Short fiction by Xie Hong – translated by Ding Yan and Ray Hecht
Original translations such as Xie Hong’s short story ‘Fracture’ are made possible by the generous support of our readers. Become a patron today.
Wu Ming and Liu Xiang chatted while walking along the pedestrian line to cross the road. A taxi drove past quickly, and they both waved for it to stop just before it was too late.
The driver must have seen them out of the corner of his eye, and he braked hard, but the car slid past quite a distance before it came to a complete stop.
Wu Ming grabbed his wife Liu Xiang and the two ran towards the taxi. Losing her balance, Liu Xiang almost fell. “What’s the rush?” she grumbled.
Wu Ming slowed down after that. As they strode toward the taxi, a woman with a child waiting at a bus stop caught his attention, and he froze: The woman was none other than Liu Qing.
He came back to himself in a few seconds, and went up to her. She was no less surprised by the sudden encounter, and the corners of her mouth squeezed into a difficult smile.
In the meantime, Liu Xiang had already marched to the taxi. She found Wu Ming lingering behind, and shouted for him to hurry. “Ah,” Wu Ming responded, and smiled back at Liu Qing. He gave her his business card in haste.
Wu Ming sped up and got in the taxi. Liu Xiang asked, “Who was that?”
“An old colleague,” he responded.
“Do you have your ID card on you?” she asked
He patted his pocket to show that it was in his wallet.
“The formalities proceeded quite fast,” Wu Ming commented.
Liu Xiang took hold of his hand, interlocking her fingers with his. Wu Ming remained silent, fixating his eyes on the scenes flying by. Liu Xiang seemed to have noticed something, and she asked, “Are you unhappy?”
Wu Ming gripped her hand, “Why wouldn’t I be happy?”
“You look like you have a lot on your mind.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You seem like a different person compared to just earlier today.”
Liu Xiang was stricken with an idea which she uttered with a giggle, “That woman – is she your ex?” Wu Ming pretended that he was offended, and he squeezed her hand, which Liu Xiang protested with an outcry, just as the taxi driver announced their destination. The Land and Resources Bureau.
Wu Ming entered the building and walked into the hallway with Liu Xiang’s hand in his. They had come for a property ownership certificate. Their company had helped them with the administrative procedures, but since they shared ownership, the Land and Resources Bureau would only hand the certificate to the owners in person. They obtained a queuing number in the lobby and sat down.
The counters were all occupied, yet it was quiet and orderly there. After a while, the LED screen displayed their number, so they walked up to one of the counters and handed in their identification cards and a confirmation letter. They received their certificate.
Unable to hide her excitement, Liu Xiang kissed the cover. “Although it is blue, it is ours anyway,” she said. The blue cover meant that the property counted as a welfare house, and couldn’t be traded.
“Later, we can change it into a red cover by paying some more money,” Wu Ming added.
Liu Xiang was still in a good mood during their walk back home. When they were about to cross the road, Wu Ming dashed forward without looking at the traffic lights. His wife held him back and lamented, “You always tell me to be careful when crossing the road, so why are you being so careless?”
Wu Ming was startled. He smiled at her and took a few steps back. Liu Xiang pinched him, saying, “You’re behaving oddly today.”
Wu Ming turned his head towards her and gave her an awkward smile. “I’m just overjoyed,” he said.
Liu Xiang didn’t believe him; she rolled her eyes and pinched him again. Wu Ming cried out in pain, so she released him out of concern. “Do you feel pain in the old fractured area?”
“I can’t tell,” he replied. In the meantime, the light went green, so Wu Ming kept up with her, and they crossed the road.
After they returned home and settled comfortably into their living room, Liu Xiang followed up on it. “Does it still hurt?” she asked.
“Yes, it is quite sore.”
Liu Xiang couldn’t understand why it was such a problem now, for it was supposed to be a truly shiny day.
Wu Ming had a restless night, full of illusions of Liu Qing’s eyes floating in front of him. This went on for several days. He saw her eyes from back on the day they met, embarrassed and surprised. Wu Ming tried to convince himself that it was just a coincidence; however, deep in his heart, he was thinking about destiny.
They lived in the same city for ten years but had never run into each other until that day. He heard long ago that she was married and had a baby.
He never pried for news of her, but eventually it would reach him in a casual yet stubborn way – he would occasionally run into some old colleagues who would pass on the latest to him. But strangely enough, in all that time they never met. Now they had.
Reflecting on the past, Wu Ming grew sentimental as he thought about how fast time had passed. Soon, they would all be 40 years old. When he graduated college, he was allocated to Shenzhen, which aroused admiration among his peers.
The only rough edge was that the company he worked for was not in the city center, but in the western district of Shekou, Shenzhen. There was not much social life after work in such a place.
Fortunately, most of the employees were young people like him who would gather on weekends to play cards, cycle around, shop and host parties. They enjoyed the tranquil life in their own ways.
Romance is inevitable when young people spent time together. Liu Qing was one of the best in the company. She had a pretty face, was talented, and was said to be from a good family. Everything about her seemed perfect except that she was quite wilful, but the boys in the company didn’t mind.
Wu Ming didn’t know it when he first got the job. Being stubborn himself, he was quite a legend at school. That didn’t change at work, and he didn’t follow other boys’ lead in tolerating Liu Qing.
The two confronted each other from time to time, sometimes getting so agitated that neither would compromise. Whenever they met, it was like “Mars colliding into Earth.”
However, they eventually started to care for each other. Although the fighting never ceased, everyone knew that they were just being showy and that deep inside they were growing fond of each other.
Liu Qing was an active person. She liked to be surrounded by people and attend social events. Wu Ming, on the other hand, preferred only private parties and didn’t show any interest in events organized by the company.
When the Youth League Branch was first established, Yu Cunfei, the secretary, was worried that Wu Ming would not get involved. But soon the secretary was confident that as long as he convinced one to come, the other would follow without exception.
The activities back then were quite appealing: They would go hiking in the spring, and swimming and camping in the summer at Xiao Meisha. They all enjoyed the activities, and listening to the two of them bickering became extra entertainment.
Later, Liu Qing was selected the deputy secretary, and Yu Cunfei discussed plans with her, and in time he began to like her. Wu Ming, seeing this, became anxious. But he never said anything.
As a matter of fact, the relationship among the three was never explicitly stated. Other colleagues were conscious of it, cracking jokes and watching them fight for fun, even betting on who would ultimately win the latest battle of honor.
On one of the camping sessions, Yu Cunfei got drunk. He boasted while Liu Qing was absent that in the new marathon he would be the final winner. Wu Ming also drank more than usual, but didn’t reply to Yu’s challenge.
Other colleagues made Wu Ming express his stance as well, but just when he was about to say something Liu Qing returned from the washroom. The crowd burst into laughter and insisted that he had made his declaration.
Yu Cunfei joined the mocking team. Liu Qing asked what was so entertaining. “He has something to say,” Yu said, and pointed at Wu Ming.
Liu Qing then turned to Wu Ming. “What do you want to say?”
Wu Ming felt so embarrassed that he shouted, “I want to say… I want to say… Drink!” This made Yu Cunfei roll in the aisles, unable to control himself.
After the party, Wu Ming didn’t go back to his tent. He wandered ahead in the darkness by himself to the beach. He stumbled in the sand, not knowing that Liu Qing had been following him. Wu Ming stopped walking, sat on the sand, then lied down and stared at the moon and the stars.
Liu Qing approached him quietly and stood by his side, gazing him with her glaring eyes. As if testing to see if it was an illusion, Wu Ming closed his eyes very hard, then reopened them, but he was startled by what he saw.
Liu Qing comforted him by a gentle smile. “Why are you hiding here?” she asked.
Wu Ming struggled to stand up, and said, “Watching the stars.”
She paused, and finally commented, “Don’t drink that much if you can’t handle it.”
“That’s my business,” he said with some contention.
She rolled her eyes, murmured that he was “big-headed,” and announced her intention to leave. But to her surprise, Wu Ming started to sob. Liu Qing stayed and offered her hand, which Wu Ming grabbed, but then he wept even harder.
Late into the night, Wu Ming and Liu Qing, lying on the sand side by side, watched the stars and the moon in the dark night sky.
Even when the holiday ended and he was back to his normal work-life, Wu Ming knew that his relationship with Liu Qing had changed.
In fact, in other people’s eyes – especially Yu Cunfei’s – the two seemed very aloof. The both would still fight in public, to the extent of full hostility. Although they’d try to mend the relationship sometimes, it wouldn’t last long before another argument began.
People called them “quarrelsome lovers” for that reason, but it still didn’t seem realistic that a proper relationship would develop. And Yu Cunfei would have driven a wedge between the two of them if he had the chance.
His work colleagues gossiped, whispering that he had selfish motives, but mostly they all just say back to keep the drama going and enjoyed the show.
Liu Qing was a woman of details. On her approaching 25th birthday, she invited quite a few friends to celebrate together, including Yu Cunfei and Wu Ming. But Wu Ming didn’t show up, and no one knew why.
The next day, Wu Ming’s mother called the company, asking a personal leave for his son, saying that there was an emergency he had to deal with at home. Wu Ming came back to work three months later.
He tried to talk to Liu Qing and explained the reason for his absence on her birthday, but he sensed her embarrassment and avoidance. What was worse, Yu Cunfei seemed to have been hovering around Liu Qing all that time. Wu Ming couldn’t make out what was happening, but he could do nothing other than remain sullen.
He also found that when other colleagues talked about Liu Qing and Yu Cunfei in front of him, they would act like they were keeping a big secret.
Before long, Liu Qing and Yu Cunfei went to register for their marriage certificate.
It was too much for Wu Ming. Shortly after, he found employment with another company downtown and resigned from his current job. He had never seen Liu Qing and Yu Cunfei since then.
Life after that incident was a story without Liu Qing. He met Liu Xiang, had a three-year relationship with her, and then, like so many others of their generation, they got married and had a baby.
But for Wu Ming, what happened ten years ago was always an unsolved puzzle. He always wanted to sort it out, but he couldn’t ask anyone. Nobody seemed to know anything anyway, and they certainly never mentioned it to him. Therefore, the mystery was buried for an entire decade.
Ten years passed. Finally, Wu Ming was waiting for a phone call, and it actually came.
“It’s Liu Qing.”
He didn’t even recognize her voice. Liu Qing was a bit disappointed, or embarrassed, for she had to announce herself, and after that Wu Ming lost his words.
Liu Qing took the lead and asked a question. “Was that your wife, the other day?”
“Yes,” he said. “And she is also a Liu.”
Liu Qing giggled. “Were you rushing for something?”
“Sort of,” he replied.
The two got into a trivial conversation about family and work-related issues. But it went into a dead end soon. It was Liu Qing who broke the ice by asking it: “Why didn’t you show up on my birthday party?”
“I… I was injured that day. That’s all.”
She kept enquiring. “Then why didn’t you call me?”
Wu Ming felt an urge to pour out all he had been holding back the past ten years…
In fact, Wu Ming originally intended to attend the party and almost went. But on his way there, something happened. It was a Saturday, and he had to deal with quite a few things, which made him kind of frantic.
He had to pick up his mother from the train station, and they went to visit a relative together. They had dinner together, and he was asked to stay. He politely refused, since he had to go back to Shekou for Liu Qing’s birthday.
They asked him whether the girl was his girlfriend, “Yes and no,” he replied with quite a blush. His mother shook her head, and said, “Young people are always playing.” Wu Ming didn’t explain further, and after a quick look at his watch, he left the house.
He had to cross a road to take the bus on the other side. As he walked in the middle of the road, he saw a bus to Shekou pulling in. He didn’t want to miss it, and to save time, he didn’t make a detour to the crosswalk but instead ran straight ahead to cross the greenbelt in the hopes that he could catch the bus.
But just as he was about to reach his destination, he tripped over some rubble in the street and fell. His hands landed first, upon which all his body weight fell. He felt a buzz in his head, then a dizziness that almost made him lose his consciousness, and then he felt his hands and shoulders break.
However, he told himself to hold on, for if he let go, his face would crush on the ground and it would be ruined, no doubt. He saved his face, but his nose was bruised and bloody.
Wu Ming tried very hard to conquer the pain and not pass out. He sat up on the street, watching the bus pull over to take on several passengers and then drive away. Wu Ming thought that his hands were fractured.
When he gathered some strength, he struggled to stand up and tumbled to the other side of the road, where sat down on the curb. Sweat painfully dropped from his forehead and soaked his shirt, stained by his own blood. He still felt a faintness coming with the pain on his hands.
Resting for a while, he finally came to himself, with his numb hands, and went back to the family home. Not able to use his hands, he kicked open the door and entered like a wounded soldier, startling his mother and other relatives.
What happened next were X-Rays, plasters, medication and admission into the hospital, where his mother looked after him. He had a fracture on the elbow and wrist of his right hand, while miraculously, his left hand and the shoulder had no problem at all.
Wu Ming didn’t tell Liu Qing, because he didn’t want her to see his bruised face. Instead, he asked his mother to call the company to request a few days off.
Liu Qing, after listening to the story, started to weep. Wu Ming, in contrast, felt relieved.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
She wouldn’t say.
“You can tell me,” he added.
After a thorough wail, she began to tell him what happened at the party…
Everybody she invited to her birthday party arrived, except for Wu Ming. Because she insisted on waiting for him, the cake cutting ceremony was postponed until the very end.
When they couldn’t wait any longer, Yu Cunfei asserted that Wu Ming would not show up. Liu Qing still claimed the opposite, saying she was sure of it. Yu laughed at her.
Liu Qing made a desperate bet that Wu Ming would come to her party, and Yu Cunfei wanted to bet the opposite. They then had to decide on a wager, but none of the proposals satisfied both parties.
At last, he proposed that since she had such confidence in Wu Ming, they should bet on something important. Others asked what that important thing was. Yu said he and Liu Qing alone would discuss it.
Then the two went out to a private room, discussed it, and returned to the crowd with an agreed-upon wager. The rest of that night was spent waiting and checking watches. Wu Ming, sure enough, didn’t make an appearance.
This meant Liu Qing lost the wager, and she was melancholic about the result for the rest of the night. Yu on the other hand was in full spirits, and he even helped Liu Qing to blow out the birthday cake candles.
Everybody else was aware there was a bet, but they didn’t know what their wager was. They had it written on two pieces of paper, one each, so that only the two of them knew what it was.
“What was it?” Wu Ming couldn’t help but ask. Liu Qing wept again as he asked question. “Tell me,” he said, and he wouldn’t let it go.
“If Wu Ming doesn’t appear at the party,” Liu Qing softly said, “Liu Qing will marry Yu Cunfei.”
Wu Ming was too astonished to say anything more.
“It was only because I was so sure you would come.”
They sat together in silence, with Liu Qing’s weeping the only sound left to finish her story.
Liu Xiang went home after work. She handed a box of medicine to Wu Ming and went into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
Their son Wu Li returned home from school, shouting that he wanted to have another name. Wu Ming scolded him for making a scene. Wu Li complained that his classmates called him “incapable,” a play on the meaning of his surname and given name: Wu (without)and Li (power).
Wu Ming told him to cut out the nonsense and sent him to do homework. Wu Li left his parents and went to his own room, pouting all the way. Wu Ming now had time to examine the medicine his wife had handed to him, which was a pain-killing ointment.
His old injury still sored up when his hands got wet or in cold weather.
Liu Xiang served dinner to her husband and son. Wu Li talked about the news in his school, and after dinner returned to his room to do homework. After washing the dishes, LiuXiang sat in the sofa, where Wu Ming was watching TV. She took his hand and asked how he felt.
He said he was still a bit sore and numb. Liu Xiang suggested that he go get a massage by a blind master, but Wu Ming didn’t want to. Liu Xiang then started to rub his hand. He enjoyed the mixed sensation of both pain and pleasure. She enhanced her strength, which made Wu Ming groan, and she asked if it felt pleasurable or painful.
“Both,” he replied.
While Liu Xiang massaged his right hand, Wu Ming put his left hand on her waist, saying that he felt “powerless” whenever there was pain. Liu Xiang said it was not powerlessness, but laziness.
Then they joked about how they met, for if it were not for the fall that broke his hand, he wouldn’t have met Liu Xiang. It was an interesting story. When Wu Ming’s hand had healed, he went back to the same spot where he fell to examine the cause.
He saw a girl doing exactly what he was doing before he tripped over. He shouted for her to halt and taught her a life lesson from his own experience.
Later, when the girl left, he found a rusty wire on the ground, covered by grass and flowers, which probably was left there by a guilty felon. Wu Ming then wrote a complaint letter to the newspaper, suggesting that the city council pay attention to such details.
A short while afterwards, Wu Ming got a letter from the newspaper. He felt confused because he didn’t have any acquaintances who worked for news agencies. He opened the letter, examined the sender’s signature, and became more confused.
It was from girl named Liu Xiang whom he had never heard of. Then he read the letter, and realized Liu Xiang was the girl whom he had prevented from crossing the greenbelt.
In the letter, she complimented him on his deeds but criticized him for violating the traffic rules. Wu Ming wrote back, criticizing her for violating the rules, too. Their correspondence was then established, and soon enough, a relationship was established.
Next they got married and had a child. It was quite a romantic beginning for both of them, and after so many years, those stories would always be their sweetest memories.
Liu Xiang said she was getting tired, so Wu Ming asked her to have a rest. She got up and went to her son’s room, where she supervised him finishing his homework. Then she had a shower, and when she finished she asked Wu Ming to take a shower too, advising him to soak the once-fractured hand in hot water.
Wu Ming went into the bathroom, opened the water tap, and soaked his hand. It felt good. Afterwards, he sat in the sofa in the living room, trying to dry his hair, when the phone rang. He answered. It was from Liu Qing. He didn’t know what to say.
“What are you doing?” Liu Qing asked.
“I just finished a shower,” he said.
“Oh. Was it a good shower?”
“It was a hot shower, it felt good,” he said without thinking.
Liu Qing was confused. “Why do you take hot showers in the summer?”
“My hand hurts.”
Liu Qing sighed. “I want to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“I got divorced,” she said.
“You once said that if I was single, you would marry me.”
Wu Ming was speechless.
He couldn’t recall whether or not he had promised anything. He only remembered that he had a few conversations with her, from which he knew that she was unhappy. He might have said something to comfort her, but nothing seemed clear or certain for him.
It was just like his memory ten years ago, always unclear and blurry. Only on bad days would the pain in his hand remind him of such things. And whenever the pain came, his wife Liu Xiang would massage him, and it was nice, but it was always sore, and always painful. ∎