A Room and a View [房间与风景] 1993
by Han Dong 韩东
(Translator: Michael M. Day)
All March, work on the construction site day and night
Moving us toward April's tall building
But its sixteen ways of collapse have already been predicted in the book
-- "Book of the Third Month" [第三月的书]
Everyday the city is under construction; no one should look to the mayor to proclaim a halt to it. Or hope that the blue sky will no longer let the noise of banging and hammering through. Or that during the only moment of silence in centuries, the sunlight will stream down on the brand-new core of the city, just as the sun's beams illuminated its prototype.
No one should hold out any hope.
That the mayor will stand on the roof of a building that towers into the clouds and proclaim: The interminable construction of the city has finally come to a halt! If a day does come when the mayor declares a stop, that monumental structure on which he stands will collapse.
No one should foster any hopes, the mayor included.
The city is under construction everyday; after several drafts, the blueprint of its future is in a permanent state of re-drafting (after coming into office, each mayor redoes it). Simply revising the previous mayor's mistakes requires the entire term of the new one. Suddenly, this mayor, the current office-holder in a never-ending stream of mayors, says as follows:
"With the city's future plans as grand as these, they cannot possibly be completed in a day. We'll need several decades, over a hundred or even a thousand years. And, so, when the final building is built, the first one will long since have been reduced to rubble. We won't even have to wait until the last building for this to occur. By the time we build the one-hundred-and-eighty-thousandth, the crumbling will already have begun. We must also take into account the efforts of our demolition teams, their perfecting of skills required .for safe demolition in the busy parts of town -- we shall reject all of it and start all over again. The mighty construction worker will never go hungry."
The kindergarten has been moved. The two rows of single-story buildings flattened. The task of tearing down houses is progressing smoothly.
Dust explodes upwards.
Lili closes the window, but doesn't move away from it. Her nose is pressed to the glass like a plastic eraser. Below, after the dust settles, all that remains of the kindergarten classroom is a single gable. The gable towers above the ruins; the whitewashed interior wall is bared to the sun. On the dazzling white wall, two colors, red and green, have been used to draw an evergreen tree. Beneath it is written, "Study well, progress everyday" -- eight artfully composed, varicolored characters. That inside scene of the classroom only lasts a day and a night, after which it, too, was taken apart brick by brick, tile by tile by the demolition workers.
Lili had once lain on the bed and listened to the children's songs rising up to her from below the window. The young singing voices of the children had always excited her: rehearsing, a lead singer and the choir, teaching and learning. A teacher of her own age (she could tell by her voice) played an accordion. Particularly during the short winter afternoons, when Lili woke (it was her habit to take a siesta) it was already dusk, the room was obviously darkening. When she was still slack-willed, between wakefulness and sleep, the music outside would take her by surprise, like a heavy snowfall, and she would be so sad that she'd want to die. More than once she'd imagined the girl who was her age and played the accordion -- ten fingers moving left to right, right to left over the keys, cascades of black hair following them -suddenly covering the left side of her face, suddenly the right. No matter how much this ran counter to the usual techniques of accordion playing, Lili was unable to shake the image.
Sometimes she'd think she could enter into the inner being of the accordion player and pour out her own mature feelings unreservedly in front of row after row of children, sitting with their hands behind their backs, their little chests puffed-out, mouths wide open. Making great efforts to translate commands into the simplest possible terms, she imitated their way of speaking and attempted to learn something from it. For her part, she'd condescended willingly. For some time now, she had thought being a kindergarten teacher would be the ideal job for her.
Before that, she would often go to the zoo near her parent's home to meet Ke-qiang on dates -- that was the only park in the neighborhood; it had a charming patch of grass. After making several visits, she felt she would like to bring up a tiger or some other carnivore. Of course, her infatuation with the kindergarten had lasted somewhat longer. Later she suspected that the music sounds were from a radio and there wasn't any kindergarten teacher who looked like her double. Those moving voices of the children had been embellished in a recording studio, too. She had been disappointed over this for a long time, until once again undeniably captured by those notes of music crowding in at the window.
So long as one had no prior prejudices, one could discover a true children's paradise beneath the window. Aside from two storerooms which had been converted into classrooms, beyond the roof of the choir, in a corner of the walled-enclosure of the kindergarten, there were wooden railings round an open area. And in that area was a slide, a teeter-tooter, and a set of swings painted all the colors of the rainbow. Lili had seen children lining up in single file to go to the cistern in back to wash their hands. Each pair of little hands was inspected. But the teacher who acted as leader and inspector, holding up her trousers as she went in and out of the makeshift toilet beside the cistern, making no effort to avoid the children, was not the girl that she had imagined. Her temper was bad, too. Once Lili saw the teacher slap a little boy and then forbid him to cry after he had been hit. She had stood at the fifth floor window and seen all this, and was certain that those moving songs couldn't have been sung by this group, by this type of lead singer.
Now the children had all moved away, and they had removed the roof over the choir. She had seen the one remaining wall on which the evergreen tree had been drawn. Once the children used to face it as they sang the songs over and over again. Now she had finally seen it in an unanticipated way (she had walked into the classroom several times in her dreams, but it had never been like this). The wall to which they had sung had also finally collapsed. The construction workers piled up the old bricks, cleaned up the site and prepared to start on the really big job. Lili left the window and walked into the kitchen. She wanted to make a tasty meal for her husband, Keqiang. Was it on this night that Lili got pregnant?
It was said that the plans for the construction of the buildings had already been examined and approved; moving from the street back there would be a six-storey, a four-storey, and a one-storey building. Behind the one-storey building was the dilapidated apartment house Lili and her neighbors lived in. Soon the residents' privileges would come under threat: those who lived below the fourth floor would have their sunlight blocked out, also the cool breeze that would come and go freely in the summer. Especially the first floor, it would be less than ten meters away from the future Factory 119 workshop, and once the buildings were put up they would live in its shadow from then on.
These neighboring residents entered into an unprecedented clash with Factory 119.
The reason why the first floor's attempt to generate a petition came to nothing was that, on careful reflection, the real advantages and disadvantages for those living above the third floor were split equally. That cooling summer wind of which there could never be enough would be somewhat hindered -- never again would it be as free flowing as before -- but, at the same time, since they no longer faced out onto the street, the dust invading their homes, swept upwards by passing cars, would now be kept at bay. Furthermore, they would be forty meters at least from the foremost six-storey building; sunlight, at the right time and from the proper angle, would still pour down into the deep six-storey well between buildings (the apartment building, too, had six floors).
When Lili went to get her bicycle out of the bicycle shed, she ran into Momma Shao who lived on the first floor. The latter was the chairperson of the local residents committee, for several days now she had been running allover trying to put a stop to the start up on Factory 119 -- obviously, she had lost weight. Lili had merely ventured an off-hand remark about being fat or thin, but Momma Shao really started in, droning on and on again about causes and effects of what everybody knew well already. Lili clutched at the handlebars of her bike, she couldn't leave, but also lacked the patience to listen. Finally Momma Shao said: "You've got it good on the fifth floor, your sun won't be blocked and a lot of the dust from the street will be obstructed, too. You won't even hear the car horns. You and your husband’ll be able to sleep really well at night."
But she didn't know the street scenes that Lili liked were also going to be obstructed. And, as far as Lili was concerned, this was not an unimportant point. But Momma Shao wouldn't have understood even if Lili had told her, she'd always think their good luck was wasted on them. Even less did Lili dare mention the kindergarten that had now been moved to parts unknown. During her days off and holidays, scenes on the street among the dancing shadows of the trees, under the lights, and the loud, clear voices of the kindergarten children had made Lili's days and nights! It was useless to tell Momma Shao this. Because her apartment was directly across from the backdoor to the kindergarten, the children's songs hadn't given her a moment's peace. Now they had moved away, you could say that it was a stroke of luck for Momma Shao in the midst of all-around misfortune. Even Keqiang couldn't understand Lili's partiality for the kindergarten; he thought his wife was thinking about their future child and how convenient a kindergarten nearby would be.
At the dinner table, Lili told Keqiang of her encounter downstairs. Keqiang said that he had just now been detained by Momma Shao and had listened to her tell him more-or-less the same. After hearing this, Lili couldn't help feeling a little fed-up; originally, she hadn't harbored too much sympathy for those who lived on the ground floor, and now she found herself taking pleasure in their plight. She and Keqiang had refused to sign the petition. They had felt it would be of no use. The facts showed them to be right. Factory 119 was one of the city's major projects; even if ten thousand people had signed, it wouldn't have done any good. Since some people felt the outcome was to their benefit, taking things into consideration, others really could learn something from the experience.
In a dust-free apartment, even if they opened all their windows wide, they wouldn't have to dust the tables and mop the floor everyday. They certainly would be able to sleep more soundly when they couldn't hear the vehicles drive by and make their turns. Especially during pregnancy -- good surroundings are so important to the growth of the foetus! Unobstructable, the sunlight would still be able to shine on the endless line of diapers across the sundeck until they were all thoroughly dried. It was only that the kindergarten below had been demolished. Several years from now, when they were away at work, where would their son stay? And wouldn't the fact that-Factory 119 will block out the parasols of the trees on both sides of the street affect their son's eyesight? Turn him into a mouse that can only see an inch ahead of itself, in other words, make him myopic? But since everyone said the benefit is greater than the harm, Lili felt that everything was as it should be.
However, Lili made a serious error in her calculations: Time. The growth of the foetus in her belly and the rise of the building outside the window were practically synchronized.
Lili and Keqiang met at a dance. Later she was determined to marry him, and her parents could do nothing to make her change her mind. Moreover, any attempt by them to prevent it would only have made her decision more stubborn and sudden. Lili was a spoiled child, but luckily, she wasn't stupid. Her parents could only pin their hopes on the future; faced with the realities of life, she was bound to run up against a few walls. But her life was just beginning, what were these walls she would run into and the tumbles she would take? Were they the effects of her pregnancy on her body which she would have put up with on her own? Or was it the judgment of labor pains which others had faced and which her mother threatened her with? Was it possible that she might have avoided all this if she hadn't married Keqiang? Her parents preferred to believe this to be true, for they objected to this person, this Keqiang. In fact, it wasn't even him, only his profession – an ordinary machinist. In the beginning, Lili was truly entranced by his six-foot physique and nimble dance steps. But now -- after a year and three months of marriage, Lili was even more of a realist than her parents: No matter if it were a machinist or a Ph. D. student who'd studied in the
Lili had never considered getting a divorce and was prepared to bear a child for Keqiang. Her parents were oh so disappointed! In order that she would take an even bigger fall, they abandoned their thoughts of taking her back into their home. This done, they were still anxious and made Lili ask for an extended leave so that she could take special care of herself during her pregnancy at her own home with Keqiang (an apartment belonging to Lili's father's work unit). For approximately two years, up until the child was weaned, Lili's parents would supplement her wages. After two years, they would again layout some cash and hire a nanny to look after the child. As always, Lili accepted her parent's kindness, mainly "to let the oldsters have their fun," she said to Keqiang one day in bed. "They're already upset enough about us getting married and my having a baby." She'd certainly never dreamed that. Her parents would tear down yet another big wall that stood in her way. This wall was flattened in the same way as finding a place to live had been -- silently. Weren't they fully hoping that she would run into such walls in the future? And so it was; on the one hand Lili's parents had great hopes that these barriers would bring their daughter to her senses, but on the other, they were afraid that she, their darling daughter, would get hurt, and so they did all they could to remove them. Such complicated and incomprehensible actions! Have pity for the parents of this earth. Now, probably, they have no choice but to place their hopes in the greatest barrier of them all -- death. "See what will come of you when you're dead!" they would threaten Lili.
A row of make-shift red-brick buildings were built to one side of the site of the former kindergarten as dormitories for laborers from the countryside; straps of wood were nailed down across the felt roof and loose bricks placed on the felt to hold it down. Lili took a particular interest in observing the laborers' daily life. She saw how the smoke would billow out of the chimney when they set about making a meal; she saw how funny the clothing drying on the wire in front of their door looked. And every morning they would crowd into the small open area, brush their teeth loudly, and spit out the water they rinsed their mouths with for great distances. To Lili, all this was really new. Through those frameless windows and the stoopless door in the right light, she could occasionally get a glimpse into a corner of their quarters, see their brightly colored large cotton quilts, or the golden mats and straw padding on their sleeping pallets. She would listen closely to their rough tongues and rural dialects. Someone who was cheating sometimes would throw a pink-backed card out the window.
For the workers, the first one or two months were probably their happiest times (and they were, therefore, at their most loveable). Having just come from the harvesting of the crops -- they customarily crowded onto trains and returned to act as their wives' helpers whenever there was a lot of farm work to be done -- not yet having properly changed from the role of farmer to construction worker, they would talk of the autumn harvest, the soil moisture conditions of the fields they had seen and heard reports of on their way into the city, and the unique aspects of their own methods of planting. They were still able to take pride in being a good farmer. There wasn't much work on the construction site, no more than a few workers taking turns using an electric jack-hammer, digging out square hole after square hole in the cement ground of the Factory 119 compound. Most of them would be resting. It almost looked like they were taking a vacation after working so hard on the farm. This in addition to the clear autumn sky and crisp air made it seem they would soon be entering a boring, leisurely winter season.
Occasionally, at night, trucks would come and disgorge cargo. One by one the workers would be shaken out of their sleep and, amidst the truck lights and the engine roar, they would line up to haul off sacks of cement on their shoulders, or it might be long, steel reinforcers. Heavier things required a hoist. They would stand to one side sleepy-eyed watching this phenomenon created by the strong, unsteady light and darkness. As far as all the residents of the apartment building were concerned, what was unforgivable about these night transports -- large trucks were banned from the city's major roads during the day -- appeared to be a phenomenon that left them (the farmer-workers) wild with joy. After this kind of nocturnal excitement, they had reason to sleep long and late right into the day.
It was at this time, because he had to work during the day, that Keqiang began to curse the workers on the construction site below. Lili seemed to be more tolerant. "You're not even the match for a pregnant woman putting up with her morning sickness!" she chided Keqiang. Is it possible that Lili's morning sickness was unusually mild?
During the day, except for one lonely old lady, Lili was the only living soul in the apartment building. No, we should say her and her child. Lili and the foetus in her belly. After a one or two week period of adaptation, their (Lili and the foetus') life rhythms were basically in sync with the construction site below. When the workers slept, they also slept, when the workers worked they were watching at the window. How else would they pass the time, if, during the long days, they weren't feeling tired or had no work to do? (As far as Lili was concerned, it was more interesting when there was no work.) So, whenever there was a sudden commotion in the night, Lili still welcomed it. It guaranteed that they wouldn't be tortured by insomnia (having slept too much during the day). Without feeling the least bit put out, she would throw on some clothes and slip her feet into some shoes, go to the window, which was now illuminated by flickering lights, and report the carry-on of the unloading below to Keqiang -- on the one hand pretending to curse and swear at them, but actually knowing in her heart that she'd be able to get plenty of sleep the next day.
What else was there to do but sleep? Besides watching them work. And because of having unloaded the truck, the workers would also be sleeping late. While they slept was she to just stare blankly out at the make shift building's tarpaulin roof, its red bricks and straps of wood? In truth, she had already done so.
As far as either Lili or the construction team was concerned, the first two months were the good times, worth remembering. However, for twenty days before and after the Spring Festival, the workers went home to celebrate the traditional New Year, and work on the site stopped. During this time it snowed: It fell on the work shed, on the piles of construction materials, and the square-ridged foundation holes in the empty area were also filled in. At first, she was amazed by the changed world outside her window, but later she tired of it. Keqiang went to work. Firecrackers were banned in this city, too. Lili was surrounded by a silence she couldn't get used to. Later, the accumulated snow gradually melted -- a fairly long process. For about ten days, Lili observed the changes wrought by the quietly melting snow. First, it exposed the red bricks on the roof of the makeshift building, followed by the straps of wood, which had turned black under the blanket of snow. The square foundation holes that had been filled by snow, subsided slowly now and revealed splendid shadows. The last were the building materials: first, a pile to the east; then, a pile to the west popped out from under piles of snow. And so, Lili passed her days like this, alone and guarding an empty apartment, observing the daily changes to the snow and her belly. Later she moved away from the window altogether and spent whole days in front of the television set. Still later, she was chased back to the window by a warning from a talking head on the TV. According to him, radiation from the TV screen would have an irredeemably negative effect on the foetus.
The snow outside the window had entirely melted away. The world was full of the sounds of dripping water. Lili had a strong desire to go out for a walk, but Keqiang was afraid that she would slip and fall in the mud. He took resolute action and forcibly locked her and the foetus in the apartment. Now he was working harder than ever. Besides his eight hours a day (not including the time spent on the road to and from work), he also had to take responsibility for the buying of food and other necessities. And, also find time to guarantee that, under his guidance and care, Lili would get her walks. But by the time they had eaten and tidied up, it was already dark. As a rule, Lili, who had already been waiting a long time, couldn't see a thing. Keqiang would apologize for the short days and long nights of winter, and promised when they went for walks in the summer there would be enough time for her to see all that she wanted.
“By that time, won't my stomach be so big that I won't be able to get out into the street," Lili said angrily.” And, by then, it won't be me looking at everybody else, but everybody else looking at me."
She was deeply mortified by these strolls which made her feel like a dog being taken out for a walk.
The construction gang came back; the work site returned to life. Thank god the frightening sound of that steam-powered pile driver didn't strike up again. They brought in a machine and laid out rails on the ground. A derrick arm placed the sharp end of a concrete pile into a square hole. This square hole must have been relative in size to the square hole dug out in the concrete floor by the drill. Lili didn't know what kind of force was used, but the concrete pile, all thirty-odd meters of it, sank in, finally disappearing into the square hole. After the machine had moved away, all that was left were a few reinforcing bars sticking out from the top end of the pile. Sometimes, in the very same place, two piles were sunk down into the earth one after the other. The machine vibrated, emitting irregular noises. Even when the doors and windows were tightly shut, the suffocating odor of diesel would still find a way in, getting into the bed sheets, towels and everything else. For this reason, Lili drew the tentative conclusion that this pile driver must be hydraulic. Furthermore, it had to be a hydraulic oil punch.
She didn't set about verifying her opinion by asking Keqiang's advice. Although he was a worker, Lili believed he knew nothing about any machine aside from the one he himself operated, and even less about the mechanism of the motor and operational procedures. Although Lili believed Keqiang to be intelligent, at this moment in time, just as she was about to become the mother of a child, she still kept her own enthusiasm for probing into things, enough to still be astonished over how deep huge concrete piles could sink into the earth. What had seemed to be two hills of concrete piles were all used up, vanished, all sunk underground. By calculating the pure volume, at that moment the factory floor should have risen two inches higher than it was. Under the strands of her hair, now suffused with the smell of diesel, Lili pondered: where did those extra bits go?
When the weather grew so hot that the residents of the apartment building had to open their windows, they found that they couldn't. According to their analysis, this was caused because the foundations of the building had sunk and so had bent the metal window frames out of shape -- a direct consequence of the pile driving on Factory 119 out front. On the heels of this, the six families who lived on the six floors of the third stairwell and whose apartments formed the east-side outer wall of the building, discovered cracks in their walls and floors. The cracks were very. Uniform, spreading out in the same place east to west along the walls and floors of those six families' apartments. Perhaps one day the part to the east of the cracks (including the toilet) would suddenly fall away, shearing off from the rest of the building. Lili only hoped she wasn't on the toilet at the time, or with one foot on the other side of the crack could so restore its center of gravity.
It was so sad, not only was Lili's apartment in the building behind Factory 119, but was one of the six apartments facing east (#506), so she couldn't open her windows and the crack ran through hers, too. Not only this, but the kitchen sink had cracked recently as well, and water leaked out -- a phenomenon peculiar to her apartment only. The leaking water passed through the crack in the floor (aligned with the cracks in the wall) and dripped into their fourth floor neighbors' apartment. Apparently, that family was just at the table eating dinner when the drops of water made direct hits on the dishes of food. Lili could do nothing but explain the situation to Teacher Lin, who had come upstairs to complain. The water wasn't dirty; it was water they had used to rinse cabbage for the third time. Compared to all the other sounds rapidly multiplying at that time, Lili was very attuned to the unexpected hammering on the door that intruded.
Just as all the other neighbors had, when Keqiang used a hammer and a chisel to open the south facing-windows (which at the same time he had been able to close only with great difficulty), there was a torrential downpour. Rainwater spurted in through the wide crack in the window and wet the floor: some was absorbed by the thin cement of the apartment floor, but some converged on the crack. The complaining neighbor's knock on the door was much heavier than the last, what he said was also much less polite. There was one other occasion when she was using water to wash just before going to bed, and she knocked over the plastic basin because her body wasn't as nimble as it once was. Lili's scream sounded more terrified than if she had been booted in her swelling belly. Keqiang scrambled out of bed and worked frantically with a mop to salvage the situation. But the result was yet again a knocking on the door, and the sound of it was so fierce that it drowned out the angry howls of the power saw outside the window. Lili could see the doorframe shake and thought the person on the other side wanted to break it down. As she waited in terror, nothing happened, and their fourth floor neighbor didn't say a thing. Keqiang opened the door and pointed three distinct footprints out to her, on the planks in front of the door. From then on, their door wouldn't shut tight; it took special skill and a great deal of strength in the wrists to just get its lock on.
Emboldened by their use of hammers and chisels to open their windows, all the families in the apartment building embarked on a long, drawn-out process of interior decorating. In order to cover over the cracks, they put down new flooring, plastered the walls, and laid ceramic tile. Since the construction site was in front of them and its surrounding wall was not very high, most of the materials were gathered from there. Cement, sand, red bricks, angle irons, steel pipes, everything necessary. Taking the hint from his bosses, the watchman for the materials on the work site turned a blind eye to what was happening, so much so that even an electric drill was made available for the residents of the apartment building to borrow.
Once on loan, the electric drill was in constant use for over a month, moving from family to family; even in the remotest corners of the building, one could hear its frightful asthmatic gasp. It drilled thousands of holes -- for installing burglarproof barred-doors, water heaters, and was very convenient to those who were sealing in their sundecks. The installation of burglarproof doors was the fad for a time. Everyone was saying: "Those peasants are capable of anything." These people were borrowing electric drills, taking cement, and lumber from under their very eyes, and, yet, wanted to install burglarproof doors to keep them out! No matter what they said, Lili just couldn't understand.
In the neighborhood, such beliefs brought a lot of business the burglarproof door factory's way. Within a month, all the families in the apartment building, except Lili's, had them installed. Lili's home was in greatest need of such a door, or at least a door with a kick guard, but they had to do without, due to a lack of manpower. They lost a perfect opportunity to renovate their apartment! A day would come when the sound of drills had ceased and the dust had settled, when they would have no choice but to repair their dilapidated unit. And the neighbors were certain to immediately band together in protest -- they'd complain that Lili was disturbing their peace and quiet, their evenings and holidays. They would force Lili to stop work when it was only half finished, until the day when their apartments were in such a state that another round of renovations was necessary. By that time might she and Keqiang's son not be making plans for his own marriage? With a complete renovation, the apartment could be remodeled to make space for a bridal chamber.
These speculations about the future made Lili furious. For at that very moment, without asking her permission, the neighbors were disturbing her peace and quiet, her days and nights. And not only hers, but his -- their son's. His peace and quiet, his days and nights! They were absolutely innocent victims. All of their neighbors in the building owed her, and also their son. But in the future, they (the neighbors) would refuse to recognize this debt; furthermore, they would trump up counter-charges. Think about it: The combined damage they were doing to mother and son, and those few days of disturbance she would have no choice but to inflict on them -- virtually incomparable. Lili finally came to terms with it: Not all of the families in the building were as enthusiastic about renovating; it was merely to avoid falling into a disadvantageous position like hers that they rose up to mount counter-attacks. This is what is known as to "kill ten thousand of the enemy and suffer three thousand losses of one's own." They wouldn't even balk at killing three thousand of the enemy and suffering ten thousand losses of their own.
When Lili had calmed down, she was able to make a sufficiently honest and merciless assessment of her self. Which is to say that the grapes she couldn't eat are sour.
Which is to say: they all got the short end of the stick. From the time the building's residents took those building materials and tools from the work site, the work hours of the construction crew had been extended. Without a night-work permit the workers joined battle under the lights, the flashes of electric welding torches shone on the apartment windows all night long. The noise was double that of the day (it was quieter at night), and due to the single-minded attention of the residents (they were thinking only of going to sleep) it sounded as if it were doubled yet again. The helpless victims thought that since their heads were inundated with the weird high-pitched screams of machinery, it would be just as well to get up and do some work themselves. Tomorrow the precious power drill would move on to the next family -- better to hurry up and get that last bit of renovation work tonight. Suddenly the entire building began to tremble; and, correspondingly, concerns about the work site outside their windows dwindled.
When those who had to go to work walked into their workshops or offices the next day, they could savor the silence of those relatively peaceful places. And have wonderful naps during the breaks. Only one person, Lili, had no place to go. In the unending din of the construction site all Lili could think of was how to persevere through it all – and not to surrender to her parent's wishes and move back in. Because of the changes in her physical appearance, she didn't want to go back to the office and allow her colleagues to make frivolous comments on her condition. By the time she realized that she could go out on the nearby road to take walks and kill time, she wasn't able to open the door that was jammed. She blew up a few times over Keqiang's over-zealous act of locking her in the apartment and refused to share a bed with him for over a fortnight, but to no avail. He was extremely pig-headed over the matter of safeguarding mother and child, convinced that Lili would be struck by a car while crossing the road, or, when not crossing the road, that she would step on a banana peel. Unless he accompanied her, she was not to think of taking even one step beyond the threshold.
With safety in mind, he chose to ask for a day off and lose his monthly bonus. After all the other families in the apartment building had installed their burglarproof doors, their family finally did so too. With her own eyes Lili finally glimpsed the raucous beast -- the power drill. For all of one half of one day they gave the neighbors on all sides no peace, and were wild with joy about it. The vibrations and angry howls of it (the power drill) avenged the humiliations Lili was due to suffer in the years to come. She also discovered that making some noise herself was much more satisfying than being forced to listen to the noise of others; so, she concluded that it was beneficial to the growth of the foetus.
After the burglarproof door had been installed, Lili completely abandoned all thought of going out alone when Keqiang wasn't home. As a form of protest she began to scream and yell in high-pitched tones. In the beginning, she would only do this when Keqiang was present. Later, when Keqiang was at work, she would yell a few times at herself in the mirror. Still later she progressed to where she didn't have to be confronted by anyone or anything, she would scream and curse furiously at the non-stop roar of the construction site through the glass of the window, until in the end the only sound that Lili could hear was that of her own voice. After each bout of this spontaneous yelling, she felt much better. So, the medicines she took most during her pregnancy were lozenges and syrup to fix her throat and not medicines that might benefit her foetus. Finally, Lili had no voice to yell with. Her mouth would be wide open, she would strain with all her might, her larynx would tremble but her scream would be held soundlessly in check -- and this turned out to be a truly rare pleasure, far superior to any thunderous howl.
She also had new tricks with which to deal with Keqiang: throwing plates, tipping over tables or beating on walls with her fists. They were going through a period during which only the heaviest of sounds had the power of persuasion. But Keqiang showed himself to be more docile than ever. He would clear up the mess silently, searching carefully for shattered porcelain in every nook and cranny. And, at the last, he would help Lili put a band-aid on a finger she had scraped.
The thunder of spring passed, the residents of the apartment building rose to greet summer's all-enveloping explosion. Besides, they had miscalculated the height of Factory 119's main building. Factory 119 was setting up a workshop and one floor was equivalent to two apartment building's floors. Coming in from the street, the real height of the six-four-one floor sequence worked out to twelve, eight and two floors of an average apartment building. Twelve floors fronting the street, eight floors behind and two floors behind those. And, so, not only would the first floor of the apartment building sink into an ever deeper abyss, but all of the other floors (including the sixth and top floor) would be in a shadow eight storeys high. It was too late for the residents to have regrets. Why hadn't they signed the petition at the start? Now Momma Shao had lots to say. It was as if complaining about the structure out front was her special privilege, and those who lived on the forth floor and higher were getting what they deserved! The main building had risen to three floors (equivalent to six apartment building floors), and the worker's line of vision on the scaffolding was level with Lili's. They looked straight at each other across a mere twenty-thirty meters.
At the outset she would still stand behind the window -- only needing to stand behind the glass for them to see her. Later, because of the heat ahead of a thundershower, she pushed the window open and stretched her body right out. The wall beneath the window came up to her waist, covering her big belly. So, in the workers' eyes, she was just another boring woman with nothing to do who spent the entire day at home. They didn't know that she was currently engaged in a great task -- her pregnancy. And because of lighting, she had only to walk a meter into the room and they couldn't see her very clearly. Furthermore, she would only allow them a look at her back. For a long time her big belly was not exposed to them. She would never go out on the sundeck; if she had to dry some clothes, she would wait for Keqiang to return from work. This was the way it was, too, when the clothes had to be taken in.
Lili's apartment was the only one in the entire building that didn't have plants and flowers on the sundeck. Their apartment's sundeck had never been fully utilized. Coated in dust, desolate and black, but the workers still liked to look. Clothes drying on their hangers couldn't help but make the heart flutter. Especially those small, special-use items that dripped water or were blown up by a gust of wind. The situation was similar on almost every family's sundeck, but only those things on Lili's could be linked to a mysterious woman in a window. Although there was a wall and a nightgown between them, the workers were still able to determine what color panties she was wearing that day. If the pair on the sundeck was pink with red flowers, then she was sure to have on the pure white ones with lace borders. And, as if to confirm their opinion, the next day the pair on the sundeck would be pure white with lace borders. And the pink with red flowers would be on her body at that very moment.
By the time she came to open the window and lean out -- into the sunshine and so close to them -- on the strength of the evidence provided by those items of clothing on the sundeck, the workers reckoned they already had a thorough knowledge of her.
As a shimmering eye-catching form, during the night she was certainly a topic of conversation in the frightening makeshift barracks. Her recent fatigue and insomnia couldn't be blamed entirely on the noise and lights outside the window; perhaps one cause was the thoughts and brain-wave interference from those workers -- only there was no instrument like a decibel meter to measure such things. When a few dozen sex-starved workers in the temporary barracks began to think of her all at the same moment, the energy produced could only be imagined. Furthermore, the information they had gathered about her was so complete and exact that they knew everything right down to her foam rubber bra.
In an environment where the ears are virtually useless, the eyesight becomes unusually keen. Scrupulous in every detail, those workers' eyes held the memory of an extremely bored young woman's form looking out of a window, of her incessant changing of underwear, and carried it all back down into their temporary barracks, and even farther down into their dreams.
When the thunder shower finally arrived, Lili remembered that the clothes hadn't been taken in and without thinking ran out onto the sundeck. Here she was even closer to the helmeted workers; they all saw the big belly and swelling shanks. Annoyed, Lili thought: Finally, I've let them see me. And then she knew the real reason she hadn't been out on the sundeck for so long. The reason she'd prefer their wicked glances focus on the upper half of her body or her underwear (she admitted); this wasn't just because she wanted to perplex them with a fake impression of non-pregnancy. Though meant to baffle them, it was even more on to entice their glances to those parts of her body which didn't concern the foetus. Being superstitious by instinct, she thought their fearsome looks would damage the little darling in her belly. "Now they know I'm a pregnant woman." Lili was so depressed. "Definitely this is most inauspicious for my little darling." she tried to offer a defense: "If it weren't for my little darling, I wouldn't care if they saw me! An unmarried girl, or a woman who'd already had a child, wouldn’t be afraid of them."
The thundershower had lashed the building for over two hours. The workmen on the scaffolding had all gone in. The cement mixer had also stopped spinning. There was only the sound of rain pouring down onto the ground. Steel reinforcing-bars and the huge structure of concrete drank it all as if it had a huge thirst, and, slowly, its color darkened.
Lili stayed at the window -- prepared, mop in hand. If the wind's direction changed, the rain would squeeze in through the window crack, flow across the sill and collect on the floor. And the crack in the floor nearby was waiting with all the thirst of the past few days. Throughout, fortunately, this downpour fell straight down; the window glass didn't even get wet. Lili was lost in thought before this window with the high degree of visibility.
To begin, Lili realized this was the first time in months that there was a silence suited to such meditation. Further, gradually she and the others had learned how to endure the unendurable -- a lamentable adaptation on their part. She couldn't hear those frightful noises now, only in her memory did they still assault her ears. There was nothing immodest about the underwear drying on the sundeck; only in her mind did she feel shame. And, finally, she thought about the foetus growing amidst the roar that filled both the day and night, and under those sick stares. She counted on her fingers: Was it seven months already? It was too late to make a fresh start now. If it comes out deformed, let it have three heads and six arms. If it carne out a monster, let it be the scourge of the earth. In the midst of the wild howls and frightful blasts, their child maintained a strange calm. Suddenly Lili understood: during the past few months, her big belly had been the quietest place in the world. Only, now, precisely at this very moment -- in the sound of the rain washing down, did she feel the foetus stir ever so slightly.
That day the construction site in front of the apartment building was quiet until after dinner. Lili pushed open the window and breathed the fresh rain-washed air. Afterwards she sat down cross-legged on the bed and began to knit a sweater. Of course, she was knitting it for their soon to be born son. For the first time since Keqiang had locked her in the apartment, she didn't scream, smash things or hammer on the wall; instead, she looked like the typical virtuous wife and good mother, sporting a big belly, the balls of wool rolling about beside her; on the one hand allowing her husband to stroke her, on the other softly humming a tune to the little darling in her belly. Wasn't it already too late to be catering to the needs of her foetus? But the wall-light at the head of the bed was soft, and the steel reinforcing bars and concrete outside the window were silent; Lili couldn't help herself.
The workers had all gone down off the structure; they were below in their dormitory playing cards and drinking. Time and again, an uproar arose, but no matter how rambunctious they might get, it was a hundred times more pleasing to the ear than the roar of their machinery.
Lili reminisced about how she and her husband would make love on the reed bed-mat with the window wide open during the summer. There had been no houses of any kind, not to mention tall buildings, within a hundred and fifty meters in front of their apartment block. Unless somebody had been spying from an airplane in the clouds, no one could have seen them. While thinking of this, she couldn't help glancing out the window.
Sure enough, there was a man's form on the scaffolding, and he was squatting, facing the apartment building. Although he was in darkness, work lights suspended high above the construction site behind him silhouetted the profile of his face very clearly. Quite obviously, he was looking at Lili's window, for just as Lili focused her attention on him, he moved. Lili removed Keqiang's hands from her legs, and didn't tell him why she had done so -- she had no time to consider the baffled, piteous look on his face.
Quickly, Lili examined the clothing she was wearing at that moment. It was all right; except for two bare feet, she was wearing just what she wore during the day. She pulled her nightgown down very conscientiously. Lili pulled it down especially hard over the place between her legs. Then she put down the knitting needles and began staring with all her might at that hateful black shadow. This series of movements left Keqiang non-plused; he thought it a portent of a fierce argument about to get under way. "If you'd like, we can go out for a walk now, the air's good outside."
Lili said nothing until her intense scrutiny had forced that dark shadow to stand up and walk toward the ladder at one end of the scaffolding. It walked a bit of the way and stopped, walked and stopped again, looking back frequently as it went, as if it were unwilling to accept defeat. Now Keqiang, in an effort to ingratiate himself with Lili, began attempting to stretch his hands and lips toward her. Repeatedly, he was angrily pushed away by her. And, so, in this way, Lili expressed her seething rage at the man on the scaffolding. By the time the man had gone down the ladder, the unknowing Keqiang was nearly fit to be tied. Now, Lili rewarded him with her most winning smile (because she'd won), and made it all up to him. With a pleasant look, she graciously allowed Keqiang to draw the curtains and turn the room lights off.
With an effort and in a perfunctory fashion, Lili dealt with Keqiang's needs, not for a moment could she forget what had just transpired. She even regretted that the lights had been turned off so quickly. When the shadow saw their dark window, what would he think? The difficulty lay in that she was absolutely correct in believing so. Lili certainly didn't want to be talked about by others, especially in this regard.
After she'd gone to the toilet, Lili didn't immediately return to bed. She walked into the other south-facing room -- the curtains there weren't drawn. After standing alone for a short while, just as she was preparing to go back into the living room, Lili saw a small flame flash on the scaffolding outside. The blurry contour of a smoker's head was illuminated against a concrete pillar which blocked out the light behind. So, it turned out that he had only moved to a more concealed position and never abandoned those perplexing exertions of his. This was only more proof that Lili was dealing with a deliberate, scheming peeping tom whose intention had never been to clamber down the scaffolding, nor was he merely attracted by a chance view of life in the apartment building across the way.
Standing in the dark, Lili knew he couldn't see her at that moment; so it was possible to observe the other party carefully. The switch in the roles of voyeur and voy-ee didn't make her feel any better. On the contrary, the results of her observation left her trembling in fear. The dark shadow in front of the concrete pillar stubbornly continued to face the window in which the light had gone out not long before. Right now, the sound of Keqiang's rhythmic snoring could be heard in the next room -- he didn't know that someone was trying to see through the curtains. Luckily, Lili was in the other room closely watching every move that individual made, standing guard over her husband's sleep. Otherwise the two of them would be asleep and that man would be awake; their eyes would be shut tightly and that man would be staring at the curtains..... Lili felt frightened. If Keqiang had to work night shift and she was alone at home, what might happen?
During the day, Lili would still go to the window to watch the men work. When she tried her hardest to locate the peeping-tom among them, she was amazed to discover she could not distinguish one from the other of these men who had been working before her eyes every day. For a long time, as far as she was concerned, they had all been helmet-wearing construction workers, neither fat nor thin nor tall nor short. She didn't know who did the carpentry work, who the brick-laying, who operated the crane, or who were the construction team leaders and who were the odd jobbers. All these differences, which to others may seem very necessary, were completely unknown to her. Today she came to the window with a very different view on things as she struggled to learn the differences and distinctions among them. She was very excited by this new game she had stumbled upon, with which she could now while away the days.
At night, before the lights in the room could be turned on, the curtains had to be drawn. Although the weather seemed to get hotter with each passing day, they had no choice but to do this. Furthermore, precisely because the temperature rose incessantly, there was even more of a need. In the stifling heat of the air-less apartment, Lili wore ever flimsy clothing, and finally only a bra (up top) and a pair of baggy shorts, with very little elastic left in the waistband. Because she was afraid of putting the fetus in danger, Lili willingly endured the constant risk of having them slide off. Wearing this sort of a get-up, walking about in brightly lit rooms, naturally the demands on the curtains would be even greater.
If there were no wind, it wouldn't be necessary to open the curtains. But if there was, Lili and Keqiang would open them and then it was necessary to dress properly, wrapping up in clothes to substitute for curtains. They'd have done better to draw the curtains and strip naked. And if they wanted the curtains to act as curtains (blocking the lines of sight), there just couldn't be any wind. If there was, it would blow the curtains up, and everything inside would be seen clearly (from outside). So, when the longed for breeze began to waft in; they promptly had to close the windows so the curtains could safely hang down.
During these stifling, hot summer nights, finally, Lili didn't know whether she should hope for a breeze, or whether, perhaps, it was more important to think through how to quickly fix things when an unexpected wind blew in, lifting the curtains.
As a preventive stroke, hanging heavy objects off the bottom of the curtains was an absolute must. For example, if they were small metal bells, they could raise the alarm when a big wind began an onslaught. (Lili and Keqiang would promptly transfer to another, un-lit room where a complete set of necessary garments were laid out and ready to wear.) The melodious tinkling would also balance the racket outside from the construction site. This idea was good, but throughout the entire summer, their lives would be without cool natural breezes.
The other's body would be attractive no more; signifying only a 37-degree body temperature and sweat that streamed everywhere. Was it just for this that they had married? But their eyes still deceived them in the old familiar ways, and even more so than formerly. Neither of their bodies had ever been exposed for such a good reason for such a long time. Their eyes locked onto all the data related to their nakedness and semi-nudity, and their brains immediately transposed it into anticipations of joy and passion. But instead, the touch made contact with an oven -- a bottle of glue upended on the floor. Amidst feelings of disappointment and embarrassment, they still forced themselves to think of it as a necessary sacrifice for love. After a series of like lessons, once the summer really got going, they made love very seldom. But neither did they give it up entirely.
Lili's attitude was that the child was more important. She hugged it tight (it was still only a big belly), then inclined slightly to one side, and almost couldn't feel it as Keqiang entered her ever so cautiously from behind. Very quickly, with a very guilty conscience, he was done with it, but he'd stay in position for a very long time. It appeared he wanted to show Lili that he didn't only need this, just to make love. He needed them both, mother and child. A particular posture for making-love-to-a-pregnant-woman was secretly transformed into an embrace-of-the-beloved-and-fetus.
She hugged her belly and he hugged her (belly included), their positions almost identical. If it hadn't been for her dread of ovens and glue, Lili might almost have been moved. But she discovered that although he held her, he still couldn't help falling asleep. Lili came to really hate Keqiang for this. In such a noisy, hot place, he had the effrontery to be able to sleep and still find the time to propagate the ancestral line! He didn't even get around to putting on underpants before falling asleep.
As luck would have it, this is how things turned out….. They thought they had taken thorough precautions, that they were high and dry without a worry -- but a wild gust of wind blew the curtains up high. And, at the same time, a lightning bolt out of the clouds shattered their second line of defense -- the darkness itself, and stabbed straight into the room.
Lili was lying on her side facing the window; after a momentary blindness, she saw the peeping tom half squatting on the scaffolding. His gaze met Lili's; as soon as the curtains had flown up it came in through the window as if it were the lightning itself. Looking at it from another angle -- was it the lightning or that man's rapacious look that burnt their curtains? That look (or the lightning) entered the room and sank deep into her naked body, her tummy, even her soul. Lili screamed and tried to break free. Sound asleep, Keqiang, plastered tight against her back, hugged her instinctively even tighter. An ear-shattering stroke of thunder like a shot-put a meter in diameter tumbling down a wooden staircase. For a long time now, his hearing had suffered serious damage, so Keqiang didn't wake up.
Once more, the dark protected her, cloaking her in a garment made of black night. Simultaneously, the split second she had only just experienced produced a quick clear image on the black negative. The man's distorted face, his black incisors, and even the stain on his sweat-shirt set him apart from the other workmen in safety helmets and cloth shoes. These things and Lili's body -- in its nakedness like anyone else's, yet different -- looking as if it were exposed in broad daylight, and Keqiang behind it all with his extremely obscene errection, were all juxtaposed together.
The curtain, with a chaotic tinkling, finally fell back. With the return of the dark, their too easily trusted double line of defense was back in place.
After this mishap, one by one Lili frankly imparted some of her observations to Keqiang.
As a decisive preventative measure, from that time on they slept with the windows shut tight. In addition to the curtains and darkness, the establishment of this third line of defense was enough to allow their naked bodies and utterly exhausted spirits to enjoy a breather in their oven, or steam-cooker, of a room.
Furthermore, the window glass effectively blocked out a portion of the noise, and even though it was only the merest fraction, all in all it was an acceptable arrangement.
In addition, Lili carried out two further modifications to their defenses. First, she lowered the curtain one-third the way down the window, moving it clear of the transom. At the time, the height of the scaffolding was level with the apartment block's fifth floor, or a bit higher. Add in the forty meters of straight-line between and it was impossible for anyone to spy on Lili and Keqiang through the transom. The transom could be left open all night, and, with no curtain to block it, air circulation would be guaranteed, and the young couple and their as-yet-unborn child wouldn't suffocate after all.
So as to be absolutely safe, Lili had Keqiang moved the big double bed over to the base of the south-facing wall. Although the wall was hotter because the sunshine baked the outside during the day, yet, at the same time, the angle required to peer down on them through the transom was reduced to its smallest. Spying was now practically impossible, even if one were looking down out of a helicopter window.
Every night Lili would lie right up against the wall, sleeping in an out-of-the-way corner. The sense of security she felt as a result was more than she experienced when she lay on the other side where Keqiang slept. Even though the wall was scorching hot and she could clearly feel the bouts of hammering that passed through it from the construction site, she was still willing to have it so. Unless, of course, the wall collapsed beneath a fierce burst of pounding. But the wall wouldn't collapse, the roof would not fall -- this was Lili's last remaining conviction.
Keqiang? He never worried about these practical details. Going passively into hiding did not tally with his temperament and physique. One evening he carried his air rifle out onto the sundeck and tried to disperse the workers on the scaffolding with a display of martial prowess. But they ignored his out-of-the-ordinary appearance and continued to lay red brick between concrete pylons. If Keqiang had known the commotion that arose every time Lili walked out on the sundeck -- in comparison to his current humiliating plight -- he would surely have been mightily jealous.
Keqiang placed the butt of the air gun against his shoulder and trained it on nothing in particular. But no matter what he did the workers' reaction to him was unchanging. Did they think he was just a kid with a wooden stick in his hands playing games? Keqiang squeezed off a shot -- as a warning. In his imagination, the lead pellet made a clean, crisp sound as it struck the bamboo scaffolding; but there was no sound. There was every sound imaginable, just no sound of a pellet striking bamboo. After ignoring his air gun, the workers continued to ignore the accuracy of his marksmanship as well -- no one had the appearance of preparing to beat a retreat.
No matter how Lili urged him, Keqiang wouldn't come back into the room. How could she stop him from safeguarding the chastity of his old lady's naked body? That air gun of his was not entirely unformidible -- before their marriage, Keqiang had used it to shoot four pigeons and a chicken. Since that time it had rusted under the bed, only recently had it been put to use again -- as a jamb for the front door the downstairs neighbor had kicked in. That is, until yesterday, when Keqiang had obtained a few lead pellets from an acquaintance, saying that he was taking them home to use in fooling about shooting rats. This was the history of the gun and the bullets, a brief review of which renewed Keqiang's self-confidence.
The problem was that Keqiang had no way of telling the peeping tom from the other workers. The specifics Lili had offered up seemed to suit them all: a long gaunt face, teeth blackened by cigarettes. Originally, Keqiang hoped that as soon as he appeared on the sundeck with the rifle, the man would slip quietly away: if the man making his get-away had a gaunt face and blackened teeth, he was sure to be the peeping tom. But now the situation was getting a bit thorny, and Keqiang couldn't call Lili out on the sundeck to point out the peeping tom.
This time when Keqiang shot, he didn't even bother to aim. He hoped for divine guidance. The best result would be to shoot out someone's cigarette, or a sudden blow to a plastic safety helmet (only the man struck would hear it), as a warning. If the will of heaven and poor marksmanship could help Keqiang in achieving this, he could also use the eye in the lead pellet to help him seek out the peeping tom (certain to be among the workers).
"Aaii yaah!" A startled shout at a frequency above that of the construction site's reached Keqiang's ears.
A hit. To Keqiang's surprise, nobody fell from the scaffolding. The workers merely moved together calmly from both sides and gathered in a group. Surprisingly, the scaffolding didn't collapse either. Keqiang heard somebody curse: "I'll fuck your mother." Soon after, a barrage of chunks of brick and strips of wood came crashing down on Keqiang's sundeck.
In the end, a horrifying stream of cement and stone assailed all of the apartment block's residents. Glass shattered, flowerpots fell to the ground, not a single family was spared.
Keqiang came back into the room forthwith dragging the rifle, but inside twenty minutes he was taken from their not-so-sturdy blockhouse by the police. Neither did Lili's big belly win any sympathy from the enforcers of the law. They (the law enforcement officials) pried open the burglarproof door and had no plans to help them fix it. Due to one indiscreet personal initiative, their three lines of defense were destroyed in a day. After the glass had been shattered, only the window frames remained. Gusts of wind lifted the curtains. After an adjustment to the spotlight in the right-hand corner of the construction site, its shaft of light shone straight into the apartment.
Lili passed the first night of Keqiang's incarceration under these circumstances: Two rows of workers were gathered, either squatting or standing, on the scaffolding outside. They had all laid their work aside and were discussing and pointing at her window, now as bright as day. If Lili retreated out of their light into the living room, they would throw bricks, stones and litter into the apartment. If she remained under the spotlight in the bedroom and allowed them to view her, she could effectively guard the expensive Cantonese-style furniture her parents had presented them with at their wedding.
For an entire night, like a famous celebrity, Lili was incessantly on stage, passing back and forth from the living room (the backstage) to the bedroom (the front stage) at least thirty times. And, on the scaffolding (now the bleachers), the audience's adoration of her was of unprecedented proportions -- no matter what price paid to get a glimpse of her charms (one of their mates had the misfortune of being shot in the buttocks). They had this right; they had paid their money, bought their tickets, this night she was theirs. And it's difficult to say whether Lili didn't feel some of the grandeur of being human that can result from such exceptional treatment, otherwise why hadn't she gone to her neighbors' or parents' home to evade their attentions temporarily.
The next day reporters came to do interviews and film the site: Lili marched her big belly out onto the TV screen that day. Because of appeals from city residents and official intervention, on the third day, Lili's husband, an object of the TV audience's deep sympathy and affection, was finally released. Under pressure of public opinion, the construction brigade was forced to stop work every night at midnight. The sleepless nights the construction site had brought on local residents over the previous seven months and the lead pellet embedded in the bricklayer's fat were no longer issues -- the two sides had fought to a draw.
Following this event, every family in the apartment building especially resented Keqiang and Lili. It was their fault that every home had suffered varying degrees of damage -- of course, the degree of severity was incomparable to Lili's. But Lili and Keqiang had brought the disaster down upon their own heads, and all others were innocents. They had involved their neighbors. Therefore, that night when the night-beat policeman had come, handcuffs swinging, to carry out his duty, it was Momma Shao who had given him directions to Lili's door. So, when Keqiang was arrested and Lili was on her own pursued by eyes and a steady stream of stone and concrete, not a single neighbor was willing to take her in -- such an act would be certain to bring down the same vicious assault as had descended on Lili's home. Moreover, the young couple was also seen to be due for a bit of a lesson in proper conduct. More than likely, one day Keqiang would have trained the barrel of his rifle on them; then wouldn't it have been too late?
The neighbors' verdict was upheld for all of one night. The next day, due to the one-sided nature of public opinion, Lili became an object of sympathy and concern for the city's entire populace. Keqiang very nearly became a hero, too -- only he seemed just a little too rash (though this could be seen as a result of being driven beyond the limits of forbearance). When she was interviewed, Lili never mentioned the heartlessness of her neighbors during that frightful night of the hailing rocks and concrete. Just the opposite; she spoke on their behalf, condemning the harm the building site across the way had done to their normal lives, enumerating the material damage that each family suffered during the attack. Later, the indemnity paid by the construction brigade was based on this conversation.
Afterwards there was a series of quiet nights to which they were no longer accustomed. With no noise to lull them to sleep, they were unable to get to sleep at all. They laid on their sleeping mats thinking about the absolute necessity of Keqiang's shot and the fact that Factory 119 had reimbursed them far beyond their actual losses. Secretly pleased, they dreamed of treasure buried beneath their apartment building. But if they wanted it, there was one thing they had to do first: totally demolish the building they were living in to get it.
After being released from detention, Keqiang went to work as usual. And after work he came immediately home to look after his pregnant wife. All that was different was that now he- had an even greater penchant for going out on the sundeck and empty handed (the air gun had been confiscated), supporting himself on the concrete railing. Thinking back on the night of his show of force, he was conscious of now being even more of a deterrent with his hands empty. He would pace on his apartment sundeck. And later he simply laid down on a mat and slept out there in the open. It was he who had silenced the construction site; now let the workers on the scaffolding clearly hear him snore.
Aside from seeking cool air on the scaffolding, the workers had no idea how to pass the sweltering summer nights. The night shift had been cancelled and they couldn't sleep; if they weren't fans of a TV series and were also excluded from the poker game, all they could do was climb up on the bamboo poles to enjoy some cool air. Furthermore, no one had prohibited them from observing the life in the apartment block across the way, which was more real than that on TV.
Once again, Lili went back behind her three lines of defense. The glass in the south-facing windows had all been replaced; the curtain was still the old one. She turned off the lights very early and leaned up against the scalding wall. The permanent work-light on the construction site shone through the transom onto her mat. Lili lay between the window-latticed patterns of light and the wall, feeling very secure in the dark. She thought perhaps now the peeping tom had turned his gaze to a more advantageous window?
She hadn't especially objected to Keqiang going out to sleep on the sundeck. First off, this act would restrain sexual urges; secondly, it was a display for the workers to see. But, in Lili's eyes, the third point was most crucial: Keqiang openly lying down on the sundeck was proof that he was not together with her. Perhaps because of this they had stopped wanting to fool around?
And so, in this way, they passed twenty-three relatively well-ordered, peaceful nights.
The factory building was still on the rise. The curtain on Lili's window was now tightly closed during the days, too. In order to block out the sun, each day before going to work Keqiang would bundle up the sundeck in an old sleeping mat and an unused bed sheet. During the days, for one entire week the air temperature was continually above 35 degrees Celsius. The residents of the apartment block all had various methods of avoiding the heat. Opening the doors and windows on all sides to allow the hot wind to come and go. But it was better to close the doors and windows, lower the awnings, close the curtains tight and concentrate the shade, thus keeping the rooms cool and dark. This meant there was no wind, but they weren't engulfed by waves of heat either. Given their special need to cut themselves off from the construction site, this latter method of avoiding the summer heat was the natural choice.
Lili would spend the entire day in the dim light of the apartment, blown on by the electric fan or going to the washroom to take showers under the lotus-pod showerhead. Her sole task was to lower her body temperature, so she didn't begrudge a half day spent eating a four-kilo watermelon. The refrigerator was stacked full of ice cream, sour-plum soup and other cold refreshments -- Lili took what she needed. As she moved about in the dark rooms, the pupils of her eyes were forced to dilate. Always bare-foot, she spread water from the washroom through all parts of the house, making all the floors wet. The electric fan droned on through it all, its blades spewing out shadow after shadow. In this cave-like atmosphere, the fan emitted a noise like rats masticating. And since she couldn't see with her own eyes, Lili was forced to use her power of hearing to distinguish between noises. And now the chaos of the invisible, sunlit construction site outside grew richly intriguing.
One day she opened the transom and saw the sky above the construction site. Several steel reinforcing bars of various height jabbed straight up from below. Lili made a quick estimation -- this height was already beyond that of the six-storey apartment block, probably between seven and eight floors high. She never had the courage to open the curtains again. Lili knew her window was already completely obstructed by the big building out front.
Unlike a few days earlier, she and the workers were no longer sitting at the same level. Now, if she wanted to watch them work, Lili had to look up. And they looked down on her, like birds (whenever she appeared). Or they peered down at her windows shut tight. How had this happened? Just half a year earlier, she had been looking down on them from the window, as if on a swarm of ants. Now the ant swarm had swooped, up this high; their gaze keen as a hawks' had driven her away from the window, reducing her to a reptile in a dark cave. Lili immediately thought of her pale white skin and round belly; beneath those downward glances would they judge her a bedbug or a louse?
As a result of this latest change (they had risen eight floors high), Lili immediately began to worry about her safety. She was now ugly as a female louse, a sight even more unforgivable to prying eyes. And now the workers had risen so high it was just possible that their glances could shoot straight in through the transom. The one good thing was that the angle necessary to get a look at her as she laid against the wall was almost "0", the degree of difficulty was really too great. Lili only needed not rollover to the outer edge of the bed while she slept and it would be all right. But Keqiang continued to sleep on the sundeck, the other side of the bed was empty, and the possibility of Lili rolling over there still existed.
Now it was day, Lili shrank back into the depths of her home, through the transom she could see the scaffolding that had risen eight floors high and the safety net that sagged down like a giant breast. Under a kind of intense lighting, the workers seemed to be cleaning the blazing ball of the sun. On the left side, obscured by a wall, an iron-frame crane tower rose even higher. Its crane arm traversed the sky at a level with the transom windows. Steel cables as fine as silk dropped down out of the sky and held the crane arm in place.
At first Lili only saw two feet high in the air shuffling along the crane arm. So as to get a closer look, Lili lowered her height and sat down on the floor. If she laid on her left side, she could see the crane tower, too. The man was coming out of the steel casing of the control chamber and was cautiously moving along the crane arm towards the pulley at its far end. He came to halt at a position precisely opposite her transom window, and his upper torso turned her way, too.
He was now looking down on her darkened window from above, observing this cave from which living organisms came and went. Lili had an inescapable feeling that this cave was she, was inside her body. Unconsciously she wrapped her arms tightly about her chest. The man was squinting, and in that startling position, he was getting a clear look at everything. Such an odd way of going about it. If one weren't fascinated by the danger he was in, if one weren't able to shift one's gaze and wipe this person from one's over-active retina, then everything about one was, likewise, being looked into very vividly. And there was real empathy, too. He had Lili wringing her hands over him, luring Lili out from the depths of the room to the window with his unmistakable, aggressive stance.
Lili rushed to put on a sweatshirt, raised the curtain, stretched out of the window and looked straight up at him. The man had got his way. Now he needed to strut over his victory. He began again to edge towards the pulley; hand over hand he clutched at the steel cable that extended toward the top of the crane. He was cautious and unruffled, unafraid of the oncoming peril, demonstrating to Lili what were probably the best qualities of a construction worker -- high-wire skills and resolve. Two steel cables held the crane arm in place. One, connected to the top of the crane, was near the pulley; another was attached to the joint in the middle of the crane arm. The man made a show of inspecting the pulley (he patted it with his hand), turned around and started his return journey. The crane arm was tilted slightly downward, so on his way back he was actually walking up a small slope, but he encountered no more difficulty than he had in coming out along the arm. Not daring to act nonchalant, he supported himself by the cable. As the cable rose toward the top of the crane tower, his handholds got progressively higher until he was unable to take hold of the cable over his head. The free hand grabbed hold of the other cable's low end. Then, as he got closer to the control chamber, this cable (connected to the center of the crane arm) also rose up out of his reach. His hand came down empty. There was still a short distance of 2-3 meters for which there was no cable or anything else to hold on to for support. He spread his arms wide, shuffled forward and had no choice but to give himself up to the little luck left in this bright summer day. He was thinking: The great triumph I've just enjoyed couldn't have used it all up, could it?
Lili gave birth prematurely. Their burglarproof door was forced open a second time.
Once again, during this second occurrence, Momma Shao was the authority; she was in the hospital corridor chiding Keqiang who had rushed to the hospital upon hearing the news.
"You shouldn't have repaired the door after it had been pried open the last time."
"Fortunately, I thought of the burglar-proof door factory -- when a bell gets taken down, someone's got to put it back up."
At that moment, an ear-splitting yell was heard from behind the door.
Momma Shao: "Now she yells. When we went in she was like a corpse, blood everywhere….." She clucked her tongue.
"Is that Lili yelling?"
"If Teacher Lin's wife, old Wang, hadn't changed shifts and been at home asleep, and your old lady's blood hadn't dripped right down onto her bed sheets, you'd be the one crying now, buddy!"
"Thank god for you, Momma Shao, and also Teacher Lin's….."
Keqiang still had more to say, but a white-clad nurse came over to report the good news that Lili had given birth to a boy.
And, simultaneously, an uproar broke loose in the neighborhood of the surgery department operating theater. A construction worker had fallen forty meters from a crane tower, couldn't be saved, and had died.
Forty living workers marched together down the hospital stairs.
Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa.
"No wonder no one responded when I went to .the construction site looking for help -- it turns out there's been an accident there! While they were still wrapped up in the excitement over there, why would any of them have wanted to come with me?"
Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa.
Lili and Keqiang's son still couldn't talk when he reached the age when he should have been able to. Diagnosis revealed that he was suffering from a congenital hearing loss.
But his eyes were especially bright; he was born with exceptionally acute eyesight.
Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa.
Everyday Lili held her son by the window and told him with her soul, and not words, all about the tableau that had been replaced by the large factory building.
His kindergarten, his colorful hobbyhorses, his evergreen trees.
Told him about the leaves of the parasol trees swirling under the streetlights.
She thought all of this was being channeled to his heart.
In the future, when Lili and Keqiang had left him, their son would be able to imagine a beautiful view onto the incomparably smooth wall of the huge factory building.
Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.
But the only thing he had in his head was this sound.