.
He recalled that there were many times he had felt this way, but today things were different: no matter what effort he exerted, he couldn’t extend his tightly coiled arms and legs. He laughed to think of the bad joke he had brought on himself, but he had to admit it was true. He started to worry.
“It seems I’ve contracted a strange illness—I’m just fantasizing.”
The realization that his condition was indeed serious had the strange effect of calming him: in cases of illness, it was expected that one take the day off work. He began to consider the tangible problems:
“When my wife sees I’m not just loafing idly in bed, but have become a large ball of flesh, deposited here, unable to rise, she will naturally not be so savage. Who knows, when Rotten Egg hears the news, he might even come see me. Haven’t I labored ardently as his clerk for over ten years? Maybe this sudden disease which has bent my back and coiled my limbs is the result of exhaustion after all that time bent over my desk! Maybe Rotten Egg will turn benevolent, and send me to a first-rate hospital for treatment. Maybe he will find my family a spacious room—and pay the rent himself, of course.” At this point, his body coiled up more tightly. Without thinking he rocked lightly—with about a thirty degree roll.
“Yes, I can’t walk, but I can roll! With one roll I could roll out of sight!”
As his heart expanded, unfortunately his bladder also swelled to the utmost. He fretted a while, then painfully pushed the blanket to the foot of the bed with his shoulders. Rocking his body in ever larger arcs, he finally perfected a complete 360-degree roll. He checked out the angle, then rolled just to where his feet and palms extended over the edge of the bed.
He struggled to press his shoulder and collarbone towards his spine, and stretched his arms out as far as possible. Then straining at the waist, he shifted his body forward so that his chin rested on the edge of the bed. The next step was to support his body’s weight on his elbows and, using his hands and feet, slowly lower himself from the bed with a crawling, rowing, rolling movement. He crouched there in a ball; then with his two hands assisting his calves, he employed the power in the soles of his feet to “convey” his body to the toilet.
After relieving himself, he “conveyed” himself to the kitchen. A ferocious hunger attacked him. Fortunately a chair stood in front of the kitchen cabinet. With effort he climbed onto it, opened the cabinet, and ate the cold steamed bun his wife had left him.
The strange thing was that after he had accomplished these things the strength in his hands and feet gradually diminished and they started coiling. In a few minutes he clearly noticed that his fingers and the tips of his toes began to grow stiff and numb. Now his hands, feet, and arms were all incapable of independent movement; his body’s energy was spread generally throughout, rather than distributed to each individual part according to its special function.
“Since you’ve contracted into a ball of flesh, then be happy as a ball of flesh! You are a living ball of flesh now, a fetus, so you can only think the things a fetus would think.” He mildly cautioned, then reassured himself: “Chin Chih-sheng, accept your fate! What’s called for now is resignation.”
He was sunk in random, confused brooding.
“Can a fetus think?” He began to wonder. “Probably not, but why not give it a try?” What does a fetus think? Of its peaceful environment, of warm feelings, and tasty nourishment? No, a fetus takes in nourishment through the umbilical cord. His head was buried in his breast, and in his unconscious he seemed to see a stream of yellow liquid nourishment entering his belly.
Can a fetus make sounds? He felt his mouth was stuck fast by something. He made a sobbing sound, “woo-oo,” but feeling that somehow wrong, changed it to “ee-ee . . . ao-aow . . .”
A fetus needs exercise. He strained to stretch out his hands and kick his legs, but the range of his movements was small. In the placenta inside the womb, the fetus has little room to move.
“Now no one can bully me . . .
“Now no one can harm me . . .
“Now I am truly safe . . .”
His thoughts soared. He rocked his body again slightly, then with the help of his elbows and palms, he slowly rolled from kitchen to den.
“Haha! I am really rolling! What a wonderful way to move!” He heard his own laughter, but the words did not pass from his lips.
Once in the room he contentedly rolled about, pushing and crawling, then climbed onto an old rattan chair and “deposited” himself there, panting. In various parts of his body—his neck, the top of his head, his elbows, wrists, ankles, knees, and the top of his feet—he felt a dull pain amidst the numbness, but in his heart he felt incomparably cheerful.
He was “deposited” with his head down and feet up. This was the most comfortable position. Through a corner where the glass was broken he gazed out the window at a patch of sky. The spring sky was a pale blue color, with light white clouds.
“Ah! How lovely the world is! How wonderful!” He sighed happily.
Late that afternoon, just as Chin Chih-sheng was considering relying on his own power to return to bed, he suddenly heard his wife cry: “The kids? Where are they? Not even one of them home? Where have the four of them gone today? . . . Aiya! You! . . . What’s happened?” his wife was yelling and shouting, just as he imagined she would.
What could he say? A fetus can’t speak.
“Chih-sheng! You . . . what in the world are you doing? What the . . .”
He couldn’t see his wife’s face, but just hearing her trembling voice was oppressive enough. Answer her? A fetus not only can’t speak, but probably can’t even fully comprehend the language of these full-grown humans. The important thing now was to use his own power to climb into bed.
His wife was still chattering away, making strange noises. The children had returned. Little Ah-hui seemed to be crying with fright. But shortly after, the children were gone again; these things didn’t really matter to them.
Movement was increasingly difficult, except, of course, rolling. Just at the most difficult moment, his body suddenly felt lighter, and he “rose” onto the bed. It was his wife who had reached out to help him at the right moment. She was, after all, his wife.
His wife sat at the head of the bed, crying and asking a lot of foolish questions. Probably frustrated when he didn’t answer, she pushed him fiercely with both hands. As a result, his body, originally lying back-down on the bed, effortlessly rolled over 180 degrees, until he lay with his back arched up. He suddenly envisioned a tortoise with its hard shell facing heaven: so now he too had taken on a turtle’s ridiculous appearance!
“Ma, what’s Daddy doing?” Ah Fang’s voice, Ah Fang, daddy’s gentlest child.
“Go call Chi-hsiang, buy two buns each—here, three dollars, take it!”
“We’ll find something else for Daddy to eat!” His wife suddenly stood up; could she be losing her temper again?
“Where’s Mother going?” It was Chi-hsiang’s deep voice; he was growing up!
“To call the doctor!”
His four children had been noisily coaxed away with three dollars. The room was suddenly quiet. His wife was really in a state this time, it seemed. But what was he to do? This was a disease, an unusual disease.
Oh, to lie this way was too unsightly; he’d have to return to the head-down position. Hm, that’s right! Years ago, when he had practiced yoga, he used to assume a similar position.
He heard a racket outside. He could imagine his children walking along dejectedly, chewing on their buns. How pathetic! He felt like going out to embrace them! But no, a fetus couldn’t walk on its feet, and there was never any hope of doing so.
The children were hailing Mommy. His wife was back.
“Chih-sheng, are you better?” his wife said gently. Was his wife gentle after all?
Was he better? Better how? His wife told him the doctor would be arriving soon.
Now, here was a difficult question he ought to resolve: Is this after all some strange disease? Or the normal appearance of the fetus?
At first he had lumped the two together; but if he was a fetus, what need was there for a doctor?
Perhaps he was neither a fetus nor a sick man and this was only a dream.
No, such a preposterous dream was impossible. Besides, a dream would not be this clear.
This was no light matter. Surely it was a serious mistake to treat the fetus as an illness, or view an illness as a fetus?—even though it is true that people do turn things topsy-turvy often enough.
Ah! It was better not to think of these things. It was simpler to just be a fetus. A fetus rests in its mother’s womb—but here he was “deposited” on a hard wood-frame bed. A fetus is joined flesh-and-blood to its mother—but this woman in front of his eyes was not his mother; this was a woman called his “wife,” with whom he shared a very deep relationship.
The light came on. His wife was complaining bitterly that the doctor had not arrived.
Now, looking up at her from below, he could see his wife’s features clearly in the lamplight. A strange, foreign object! His wife had a very sharp chin, jutting down to a point. Beyond her chin were two tightly curled lips, curving down at the sides. Beyond this was a hilly region, with two tall peaks facing each other; in between were black tunnels like the steep precipices of a dead volcano’s crater. Beyond the mountain peaks were valleys overgrown with weeds; in the valleys, a flash of lamplight was reflected, probably from a couple of ponds. Further on things were less clear: above a lofty bulge were many deep ridges, like a terraced field or the grooves made by an ax. And finally came a black mistlike covering, quite frightening to look at. This then was a human face? This was his wife?
“Ma, the doctor’s here!’’
His heart beat madly on the doctor’s arrival. Doctors were generally merciless, moneygrubbing demons. That his wife had managed to fetch him was very strange. Maybe the doctor would take the fetus and soak it in formaldehyde for a specimen, or dissect it for an experiment. Then what would he do?
“Dr. Liu, look at him! He won’t say a word; he just lies there like a boiled shrimp!” His wife was sobbing.
“Hm, hm, I see, I see . . .”
Dr. Liu was as fat as a sacrificial pig offered at the Chung-yüan Festival.3 His palms were as soft as a woman’s breast, all thanks to the nourishment provided by the blood and sweat of his hapless patients. Chin Chih-sheng had never imagined his emaciated body would be examined by him—by the famous local internist Dr. Liu!
Dr. Liu encountered a difficult problem as he tried to open Chihsheng’s clothes at the chest. “This won’t do, this hand . . .” he murmured. He nearly broke Chih-sheng’s neck trying to pry his head off his chest for the routine examination—the eyelids, pupils, the larynx, behind the ears. Since it was impossible to get to Chih-sheng’s chest with the stethoscope, the doctor opened Chih-sheng’s shirt as far as possible and listened to his back instead.
“Strange . . .”
“Except for being a bit weak, he is rarely ill,” his wife said.
“Has he been injured in his back or elsewhere?”
His wife didn’t make a sound; perhaps she was shaking her head. Actually, his back had probably been injured more than three months ago when she had pushed him off the bed one night.
“His chest . . . has he had surgery on his chest?”
No doubt his wife was still shaking her head.
“Has he taken any toxic substances lately? For example, alcohol—does he often indulge in liquor?”
“Not a drop.”
Ha! Ha! Little did she realize he often drank wine, though he seldom bought more than two dollars’ worth at a time, enough for one small glass and a plate of peanuts, but surely not enough to hurt anyone.
“Does he have any special habits or hobbies?”
“No. He’s a bit lazy, likes to sleep, and daydreams a lot.”
“Well . . .” Dr. Liu hesitated.
“What’s wrong with him, then? Will you please save him!” From the tone of his wife’s voice, she was almost begging him on her knees. Really, why the fuss!
“I think . . .”
“Yes? What’s wrong with him?”
“First we’ll give him a tranquilizer and see how he reacts.”
No sooner said than Chih-sheng felt a sharp prick in the buttocks. This sudden prick made him break into a cold sweat. He almost cried out. Very well! Suddenly his limbs jerked violently, and his body curled again, perhaps even tighter.
“Dr. Liu, what shall we do next?”
“Let him sleep a bit. If his body stretches out a little in his sleep, and his taut nervous condition relaxes, that will prove the source of the illness is not organic but functional. If that’s the case, it is not within the scope of the internal medicine I practice.”
“What do you mean?”
“If after he has fallen asleep, he is still like that, first thing we will do tomorrow is to take x-rays of his bones, then send them to Taipei and have several specialists examine his bone structure.”
“But . . .” His wife said just one word, unable to go on. It was enough.
“Please don’t worry. This is a unique case, and for purposes of research, we will finance everything except the price of drugs.”
His wife still had a lot of questions, and one by one Dr. Liu explained to her eagerly, as though he were expounding on a valuable antique. What a bore, what insufferable nonsense! Anyway, the tranquilizer was taking effect and Chih-sheng was gradually losing consciousness.
Unaware of how much time had passed, he opened his eyes. His wife lay dressed beside him, looking troubled even in her sleep. As for himself, he was still lying on his side holding his knees in both hands.
“So, it’s not a dream!” The various events of the day suddenly returned to him.
Once again, his belly was unbearably full. He rushed to the toilet at top speed to relieve himself, and then returned to the bedroom. Just as he was lying down to sleep again, he discovered two buns resting on the dresser. Why not eat them?
“Oh, so I can walk?” He didn’t really know if this was a blessing or a curse.
Turning his head, he saw his wife sleeping soundly like a dead pig. Instinctively, he slipped quietly out of bed again.
But another strange thing happened at this very instant: the area about his shins and knees suddenly weakened unbearably. All at once his body contracted and he crouched down . . .
“Ah . . .” He felt like crying out, but something obstructed his throat and he couldn’t catch his breath.
The same feelings, the same sequence: his heart seemed to be floating, half drunk; his limbs began to grow numb, beginning with the fingers and the toes. His body, at first half crouching, half prostrate on the ground, slowly coiled into a ball. Within perhaps five minutes he had returned to his spherical form.
Dong! Dong! The old wall clock rang out twice.
“Go out and look about! It is so quiet this time of night,” he told himself.
He very much wanted to get up and take a look at his sleeping wife again, but he didn’t have the strength. He could only roll along gently and slowly. He rolled to the sitting room. The front door was open: his wife had been too tired, and his children didn’t understand the importance of locking up doors yet—both were pardonable.
Outside, how fresh it was! A spring evening. The sky was full of sparkling stars, like a silver fantasy. No fear now of encountering any dogs or cats; having gnawed up their rats and pig bones, they’d be fast asleep.
There was a long alley, at the end of which was a dirt road. If you followed the road uphill, it connected with an asphalt street leading downtown; downhill, the road led to rice paddies.
The asphalt street would be hard to roll on. The dirt road was far better. As he rolled along, inch by inch, the soil against his hands, feet, and neck felt fine, cool, and soft as a mother’s hand.
“This then is the ideal environment for a fetus!”
Fine. Stop here for a while. A little farther on are the rice paddies. “Rivet! Rivet!” The crisp croaking of a frog sounded intermittently. Ah, how fine that croaking, a thousand times better than that little frog of a singer he once saw on the Chang’s television, shaking its head and wagging its arms, yelling, “I am a jazz drummer.” How beautiful the stars far up in the sky, so still, so timid! A thousand times better than the feeble light emitted by the dark, square lamps along the asphalt street. Some say each star is an ancient silent world. If he could only shake off this raucous, cruel world, if he could be reincarnated in one of those worlds, rolling several inches deep in its soft, fine dirt, he wouldn’t mind at all! And what was to fear in that? Who wrote those two famous lines?
Ch’ang-o should regret having stolen the elixir:
The green sea—the blue sky—her heart every night!4
Ah! Either the poet was too earthbound, or did Ch’ang-o really crave the world? But there was no doubt about one thing: those who sing in praise of these two lines had either not yet tasted all the bitterness of human life or they were simply too unprepared for Buddhist enlightenment.
Ah, indeed, it is for no one to tell. All these things were so distant, so abstract, and so insignificant, at least for the moment. What mattered now was to continue his carefree rolling, to keep hold of this moment, which belonged to him, which no one could disturb.
Well, what should he do now?
“Why not take advantage of your position and sing a song!”
Impossible! He hadn’t sung in years!
Anyone can sing, everyone likes to sing; it’s just that in days past, you couldn’t do things as you wished.
That was right. He should sing. This was his chance. How about: “I Want To Be a Good Boy”?
I want to be a good boy,
Pure of body, true of mind,
Wherever I go,
I shall be admired, I shall be admired.
“Beautiful, beautiful! Who would have thought you could sing so well?”
Huh? Strange! Since you can sing, surely you can talk as well?
He looked around; if there was no one to disturb him, he could speak out loud; he could say what he wanted to say, curse what he wanted to curse—
Oh, someone’s coming: You won’t be able to sing or speak!
“Run! Run!” But where?
Listen! It was his wife, squawking like a mother goose or a giant gander, and the sound of scattered footsteps . . .
They’re coming, all coming! They’re getting nearer. You can see them. Terrifying! All those long, black shapes, relentlessly approaching.
What could he do? It was his unavoidable fate to be seized and dragged back. To roll again now was no use. It was hopeless.
But there was one way: to shut his eyes and not look. Really it was best to shut one’s eyes and not see these people, these doings of the world.
Let come what may! Just shut your eyes and—
1. “Lao hsien-sheng,” a respectful form of address to an old man. Here it is used with mocking overtones.
2. The exchange rate is about forty Taiwan dollars to a U.S. dollar.
3. A Taoist festival falling on the fifteenth day of the seventh month under the lunar calendar.
4. These two lines are by Li Shang-yin (813?-858). In James J. Y. Liu’s translation, the complete poem, entitled “Ch’ang-o,” reads:
Against the screen of “mother-of-clouds” the candle deep shadow;
The Long River gradually sinks, the morning star sets.
Ch’ang-o should regret having stolen the elixir:
The green sea—the blue sky—her heart every night!
See The Poetry of Li Shang-yin: Ninth-Century Baroque Chinese Poet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 99.