New fiction by Zhu Yiye – translated by Liuyu Ivy Chen
How does a Chinese millennial female writer respond to the moral dilemmas of contemporary China? Zhu Yiye’s dark stories offer a poignant satire, detailing ordinary citizens who sleepwalk through a society plagued by cruelty and apathy. A strong sense of dread and invisibility shroud the characters, revealing deep psychological scars. Yet Zhu rejects any simplistic statement. As she said in a 2018 interview, “I think writing is a very private thing … I don’t try to make any point in my stories because I’m very confused myself. Those who attempt to summarize a theme, learn a life lesson, or search for meaning or positive energy, will probably be very disappointed.” Despite this ambiguity, ‘Sea Wind on a Bald Head,’ the first of nine stories in her collection The Girl Who Eats Sparrow, is a lucid tale of marriage, midlife crisis, and queer identity. – Liuyu Ivy Chen
When the wind blows in the mourning hall windows, Teacher Liu loses his hearing for a second. He sees clearly his younger brother’s thin hair standing up from out of the photo, revealing a bald head, a little comical. Teacher Liu deftly raises four fingers like a rough comb, to push a few strands of hair back on his own head. In the photo, his younger brother has recovered his simple honest look, mixed with innocence and grievance––his lips parted slightly, carrying a sign of doubt. Teacher Liu sighs, unable to erase his younger brother’s doubt. He can’t even control his own ear valves as they reopen and his sister-in-law’s wailing floods his head. He feels his brain soaking in brine, sagging rapidly.
“Why are you standing here like a fool? Go make yourself useful!” Teacher Yang shoves Teacher Liu, almost to the ground.
Teacher Liu stumbles a few steps and hears the water sloshing in his brain. He doesn’t want to tell anybody what he just saw, especially Teacher Yang, whose head is filled with formulas, theorems, inferences, proofs, functions, equations, and sequences. Although Teacher Yang hasn’t shown him her typical sneer, Teacher Liu has already scoured his head to find a rushed explanation: He is overcome by grief, hallucinating.
Teacher Yang runs around briskly to coordinate the memorial ceremony and the following banquet as if she’s the hostess of the Liu family. Her neck stands straight; her thick ponytail sweeps across the air as if writing bold calligraphy strokes. In contrast, the entire Liu family is downcast, especially Teacher Liu. Although he is now the oldest member in his family, he acts absentmindedly, always standing in others’ way, even confusing the names of a few guests who come to greet him. During the banquet, he holds the chopsticks, hesitating, failing to pick up any bite.
After the banquet, a few drunk guests speak the truth. They stand in line to embrace Teacher Liu, wetting his shirt collar with their alcohol-sniffed tears. “Old Liu, safe travels to the netherworld!” “Brother, first go to make military arrangements to prepare the way!” “In those years, even raining gunshots couldn’t defeat you, Old Liu!” Teacher Liu retreats backwards but can’t avoid his younger brother’s grieving comrades. Only in these comrades’ hazy eyes does Teacher Liu reveal his true form––he becomes his younger brother’s lost soul, roaming in his own funeral.
“No man is an island entire of itself…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Nobody understands this poem better than Teacher Liu, not only because he’s a retired Chinese language arts teacher, but––as far as he knows––no one in his family has outlived the age of sixty-five. His father and his father’s four siblings queued up in birth order and died one by one. Even his mother, who didn’t share the family name Liu, only lived sixty-two years. Old Liu had three brothers; the first two died in succession a few years ago. Old Liu figured he’d be next, but the fourth brother skipped the line, dead.
“Cancer is written into your family genes! Like a time bomb!” Teacher Yang says resoundingly as she drives. “Members in your Old Liu family have been paying for retirement insurance plans, what a rip off!”
Their son bites his lips woefully in the back seat, as if calculating how many years he has left.
Teacher Liu feels very torn, his sweaty palms rubbing his thighs. He wonders if the death god has mistaken his younger brother for him because they looked alike, or if a newly appointed death god is more lenient and makes an unusual move to set him––a people’s teacher––free. Eager to ingratiate himself with this death god or any other deity, he implores Teacher Yang to stop at the City God Temple.
“What do you want?” Teacher Yang looks ahead even when she talks, keeping a safe driving posture.
“Don’t you know that we should shed bad luck in a temple after a funeral?” Teacher Liu also looks ahead. Only when he’s not looking Teacher Yang in the face can he gather enough courage to spit out such an unscientific statement.
“Didn’t I just mention that bad luck is written in your family genes? Impossible to shed.” Teacher Yang has the ability to always present herself as a bystander––an objective, rational, and scientific intellectual––with a carriage that dwarfs Teacher Liu’s self-esteem. In Teacher Yang’s mind, a language arts teacher doesn’t even count as a teacher. Only STEM teachers count.
“How about me?” Their son finally speaks after tearing his lips.
“If your father soon dies from cancer, you’ll have a certain chance.” Anger flares up in her chest once Teacher Yang thinks of her son, who’s inherited all the shortcomings of his parents––his math, physics, and chemistry are a mess; even his Chinese is poor––a downright loser with no car, no home, no wife, no child, and no stable job. She decides to unsettle him: “Maybe a 50 percent chance.”
“Cancer will soon be overcome. When Mingming reaches my age, having cancer will be like catching a cold. It won’t be such a big deal.” Teacher Liu finds what Teacher Yang said too cruel for a child, although their son is over thirty and has a stubbly beard.
“Humph, it won’t be so easy. All that fake news.” Teacher Yang slows down. There is an accident on the left lane. She drives on, looking straight ahead. “All those fools breaking traffic rules.”
Teacher Liu realizes that they’ve missed the City God Temple. After attending so many funerals, he has unwittingly learned some customs. Although he never cared before, he really needs to shed some ill luck today. He can’t go home directly; after all, it was supposed to be his funeral. Teacher Liu rubs his thighs more vigorously and says, almost pleading: “Stop at the mall in a moment. Let’s go shopping.”
“It’s called survival of the fittest. Those who carry these kinds of genes will be eliminated.” Teacher Yang knows Teacher Liu’s motive. Resorting to superstition? What a pitiful coward.
“I volunteer to stop passing on these deficient genes.” Mingming finally finds an opportunity to say these words––they tumble out even before he makes up his mind.
“What do you mean? Didn’t your mother just say your chance comes only after I die from our family cancer? Plus, it’s not a 100 percent sure thing. And cancer will soon be cured. You should be optimistic.” Teacher Liu pauses his fidgeting hands and turns to look at Mingming.
“Humph, don’t you get what he means?” She continues. “You’re gay, right? I’ve long guessed it. That Li Ping, the boy who came home with you for the last Lunar New Year, is he your partner?” Teacher Yang stops at the red light with her eyes still glued to the road.
“We’ve long been separated.” Mingming has imagined numerous times what would happen after he comes out to his parents. He realizes he’s been overthinking it; after all, his parents are not ordinary parents.
“Humph, your Liu family genes are truly remarkable: cancer plus gay.”
“Your family is gay!”
“Ok, if I’m gay, what are you? Are you a woman? No wonder you’re always so cranky, even knitting sweaters.”
“I…” Teacher Liu chokes, unable to find a strong counterattack. His two hands ball into fists, pounding his thighs.
“All right, all right. You both aren’t. I am!” Mingming grows anxious, too. Although he never expected his parents to accept this fact, he didn’t see this dialogue coming, either.
Teacher Yang passes the traffic light and drives straight into the mall’s underground parking lot. Before the family have time to adjust their eyes, the car plunges down the steep slope into a cloud of darkness.
Inside the supermarket on the mall’s underground level, Teacher Yang pushes the cart while Teacher Liu and Mingming follow her like two halfhearted bodyguards. Teacher Liu’s two small eyes glance around, his glasses as thick as the bottom of a vase. Mingming rocks his shoulders as he walks nonchalantly, occasionally dipping his hands into a sack of rice, or smashing a bag of instant noodles. Teacher Yang puts on her reading glasses, carefully compares the production date, price, and weight of each product, and quickly selects the best candidate. Teacher Liu stamps his feet from time to time, as if ill luck is a layer of dust on his shoulders that would shake off.
“Old Liu, you’re here.” A former neighbor walks over. He’s also Teacher Liu’s younger brother’s elementary school classmate. Teacher Liu had just met him in the funeral.
“Ah, yes. We are shopping,” Teacher Liu adds. “On our way home.”
Teacher Yang snorts from the side.
“Sounds good. Old Liu, take time with your family. I’ll go now. Let’s stay in touch.”
“Ok, ok. Thank you for coming to my younger brother’s funeral today.”
“What nonsense. I should. I should.”
Packed in the crowd, Teacher Liu looks around this enormous supermarket and thinks: How many people are here to shed ill luck after attending funerals and before they go home? In this city, one to two hundred people die every day. This mall must be filled with bad luck brought from different funerals. When added up, isn’t the bad luck here greater than all the bad luck a single funeral produces? Teacher Liu pauses here and urges Teacher Yang: “Enough, let’s go home.”
Teacher Yang doesn’t move. She’s examining a few cabbages to pick the finest one. She peels the outermost layer of the chosen cabbage, grossly ignoring the sign on the side: “Shop with manners. Do not peel skin.”
Before Teacher Liu has the opportunity to have a heart-to-heart talk with Mingming, he’s already purchased a train ticket back to Beijing. “Perhaps your next visit home will be for baba’s funeral”––these words nearly push themselves out of Teacher Liu’s lips when he sees Mingming off. In the end, a silence shrouds the two men. When Teacher Liu stares at the back of his son, a head taller than himself, his nose twitches and his eyes warm with tears. The vase-bottom glasses diminish his facial expression, imperceptible to others.
Teacher Yang decides to process the fact in her own way. During the day, she devotes herself to work with greater passion as the Chairwoman of the homeowners’ association in Sunny residential complex, supervising guards, gardeners, and janitors. Donning white gloves, she wipes railings, elevator doors, and windowpanes, inspects surfaces and attends to every detail. She collects feedback from the homeowners’ WeChat group, reports it to the property management company timely, and supervises the company in resolving issues. She’s also an expert in mitigating conflicts between property owners. Whenever someone procrastinates in fixing a sewage pipe, lets a child roll marbles on the hardwood floor late at night, or doesn’t pick up their dog poop when walking a dog, Teacher Yang emerges and settles the case.
Teacher Yang struts down the residential complex, head up and back straight, carrying an air of command. From toddlers learning to speak to seniors losing their speech, all residents greet her happily. She reciprocates with a standard and professional smile, bringing herself closer while keeping a distance, like the ladies promoting baby formula on TV––they look trustworthy but are beyond anyone’s reach. If this residential community is a tribal clan, it’s no doubt a matriarchal one because Teacher Yang is the indisputable chief. In the few years since Teacher Yang retired from her school and chaired the homeowners’ association, the community has become a clean, beautiful, and friendly haven full of chirping birds and fragrant blossoms. Her smile passes on to every homeowner like a religion. If you take a stroll in Sunny residential complex on a summer evening, you would not only smell the freshly mowed lawn and hear the rhythmic spray of water sprinklers, but also see numerous identical smiles rimmed with the golden sunset, as if walking into a real estate ad showcasing a fake, perfect life. It is said that due to Sunny residential complex’s stellar reputation in recent years, its property value per square meter is now a few hundred yuan above the surrounding area.
At night, Teacher Yang immediately removes her standard and professional smile to become a gay studies expert. She puts on her glasses, straightens her back, and sits in front of her laptop. The cold screen light gleams on her face, intensifying its contour. She often grabs a pen to jog down notes. Her nightstand is covered with LGBT books purchased online, including Subculture of Homosexuality, Homosexuality in China, Psychology of Gender, and even classic novels on homosexuality. Teacher Yang has also found many gay movies. Sometimes she holds her laptop to watch them in bed––even explicit sexual scenes don’t stir up a ripple on her face. Teacher Liu is afraid of these films. He takes his glasses off, turns his head to the other side, and asks Teacher Yang to lower the volume every time he overhears suspicious noise. But Teacher Yang pays him no attention. She clutches her brows and concentrates as if watching an educational science video or solving a difficult math problem.
After serious and thorough research on homosexuality, Teacher Yang moves on to the next stage––marching into the medical field to become an AIDS specialist.
When Teacher Yang buries herself in research, Teacher Liu also makes considerable progress: He has collected forty-eight boxes of all sizes. He dismantles them, steps on them, and folds them into a neat pile, estimating that it can be sold for over twenty yuan. He also has a bag of loose clear beads from crystal chandeliers, two round orange plastic lamp shades, several bamboo poles, a clear plastic case for raising turtles, a potted tiger piran not fully dead, a dirty colored pinwheel, and numerous buttons, pins, one-jiao coins, cheap earrings, and other trinkets.
Since Teacher Liu retired, and especially since his two elder brothers died, he’s been holding his breath waiting for the death god to take him, ushering him into some dark and crammed place where his large family dwells. It’s not yet time for Teacher Yang to care for Teacher Liu, but he already feels indebted to her––she feels the same way. When they imagine a future together, Teacher Yang is always the moral paragon caring for her cancer patient, while Teacher Liu is forever a dying mortal, slouching in his wheelchair: sparse strands of white hair cling to his head, his eye sockets sunken, his body wrapped in soft and pale skin. Like a zombie––just captured and sedated––he is a horrifying and dumbfounding creature that’s no longer human, but a living corpse, the final look of every short-lived specter in his family.
As a result, Teacher Liu always seems absentminded, muddling through his days. Except one habit––collecting things. Even the most useless junk in others’ eyes could earn Teacher Liu’s gaze before he brings it home. His habit quickly prompts Teacher Yang to form her new hobby––discarding things. Throwing things away doesn’t even fit her shrewd personality; she only does it to work against him. Working against each other has become their only tension in life. If passion is understood in its extensive terms, this is their only passion: he collects, she declutters; he hoards, she discards; he recycles, she disposes; he complains about unbroken things being pitched, she argues that useless things should be pitched; he says Sooner or later you’ll throw me out, she responds If I throw you out you’ll bring yourself back. But lately, Teacher Yang has been so absorbed in her work and research that she’s lagged behind in tidying up his mess. Even Teacher Liu feels their balcony is getting too full.
Teacher Liu sits among his heap, lost in a daze. Heavy male panting from the bedroom laptop enters his ears; a stench of rotten fish from the nearby gulf seeps into his nose. He feels lonely. He tries to conclude his life––a not long but not short one––in a few words; perhaps they can be carved into his gravestone. After all, he has spent his entire career summarizing the themes of articles and passing this skill to students year after year. “An excellent people’s teacher,” Teacher Liu comes up with this line, but feels a little uneasy. In the past few decades, as a middle school Chinese language arts teacher, he spent most of his time in fear and the remaining hours in spitting tea leaf residue into his cup: Pooh! Pooh! Pooh! The tea leaves have clogged his glass thermal cup while the strong tea has yellowed his teeth. Even when Teacher Liu was just a middle school student with rosy lips and ivory teeth, he trembled in fear every day––a perfect target for bully: a lean, weak, and nearsighted boy. He never thought that he would jump in the same chasm when he grew up and stay there for decades. He feared those teenage boys. He feared the odors radiating from their bodies and the exultant looks in their eyes. He even feared the pimples on their faces. He feared that they knew he feared them. Every year, there were always a few hyper-hormonal boys who saw through Teacher Liu’s fear and constantly provoked him, like drooling dogs. Teacher Liu acted with caution in class, avoiding eye contact, rarely asking questions, never staying over time, and fled as soon as class ended. Thanks to his distinct flair for lecturing––like chanting the Sutras––many students were put to sleep before they could stir up any trouble. Thus, Teacher Liu peacefully sailed through his career. “Excellent” is out of the question. If his students didn’t completely forget about him after graduation, what they do remember are the damp, heated, and rousing adolescent dreams they had while drooling in his class.
“A forgotten people’s teacher,” an epitaph Teacher Liu thinks can better summarize his life. Apparently, even the death god forgets about him this time. Thinking of this, he feels a little sad; tears begin to spin at the thick bottoms of his glasses.
Although he considers collecting trash a healthy and eco-friendly hobby, Teacher Liu doesn’t plan to explain it to others or expect everyone to understand and support him. He follows his low-key routine. When he spots good stuff, he waits until no one is in sight before he picks it up. One stormy night, his heartstrings are pulled by several flawless boxes in the communal trash can. He figures no one would come out for a walk on such a night, so he quickly approaches the trash can, turns on his flashlight, cranes his neck to look inside, and dips in one hand to grab the boxes. But a gust of wind blows the open lid down on his head. He jumps, struggling to push the lid back open, when a middle-aged woman emerges. She lifts the lid, curious to find out who’s thrown his own head in the trash can.
“Isn’t this Teacher Liu? What are you doing?”
“I…I…When I took the trash out today, I might have discarded a file by mistake, so I came to look.”
“Did you find it?”
Teacher Liu loosens his grip on a sturdy small box and returns home empty-handed. Following the incident, he gives up his community resources and begins to map out a bigger blueprint for his career. He pedals a creaking lady’s bicycle, foraging a landfill, a construction site, a riverbank, an alley, and a forest. To distinguish himself from other garbage collectors, Teacher Liu dresses smartly every time he goes out. He wears a shirt, a suit coat, and a pair of black leather shoes. He hangs his glass thermal cup and a black briefcase on the handlebars––evidently a people’s teacher who has lost his way. But if you open his black briefcase and see his few plastic bags, pair of scissors, several ropes, pair of gloves, and a mask, you’ll have a different impression: a serial killer.
One sunny afternoon, Teacher Liu rides his bike around town, when a black pine forest on the coast pulls his attention like a black magnet. The countless horror stories he heard growing up all took place here, as if this ancient pine forest bears the fruit of horror itself. But now, the sun shines bright, the sea wind cools the air, and the pine trees rustle in waves. Teacher Liu, forgotten by the death god, challenges himself. Magpies cackle all the way, rallying around him, and he pedals out of the pine forest an hour later. His forehead bears fine sweat beads while the pine forest bears nothing but lovely pine cones, of which he has collected a full bag.
A more astonishing scene emerges as Teacher Liu’s view opens up. It’s not a smooth beach, but a steep cliff at low tide. Teacher Liu stands on the cliff and looks down at the large black reefs above the water, densely covered by grey sea scorpions. The place has attracted little foot traffic, otherwise the sea scorpions would be scraped clean. The sea sparks in the distance; soft wind strokes the calm waves. A white-gravel beach lies at the foot of the cliff, littered with conspicuous rubbish. Teacher Liu parks his bicycle near a pine tree, puts on his gloves, pockets the ropes and plastic bags, and climbs slowly down a gentle incline. Clumsy, he nearly slips a few times. But the garbage strewn on the beach is a risk worth taking––it comes from a faraway place, perhaps from South Korea or Japan across the sea, or perhaps from America across the Pacific Ocean.
On the beach, he sees a cluster of green fish netting, several white buoys, a couple planks of driftwood, a black rubber shoe, a few drink bottles, a rusty anchor, a flip flop made of foam and plastic, and a plastic doll head with one eye open and the other closed. A putrid stench permeates the beach. Teacher Liu follows it. Other than several dead fish, he finds a dead dog with a ghastly face. Soaked in seawater and repeatedly gouged on the reefs by the crushing waves at high tide, the corpse is torn, exposing white bones. Teacher Liu rouses a black whirlwind of flies before they quickly subside. Trails of sea roaches climb out of the dog’s mouth like ancient creatures. Seagulls hover over the beach, wailing.
Teacher Liu continues walking. White bones are scattered on the beach; he can hardly tell what animals they belong to. The pebbles on the beach, large or small, are polished by the waves into smooth and pure globes. If given enough time, Teacher Liu wonders, the white bones could be polished into small globes just like these. He squats down and discovers blue, green, brown, and cream-colored glass beads mixed in the white gravel, all damp and smooth. He picks one up and holds it against the sun––crystal clear, like a teardrop of sea. Inspired by this analogy, he lies on the ground, gleaning colorful teardrops of sea greedily as if fulfilling an obligation, ignoring the sun burning his back and the gravel cutting his knees. When the bags are filled, he stands, washed by dizziness. He restores balance, and walks toward the sea.
Teacher Liu feels he’s just landed on a strange planet, not a single black reef can be trusted––the reefs are slimy and wobbly, made of dense lies. Teacher Liu slips a few times, causing sea roaches to scuttle and seawater to seep in his black leather shoes. The sharp sea scorpions become accomplices, biting Teacher Liu’s hands through his gloves. Blood soaks through the wet, white cotton gloves and drips into the water. Sea anemones grow in small puddles like queer flowers emerging from the reefs. They wave green tentacles to beckon Teacher Liu; but when he nears, they shut up. On a towering reef, Teacher Liu sees a black cap with white English letters. Brine-soaked and sundried, the cap carries streaks of silt. Besides the cap, he also collects eight orange starfish glaring against the dark.
When Teacher Liu returns to the foot of the cliff with a full harvest, he turns to look at the reeking beach. A language arts teacher, he feels a poetic urge for the first time in his life. He thinks for a long time, but can’t find a fitting line to describe this beautifully wicked beach, a union of heaven and hell, a virgin with rotten insides. Teacher Liu finds himself irrevocably in love with her, his parting lips finally letting out a word—“Ah”––nothing follows.
The wicked virgin is fickle: the tide surges, the wind blows harder. Having grown up on the coast, Teacher Liu knows that the beach will soon be underwater. If he doesn’t leave now, he’ll be swallowed by the virgin. When the tide retreats, he’ll end up like the dead dog. Climbing the cliff with bags of ocean teardrops isn’t easy––the teardrops seem unwilling to leave the beach. Flustered like a thief, Teacher Liu keeps slipping and almost falls into the mad waves. Without raising fingers to comb his hair ruffled by the sea wind, he puts on the cap. Returning to his bicycle, he looks just as disheveled as any other garbage collector. Teacher Liu opens the lid of his thermal cup hanging on the handlebars and gulps down the tea, spitting out the tea leaf residue: Pooh! Pooh! Pooh! But these dark-green, soft, and stale tea leaves––after descending from Teacher Liu’s oral cavity toward the ground––blow back up like a swarm of fat flies, hovering around his head.
Teacher Liu’s sixty-fifth birthday soon arrives. Sixty-five is a terrifying number, a cursed number. Although the death god might forget him, he still proceeds with caution. On his birthday, he hides under his comforter like a child playing hide and seek, refusing to get out, not even showing his head. Teacher Yang has dedicated herself to her research and seems to have also forgotten him. He’s convinced that even if he hides in the closet, in the fridge, in the bathtub, or under the bed for days on end, no one will notice.
After his birthday, Teacher Liu decides to begin his life anew. He puts the reclaimed cap on his head, exposing another family curse––every man in the Old Liu family goes bald at a young age. With the cap on, he no longer needs to raise four fingers to tug his hair back when the wind blows over his bald head. In the end, he shaves the last strands of hair that reveal rather then cover his baldness. Under this cap, Teacher Liu feels himself transformed into someone else: a handsome Old Wang, Old Li, Old Niu, anybody but the former Old Liu. Before he goes out in the morning, he does several ferocious pushups on the floor, watching his chest muscles bulging slowly. With his bald head, he looks like a tough guy in the movies; only his thick glasses are a little off. Teacher Liu rummages through his collections and quickly extracts a pair of clip-on sunglasses to wear––he keeps them on most of the time. To match the sunglasses, he also digs out and dons a T-shirt, a pair of sneakers, and a pair of jeans that his son threw away. In disbelief, Teacher Liu looks at himself in the mirror. Yet more astonishing is that he finds himself enveloped from head to toe with garbage––he knew that these items would be useful one day. Teacher Liu speeds forward on his bicycle as if riding a steed. He pedals madly, transforming the creaking whine of the wheels to a triumphant roar.
Teacher Yang is unmoved by Teacher Liu’s change. He knows well that her lofty state of mind prevents her from making a superficial judgment of anyone. When she decided to marry him, she must have seen something deep in his soul, which to this day mystifies him. Back then, the most important trait he saw in her was that her chalk butts––little bullets––could always hit the foreheads of those vicious boys. It made him feel safe.
One weekend evening, Teacher Yang closes her laptop and sits in a daze. She sends a WeChat message to Mingming: “Don’t have casual sex. Wear a condom every time. Use lubricant.” Her research has come to an end; this is her answer to the difficult problem Mingming gave her. When Mingming receives the message, he’s just lying awake from insomnia in his lonely bed. He understands that Teacher Yang has accepted him in her own way. His chest is tightened with a warm current, his nose twitches, and his eyes turn moist. He reads the message again and again. The three key words––sex, condom, lubricant––induce an erotic rush in his body. He is eager to share this news with someone, an urge mixed with lust––he feels a colony of ants teeming in his heart. Mingming opens a WeChat group and sends a message: “Anyone free tonight?”
After Teacher Yang finishes her research, her attention returns to Teacher Liu’s junk. To prevent his interference, she wakes early in the morning and paces around the apartment, gathering from every corner the rubbish Teacher Liu has salvaged. She packs the rubbish into a big bag and drags it downstairs. The balcony is still jammed. She stands with arms akimbo among seven or eight dying plants, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project. She calculates that it’ll take a few days to clean everything up.
When Teacher Liu wakes, Teacher Yang has prepared breakfast. Teacher Liu notices that the apartment is much tidier, a former order and equilibrium have been restored. Sunlight shines through the gauze curtain and on his bald head, making him feel warm and happy. He grabs Teacher Yang’s hand to touch his smooth head. She breaks away, shifting awkwardly. This makes the towering Teacher Yang appear odd, giving Teacher Liu an opportunity: Her oddness weakens, softens, and disarms her. He pulls her to the bed.
When Teacher Liu finishes eating his cooled breakfast, he can’t find his cap. He panics.
“Where’s my cap?”
“I threw it away.”
“Why did you throw it away?”
“Are you illiterate? Didn’t you see what’s written on it?”
“I’m not going to argue with you or get mad at you. Tell me where it is and I’ll go find it.”
Teacher Liu puts on his clothes and walks out the door. Before he leaves, he turns to blink at Teacher Yang, but his sunglasses block his expression. He believes that what he just did has turned him into a real man, standing two meters tall with eight-pack abs. He searches everywhere downstairs but can’t find his cap. He recognizes the bag of trash, but the cap isn’t in it. Teacher Yang stands on the balcony and looks down: Teacher Liu’s bald head, glowing in the sun, shrinks as he rides his bicycle away; it eventually becomes a spark, a shooting star in the daylight. This is Teacher Yang’s last memory of Teacher Liu.
Teacher Liu’s disappearance becomes a new horror story in the black pine forest. After Teacher Yang reports it to the police, the policemen find Teacher Liu’s bicycle by a pine tree near the cliff, his black briefcase and thermal cup hanging on the handlebars. Teacher Yang clearly remembers that Teacher Liu didn’t bring these two items the last time he left home. But when she returns home to search, she can’t find them anywhere. She can’t even find any evidence of Teacher Liu’s recent existence. The only finding is a surveillance video showing Teacher Liu pedaling out of the residential complex with his briefcase and thermal cup on an earlier date. Whatever Teacher Yang says now won’t make any difference––it only makes her look like an insane middle-aged woman going out of her mind after her husband went missing. A scientific person, Teacher Yang needs to comb through her thoughts and find proof.
Like others, Mingming doesn’t understand why his mother called the police so long after his father went missing. Her explanation frightens him and he feels obligated to stay back to keep her company. He prints out missing-person notices and posts them in the streets with the help of Teacher Yang. Teacher Liu suddenly becomes a notable figure as stories brew in the community. One says a siren creature swallowed him; another says he committed suicide; yet another says Teacher Yang killed him.
The police investigation isn’t going anywhere. While the white bones on the beach prove to be human, the test result shows they aren’t Teacher Liu’s. As Teacher Yang exhausts herself searching for Teacher Liu, her standard and profession smile disappears. Dog poop begins to litter the lawn; neighbors scream at each other over small disputes; children burn trash; homeowners hold a banner by the gate, demanding that the delinquent property management company leave. An odor of anarchy permeates the entire Sunny residential complex.
One foggy afternoon, Teacher Yang and Mingming are searching for evidence on the familiar beach, when Mingming stumbles into the sea. In the fog, he sees a cap on a head. When he walks over, he finds a black cap snagged on a towering reef.
“Here’s a cap,” he shouts.
“Does it say ‘ghost’?” She asks.
“How do you know?” He is startled.
For Mingming, the case is getting more mysterious, like the thick fog or an exam with problems he can’t solve. He can’t even figure out if Teacher Liu had inherited the terrible short-life genes.
Now, the cap sits on Teacher Yang’s desk, among piles of investigative books and mystery novels. Behind the desk, a wall is covered with images: a map of the entire region, photos of the bicycle, the beach, and the pine forest, Teacher Liu’s missing-person notice pinned in the middle. Dense lines, words mixed with English letters, math equations, function graphs, and geometry shapes are also drawn on the wall––from afar, it looks like an entangled skein of yarn. Teacher Yang puts on her reading glasses, examining like a detective and reasoning like a mathematician. She is determined to solve this difficult problem Teacher Liu gave her. Wind blows in the windows, flipping book pages. On Teacher Liu’s photo, his thin hair stands up, revealing a bald head, a little comical. But Teacher Yang doesn’t notice. ∎