The Dark Road: A Novel Part 23

'The infant spirit will follow you until it achieves successful reincarnation. If it can't reincarnate before you die, it will return to your place of birth upon your death and reunite with your soul. Remember, the universe is in perpetual flux, changing constantly from yin to yang and from yang to yin, from being into non-being, then back again. If, through the cycle of deaths and reincarnations, you accept the flux and do not oppose it, eventually you will achieve a state of perfect peace and happiness . . .'

A crowd of pregnant women has gathered behind Meili, waiting to light their incense sticks before the Golden Flower Mother statue. Wiping tears from her eyes, Meili rises to her feet and kicks her numb legs about until the feeling returns. She pushes her way through the crowd, but when she reaches the entrance, there is no sign of Nannan. She remembers that Nannan has one hundred yuan on her, and presumes she's gone to buy something to eat. She walks out onto the front steps and scans the food stalls below.

Her mobile phone beeps. Tang has sent her a text: Through your beautiful dark eyes I saw straight into your heart. A smile hovers around her mouth. The thought that her physical appearance is appreciated lightens her mood. From her fake Louis Vuitton handbag she takes out her pocket mirror and retouches her lipstick. The red looks too garish in the daylight, so she presses a handkerchief to her lips to soften the effect. Against the lipstick, her teeth gleam like ivory. Her eyes are still red from crying. She wishes she'd brought her kohl with her and could draw a dark line along the lashes ending in an upward flick . . . The Golden Flower Mother has never experienced love or affection, Meili thinks to herself. I too have endured many hardships, but at least I have a husband and a daughter. Happiness is within reach. Now that Golden Flower Mother has bestowed her blessing, I will ask Kongzi to consult his almanac and select an auspicious date for Heaven's birth. Do you hear that, little one? Next time I come to this temple, I'll bring a jacket for the pretend baby in Golden Flower Mother's arms, and she'll make sure that you're born quickly and safely and that our family will at last be complete.

Wondering whether Nannan has gone to the toilet, Meili goes back into the temple to look for one. On her way, she sees a canister of fortune sticks, and leans down, selects two and tosses them onto the ground. They both land painted side up. Knowing this augurs bad luck, she picks up the sticks and throws them down again. This time they both land the other side up: calamity. Beginning to panic, she goes back to the entrance to look for Nannan. As she studies the faces of every girl in sight, she is suddenly hit by the horrifying thought that Nannan may have been abducted. With a sick feeling of dread in her stomach, she widens her scrutiny to include a man's leather jacket, a boy's woollen jumper, a woman's cropped hair and large earrings. Spotting a red collar peeking out over an orange sweater, she shouts, 'Nannan! Where are you going? Nannan!' The girl turns round, but it isn't her.

She phones Kongzi and tells him to leave his meeting and come at once, then she goes to scour the surrounding streets. After the heavy rainfall, the whole of Foshan appears to have turned dark green. Beneath a line of distant trees, motorbikes in waterproof covers stand parked like forest creatures waiting in ambush. Again she returns to search the temple, then comes out once more and sweeps through the crowded streets, her head darting from left to right like a mother eagle in anxious flight. She questions every hawker outside the temple, asking each one if they've seen a girl of Nannan's description, but they all say no.

Kongzi and Tang turn up and help with the search, but by duskfall there's still no sign of her. At last, they decide to report her disappearance to the police. When they leave the station an hour later, Meili is in despair. She staggers down the steps, her tear-soaked hair hanging over her face, with Kongzi and Tang supporting her on either side. Clenching her maimed left hand, she turns to Kongzi and says, 'Think, think which other friends might she have gone to?'

'Her only friend now is Lulu. I've phoned Cha Na six times, but she says they haven't seen Nannan all day.'

'The police refuse to help us,' Meili moans. 'What if she got onto a long-distance bus? Three buses leave Foshan every hour.'

'But she hasn't any money to buy a ticket,' Kongzi says, loosening his tie.

'She was given a hundred yuan today for Spring Festival. Oh G.o.d, I must sit down . . .' Her belly tight and aching, she places a hand on the concrete step and gently lowers herself onto it. The coconut tree on the other side of the road stabs the upper air like a green umbrella.

'I'll phone my mother tomorrow to see if she's made her way there,' Kongzi says, sitting down beside her and struggling to stay calm.

'Does Nannan know her address?' Tang asks.

'Yes, she's posted four letters to her. I made her address the envelopes herself. Last week she sent her a copy of the photograph I took of her cla.s.s in front of the Ming theatre.'

'Well, let's check the long-distance bus station, then,' Tang says. 'Did you read about the child-trafficking gang that was busted in Guangzhou last week? The men hung around train stations, tricked young girls into boarding their vans, then sold them to brothels in neighbouring cities.'

'The police said they won't open a case on Nannan until she's been missing for a month,' Kongzi says, his anger rising again. 'But by that time, she might have been carted off to a nightclub a thousand kilometres away, or sold as a wife to a peasant in some mountainous backwater. Well, I'm not budging from here. I'll stay on these steps until the police agree to help find her.'

Tang's phone rings. 'Thanks for returning my call, Director Wu,' he says. 'Yes, it's my friend's daughter . . . Eleven years old . . . We've just spoken to them I'm outside the station right now. I asked if we could see Sergeant Zhang, but they wouldn't let us. I know he's a good friend of your brother's, so I was wondering if you could give him a call and persuade him to open a missing person's case and send out a search party . . . Wonderful. Thank you so much.' Tang hangs up and says, 'That's promising! Sergeant Zhang is second in command at that station. I'll go and get us something to drink. You two wait here.'

'I'll wait here, but Kongzi you go to the bus station,' Meili says, placing her mobile phone on her lap, yearning for it to ring with news. She still can't accept that Nannan has disappeared, that this is really happening to her. Apart from her four-week absence, she and Nannan have never spent a day apart . . . If I lose Nannan, it will be like losing an arm, she says to herself. No, it will be worse than that, much worse. If I lose her, I will die. As this thought sinks in, she almost pa.s.ses out, then her head begins to throb as she remembers the sound of Nannan wailing as a baby. When Nannan was three months old, she cried inconsolably for two days. Meili couldn't work out what the problem was. At last, her neighbour Fang came round, checked Nannan's ears, mouth and bottom, then lifted the folds of her neck and discovered that they'd become raw and infected from drops of breast milk that had collected inside.

Tang returns with bottles of Coca-Cola, but Meili doesn't want any. She remembers her father giving her a bottle for Spring Festival one year, and not wanting to be so selfish as to drink it all herself, she fed half of it to Nannan in small spoonfuls. Nannan was only five months old at the time, and ended up with severe diarrhoea.

'Go on, have a sip,' says Tang, kneeling down beside her. 'Don't cry, Meili. I'm sure Nannan's just wandered off to play by herself and will turn up at home this evening. I have noticed that the papers have been full of stories about missing children recently, though. Last week, I read that the police stopped a coach travelling from Guangxi Province and discovered twenty-eight baby girls in the boot, tied up in black plastic bags. They were all under three months old. The police suspected they were going to be sold to restaurants in Foshan. One of the poor babies had suffocated to death.'

'Nannan is eleven years old no restaurant would want to make soup out of her. It's far more likely that she's been abducted and sold to a brothel. Will you search all the nightclubs round here? She wouldn't dare take a bus to another city. Since I was caught in Wuhan, she's known how dangerous it is for peasants to enter cities and large towns.'

'Yes, it is dangerous. Did you read about that young migrant called Sun Zhigang? He had a college education, a respectable job. He was stopped by the police on the streets of Guangzhou, taken to a Custody and Repatriation Centre for not having the right doc.u.ments, and ended up being beaten to death. It's all over the internet.'

'She's too young to be locked up in a custody centre. Oh G.o.d, why is it that as soon as we leave the polluted backwaters, something terrible happens? Are we migrants forbidden to breathe clean air?' She stares across the road at the long red wall and the blue sky above that appear to be pressed against each other as uncomfortably as two lovers who've fallen out of love.

KEYWORDS: murky water, skeleton, crumbling balcony, Womb Lake, CD drive, fountain, faintly visible.

ON THE AFTERNOON of the fifth day of Nannan's disappearance, Kongzi waits at Heaven Township Long-Distance Bus Station to check the last bus from Guangzhou, then sets off for Womb Lake down a rubbish-strewn path lined with willows, his long thin shadow trailing behind him. When someone approaches, he runs up to them, lifts a photograph of Nannan and says, 'Comrade, have you seen this girl? She was wearing an orange jumper with a red collar. Her hair was in a ponytail, and she had a red Lucky Dot here, between her eyebrows . . .' When he senses they're not registering what he's saying, he repeats his words louder and more insistently. But the elderly residents he approaches don't understand his accent. Most of the migrant workers shake their heads, and tell him that dozens of children go missing in Heaven each month, and he should give up hope of finding her. Before returning home, Kongzi always walks round the lake, as he's afraid that Happiness's ghost might have dragged Nannan into it. Last night he did see a girl standing in the water, but when he ran towards her she disappeared. He remembers how, aged about ten months old, Nannan used to like hiding in a cardboard box in her bedroom, and as soon as he found her, she'd burst into peals of laughter and crawl away at top speed. On the first night they spent on the boat, she ran to the edge of the deck, stepped into thin air and plunged into the river. If he hadn't heard the splash, she would have drowned. By the time he shone his torch on the water, all he could see was a small tuft of her hair. A year later, when she was leaning overboard shaking water from her hair, she fell into the river again, but this time was able to grab hold of the side of the boat and clamber back onto the deck all by herself.

Kongzi leaves the path and walks towards the lake over a stretch of broken printers. The sky is not yet black. On the left is a Qing Dynasty stone house with carved lintels and eaves, whose front half has toppled into the lake. Migrants occupying the back half have hung their laundry out to dry on the crumbling balcony. On a small stone jetty that juts out from the house, ducks are pecking at leftover sc.r.a.ps. The dark red water below smells of dung and rotten fish. Kongzi stares at the ducks and thinks of the birds he used to keep in the cage on the side of their boat. The rooster that each dawn would shake the dew from its wings, peer at the river and let out a piercing yodel became chicken stew the night of Nannan's third birthday. Its meat tasted of fresh sweetcorn. But the ducks that feed on Heaven's chemical waste taste of sulphur, and their stomachs are filled with plastic screws and nylon string. To his right is a swathe of rubbish which the lake's tide has pushed up into a mound. As he begins to climb, his eyes fall on the wooden skeleton of an overturned boat. He goes over, squats down, rubs the soft wood and thinks about their old boat. In the early days, he had no idea how to look after it. The first two times it leaked, he had to pay a fellow boatman to mend the cracks. Then, in spring, when the sun was warm but the river still cold, he decided to buy some tung oil and try to seal the exposed wood himself. While he lacquered the decks, Nannan kept him company, lacquering her doll, her shoes and her pillow. He gets up and examines the vessel more closely. My G.o.d, he whispers. This is our boat, Meili! You don't believe me? Look. Ten steps from bow to stern. The length of our boat exactly. If I dig through this timber, I'm sure I'll find the cabin in which we slept and raised our child. Now that Nannan has gone, the government won't dare charge us any fines. Let's leave Heaven Township and sail home. Phone your mother and tell her we'll be there soon . . .

When he finally reaches the sh.o.r.e, he stares out at the lake's maroon surface and says, Nannan, your daddy loves you. If you come back, I promise I'll never get angry with you again or make you recite Tang poems or the a.n.a.lects. Then glancing down he sees, to his amazement, Nannan's plastic doll, its blue eyes staring up at him through the murky water, its flesh-coloured limbs only faintly visible beneath.

Don't pick it up, he hears Meili say to him. It's not Nannan's doll. Her one had a red dress.

The chemicals in the water would have dissolved the dress long ago.

But, don't you remember she lost the doll when we moved into the shack, not out here by the lake.

It could have fallen into a channel and been swept down by the current. The rivers flowing out of the lake are choked with refuse, so it's not surprising that it should end up floating by the sh.o.r.e.

You sound like a professional corpse fisher! Listen, Kongzi. That doll is called a Barbie Doll. My shop sells hundreds of them. There are probably more Barbie Dolls in this world than there are real people. You can find them scattered over every rubbish dump in this town. It's filthy. Just leave it where it is.

Kongzi reaches into the water and fishes out the doll by its leg. When he sees that the red paint on its mouth is unchipped, he flings the doll onto the mound behind.

After he returns to the path, a girl who looks about three years older than Nannan calls out, 'Would you like to buy a CD drive? We've got Sony and Samsung.' She's standing at the end of a road that leads to the market. Kongzi knows that round the corner is a shop that sells sugar cane, dried tangerine peel and ground ginger.

He walks up to her, takes the leaflet she offers him, then pa.s.ses her the photograph of Nannan and says, 'Have you seen this girl? She has a large burn scar on her left foot.'

'No, I haven't seen her, but I have a dress like that.' The last light of the sun is reflected in her dark eyes. The small shed behind her is surrounded by stacks of computer drives.

'Have you worn it recently?' asks Kongzi, remembering someone telling him he'd seen Nannan near the lake a couple of days ago. He catches a chemical smell as sweet as osmanthus drifting from the trees or from the crushed components on the ground. His mind turns to Meili, who for the first four days after Nannan's disappearance wandered through Foshan holding a missing-person placard. When she returned to the shack in the evening, she'd slump onto the bed and chant: 'She has two rotten molars and a burn scar on her left foot . . . She likes milk and sweets . . . When I took her to the baby clinic for her first jabs, she soiled her trousers and I had to wash her in the fountain outside . . . When she was learning to walk, she'd struggle up onto her feet hugging her big toy rabbit, take three steps, then topple to the ground, still holding her toy tightly in her arms . . .' But last night, Meili didn't return home.

He wonders what he will do after he phones his parents again tomorrow and is told once more that Nannan hasn't turned up. A shiver runs down his spine. She hasn't gone back to Kong Village, she hasn't drowned herself in the lake, so she must have been kidnapped and sold to a peasant in the mountains. He often reads about the police rescuing abducted women who've been sold to men in the remote countryside. But Nannan is only eleven too young to be anyone's wife. She must have been sold into the s.e.x trade, then. The papers often report on police efforts to crack prost.i.tution rings. Yesterday he read about three teachers who pimped their pupils to corrupt officials, personally escorting the teenage girls to the officials' private homes.

As always after the sun sinks out of view, the sky becomes bathed in reflected light, the lake turns gold and the town shimmers like burnished gla.s.s. When they lived in the metal hut on stilts, Nannan would come to this part of the lake, wade in up to her knees and fling things in the water. She flung Kongzi's straw hat in here, a thermos mug she'd burnt her lips on, a satchel with a broken strap, a pair of shoes that pinched her toes and a battery-operated car that wouldn't stop beeping. She threw almost everything she disliked into the water, as she felt the water was connected to her unhappy past.

Kongzi turns back and heads for their shack on the outskirts, which since Nannan's disappearance feels to him more like a coffin than a home. He feels that he has nothing left now but the wounds on his body. He wishes he could dig a knife into his hand, so that for a moment he could forget his torment. As he walks along, he can remember carrying Nannan to her cot when she was a baby, the sound of her breathing contentedly into his neck, the feeling of her saliva dampening the collar of his shirt. He'd hold her close to his chest, patting her softly on the back until he was certain she was asleep, but as soon as he leaned over the cot to put her down, she'd pat his back with her little hand to let him know she was still awake. He remembers how, when they were living on the boat, Nannan would often shake him awake in the middle of the night and shout, 'Stop making that horrible noise!' and he'd quickly roll onto his side because Meili had told him he snores like a pig when he's on his back. What haunts Kongzi most of all is Nannan's unfulfilled yearning for Kong Village. He'd presumed that since she was only two when they left, she'd soon forget it. But nine years later, she still had vivid memories not only of his mother, but of the date tree in the yard and the snow that fell in winter. She said the snowflakes were black when they fell from the sky but turned white when they settled on the ground. He'd given her his word that they'd return to the village as soon as Heaven was born. Some memories can't be blown away: they force their way back, flying against the wind, and hover stubbornly around the mind. But all his memories feel empty now. If Nannan doesn't return, not even little Heaven will be able to fill the void she's left. He feels guilty about selling Waterborn, and the pain it caused the family. Meili was so distraught, she ran away from home, and Nannan cried for weeks afterwards, begging him to bring Waterborn back. This is his punishment. For giving away a child he didn't want, he has lost the child he loves. Why do people who leave their native soil always suffer a miserable fate?

Kongzi's phone rings.

'I've found Meili,' Tang tells him. For the last five days, Tang has searched every Custody and Repatriation Centre in the province, and has posted missing-person notices on hundreds of websites. When Meili didn't come home last night, Kongzi asked Tang to look for her as well.

'Take her back to our shack,' Kongzi replies. 'I'm on my way there myself. It's too dark to see anything now . . .'

The news wakens Kongzi from his daze. At least Meili has been found. Yesterday, she said she couldn't bear to stay inside their shack another second because she could feel Nannan's breath flowing from every object in the room. On the phone just now, Tang said he was going to take Meili to hospital as she seemed disturbed and confused. He'd found her sitting on a pavement, smashing a rock against the locked entrance of a sauna house. He said she was in such a bad way that if she pa.s.sed Nannan in the street now, she probably wouldn't recognise her.

As he proceeds through the dark, Kongzi flares his nostrils like a dog, trying desperately to sniff out the scent of his daughter from the confusion of toxic vapours. The smell he remembers most vividly is the musky scent of Nannan's neck. Unlike the acrid chemical stench of Heaven's air, this scent was earthy and natural and made him think of the soil, the seeds and the water that lie beneath the thick layers of electronic waste.

KEYWORDS: dimpled smile, green and shiny, pear blossoms, Bridge of Helplessness, memory cards, lotuses.

IN THE SOMBRE dark before dawn, Kongzi holds his torch in one hand and supports Meili with the other as they walk to the far edge of town along a channel choked with waste. This used to be a free-flowing river. The tethering posts once used by ferry boats can still be seen along the banks. The stone path is thickly littered with discarded rubbish. A few green fronds poke out from between smashed printer cartridges and sc.r.a.ps of burnt fibregla.s.s, signalling the arrival of spring. Last night, Meili said she must give birth on a boat because if Heaven were to be born on the land it would share the same sad fate as Happiness. Before they left, she placed a pair of scissors inside the plastic bag that contains baby clothes, towels and muslin cloths and the digital camera she's been saving for this day.

'If we go any further we'll reach the sea,' Kongzi says. The large sack swung over his shoulder is stuffed with pillows, blankets and plastic sheets. A pa.s.sage he read from Nannan's diary last night flashes into his mind: 'Daddy slept with a prost.i.tute. I pulled the quilt over my head and cried. After Mummy ran off in a temper, Daddy gave me ten yuan and told me to go and buy him some cigarettes. The horrible beast! I can never love him again . . .'

'No, the sea's still far away, beyond that distant line of trees,' Meili says. 'But look down there, Kongzi! It's our boat! It must be. I can hear the ducks quacking. I can even smell their rotten eggs.' The truth is, Meili can't see the sea. The sky is still too dark, and besides, the unfinished buildings in the mid-distance block out most of the view.

Rejected sc.r.a.p from the workshops of Heaven is brought to this stretch of the river and incinerated on the banks, as it's considered far enough away from the township's residential area. The camphor and coconut trees along the side of the path are coated in a black ash, and emit a smell that reminds Kongzi of burnt gunpowder. He looks down at the wreck Meili is pointing to, and remembers coming across their boat somewhere else, but can't remember where.

'Are you sure you've gone into labour?' he asks.

'Yes, my belly is definitely tightening,' Meili replies. 'Very soon, we'll be able to meet little Heaven. Let's go down and climb onto our boat. It may not be st.u.r.dy enough to take us out to sea, but at least it can shelter me while I give birth to our child. The boat is on the water, and the water is moving. No family planning officers would dare come to this wretched place. I will give birth to Heaven, for the sake of our lost Happiness. Weiwei couldn't find his mother. We can't find Nannan. This is what fate has decreed. But after one child disappears, another will arrive. Oh, Golden Flower Mother, I haven't exceeded my quota. My only child will be a legal citizen, and will be granted a residence permit when we return home. So I beg you, make sure that it arrives safely into the world today.'

Kongzi helps Meili descend the garbage-strewn bank and tells her to sit down while he gets the boat ready. The wreck is half in the water and half out, its bow resting on water reeds and a heap of mobile-phone batteries. The planks wobble and creak as he steps aboard. He climbs carefully into the cabin, spreads the plastic sheets over the deck and lays out the pillows and blankets. Then he treads onto a pile of crushed transformers on the bank, pulls a tarpaulin off a mound of ash and wedges it under the bow to stabilise the deck. 'It's ready now,' he says. Meili steps aboard and crawls into the cabin. She pulls off her trousers, lies down on the blankets, places a pillow between her thighs and stares out at the dark blue sky. 'When it gets a little lighter, I'll be able to see straight up into Heaven,' she says with a smile. 'Will you shift the boat round a little, Kongzi, so that the baby will come out facing north, towards its rightful place of birth? All that's missing now is the date tree in the yard.'

'The stern is rotten. If I try to move it, the whole boat will fall apart.' Kongzi's face is perspiring heavily and his legs are caked in mud and ash. He closes his eyes and sees another page from Nannan's diary: 'I have felt happiness a few times, but it has always been tinged with sadness. My parents think I'm just a naughty child. I don't think much of myself either. Mum hates me. I hate Dad I wish I wasn't his daughter . . .'

'Do you remember the first day we spent on this boat?' Meili says, kicking off her sandals and brushing the flies from her face.

'Yes, you felt so seasick that night, you vomited all over yourself, and Nannan vomited in her sleep.'

'The first time I stepped aboard, I fell flat on my back.' Meili rubs the rotting plank beneath her and remembers Nannan kneeling down in the cabin and using the stern deck as a table on which to draw pictures or write stories. 'That night, you said that now that we had our own boat, I could give birth to a whole brood of little Kongs. Well, it's time for this one to be born. I drank two bottles of castor oil yesterday to induce labour, so whether Heaven wants to or not, it's coming out today. Look, my belly's contracting again.'

'I didn't ask for a brood. All I wanted was for you to be able to give birth safely to little Happiness.' Kongzi tramples over broken memory cards to remove some rotten planks from the stern. The floating detritus covering the river is perfectly still. Only a few small patches of water are visible.

'The contractions are getting stronger. Can you find something to wedge under my back?' Meili turns onto her side and moves her legs about, trying to find a comfortable position. The two metal rings of the scissor handles poke out from the plastic bag beside her. 'I can feel the head pressing against my cervix. I must start pushing.' Remembering the yoga she learned in the prenatal cla.s.ses, she breathes deeply into the base of her lungs and exhales softly through pursed lips. Sweat seeps from her skin. She unb.u.t.tons her white shirt, gets onto her hands and knees and lets out a strange gravelly moan: 'Oh, Mother, Mother . . .' Kongzi has never heard such a noise before. It sounds like a funeral lament flowing out from the depths of her womb. 'Oh, Mother, Mother . . . Silkworms that produce silk in spring die before summer arrives. A candle's flame extinguishes when the wick shrivels to ash. Pear blossoms are washed to the ground by rain, and form rivers of tears. Oh, Mother, you have moved into the darkness and left me in the light. Death lies between us. You stand on the Bridge of Helplessness and stare out into the emptiness beyond . . .'

'Why are you singing a funeral song? Aren't there any birth songs you could sing?' Kongzi says. He sits down on a dusty patch of gra.s.s further up the bank and takes out his phone to check the time.

'The songs give me strength,' Meili shouts, panting loudly. 'Oh, Mother . . . !' Her rippling howl makes the wreck, the water and the riverbed shake. 'You toiled so hard, caring for your children, with never a thought for yourself . . . Happiness, Waterborn, Heaven: you can come out now! Don't be afraid. I will protect you, and make sure none of you go missing. Once you're born, we can all sail home. Help me push, Kongzi. Let's get all these little Kongs out of me. Oh, Mother, you have vanished now, never to return. How I wish I could follow you into the Dark Realm, and care for you as a dutiful daughter should . . .'

Kongzi crouches outside the cabin and stares at the black hole between Meili's legs. Flies crawling over her pale thighs kick their hind legs and take flight.

'Keep your voice down,' Kongzi says, 'someone might hear you.' He has left his gla.s.ses in the shack, so his vision is blurred. He turns and squints at the mounds of rubbish behind him, unwilling to return his gaze to the black hole that for ten years gave him so much pleasure.

'Don't worry, Kongzi. All the discarded machines around here are foreign. They can't understand what I'm saying.' Meili's sweat has soaked her hair and her shirt. A faint scent of diesel moves through the air, reminding her of their years on the boat, and of the rape and fire she never dared tell Kongzi about . . . 'Mother, you tread the path towards the Yellow Springs. Whose shoulder can I cry on now? . . . How could you leave me alone? Hold my hand again, I beg you . . .' Tears stream down Meili's face. As another wave of pain comes over her, she tugs at her hair with her right hand and shoves her maimed left hand into her v.a.g.i.n.a. Immediately, the stump of her index finger sends images to her brain, giving her an interior view of the mysterious dark channel that she has never visited before. She moves her hand deeper inside and sees on the wet and creased walls the marks left by male intrusions. She spots the fungal infections and Confucian quotes left by Kongzi, the fingerprints of the nightclub boss, Weiwei's departing silhouette, and various clots of her thoughts and memories. Then the stump sees Tang, which puzzles Meili as he's never entered this place. The only moment of intimacy they shared was when she took him and some colleagues to the Princess Karaoke Bar to celebrate his birthday, and he persuaded her, after much pleading, to sing some funeral laments and Anita Mui songs. If little Heaven hadn't kicked her so hard, she would have gone on singing for hours, not from a sense of grat.i.tude, but because of the intense joy it gave her. She'd experienced moments of happiness before: on the honeymoon train journey to Beijing, for example, when she lay on the upper bunk chewing preserved plums and marvelled at the unfamiliar landscape unfolding outside, or when Nannan waddled across the yard as a toddler bringing her a bamboo stool to sit on, or when Waterborn lay asleep in her arms and she watched her mouth spread into an angelic dimpled smile as breast milk dripped onto her cheeks. Meili laughed with joy on every one of these occasions, but not with the same abandon as she did in the Princess Karaoke Bar. That night, after their colleagues had left, she held Tang's hand, closed her eyes and sang about times past and future with such a sense of release that she lost herself. When she woke up later, Tang was fast asleep with his head on her lap.

Her hand continues up through this fleshy corridor that is owned and governed by men, and approaches the entrance of the Communist Party's residence. It occurs to her that, nine years ago, she would never have dared bang on this state-owned gate. She feels brave enough to bang on it now, but doesn't know if she dares enter. Trespa.s.sing government property is a crime. She pauses to think things through. Only the Party can decide which child can be born and which child must die, but as long as she pays the necessary fine, little Heaven will be allowed to live. The Party will have its money, and she will have her child. Surely that is just the kind of winwin situation that Premier Jiang Zemin has been advocating? With her legs parted like splayed duck wings, she wipes the flies from her wet face and says, 'No one is here to register the birth, so we must take our fate into our own hands, Kongzi!' Without waiting for him to reply, she pounds on the fleshy gate. 'Mummy has come to collect you, my child.' With the four fingers of her hand she pushes through the cervix, pierces the amniotic sac, gropes around and finds a foot. 'One life departs and another arrives! You're coming out now. Enough prevarication! There's nothing to be afraid of . . .' Meili pulls and pulls but the baby refuses to budge. Bursting into tears of frustration, she cries, 'Please, help me out, little one. I've done as much as I can.' She rips off her white shirt and shouts, 'Kongzi, take off my bra! I'm sweltering.' Then she pushes one more time and collapses in agony, her splayed legs shaking.

'If it won't come out, let me phone 999 and pay for you to have a Caesarean,' Kongzi says. 'The police will certify that Nannan has gone missing, so Heaven will be our only child, and his birth will be legal.' He looks down nervously at the black mounds of burnt plastic by his feet, then stares at the bulbous interiors of televisions discarded on the opposite bank.

'Shut up, Kongzi! The police were clear: missing isn't the same as dead. We'll have to wait ten years before we can apply for a death certificate. That bag! Open it. Take the string and tie back my hair. Oh G.o.d, the pain is unbearable! Don't grasp my flesh so tightly, little one . . .'

As she pushes again with all her strength, her contorted face turns scarlet and milk spurts from her nipples. The crumbling wreck rocks from side to side. With her eyes squeezed shut, she wails: 'Darling child, I call out to you from my sleep . . . Dearest Mother, I repeat your name, and kneel before you filled with remorse . . .' The lament fills every part of her body then bursts into the air. A rancid, yeasty smell starts to escape from her. After another intense push, blood drips out from her v.a.g.i.n.a onto the damp deck, forming blossom-like stains, then gushes out with greater force. 'Little Heaven, come down to earth now,' Meili cries. 'Mummy's waiting for you . . .' She thrusts her left hand inside again, grabs hold of a leg and, with one final tug, rips the child from her womb and lets it flop down onto the deck.

Desperate for a first glimpse of her child, she cranes her neck down between her legs and sees it lying in a pool of blood, its body as green and shiny as an apple, its eyes and mouth wide open. Kongzi steps aboard again and hurriedly opens its legs. He hears another plank crack underfoot. 'My G.o.d, you shook this boat about so much, it's falling apart,' he says. He lifts the umbilical cord still connecting Meili to their child. 'Look how long it is! Where shall I cut it?' Meili points to a place in the middle. He takes the scissors from the bag, severs the cord and ties a tight knot.

'My hands and feet are numb,' Meili says, the colour draining from her face. 'Everything is going black. Can you see me? I'm standing at the wheel now, the wind blowing through my dress and through the clouds in the sky . . . Tear off some toilet paper, Kongzi, and wipe me clean. I'm sorry that our child is a girl. But how sweet she smells. Just like osmanthus.'

'But Heaven's a little boy, can't you see? The pain must have disturbed your mind. Anyway, we knew years ago from the scan that he was a boy. Look, feel here, between his legs. You think he could have changed s.e.x in the womb? Poor child, I don't think he realises he's born yet.' Kongzi leans down and picks his son up in his arms. 'So, my life has not been in vain. We have produced a seventy-seventh generation male descendant of Confucius. I give my solemn pledge that I will earn enough money to ensure he has a birth certificate inscribed with the name Kong Heaven.'

'But why is he so green?' Meili says. 'He looks like one of those green aliens in the computer games . . . Ah, look over there, Kongzi! What a beautiful dawn! White infant spirits are falling from the sky, like beans scattered by G.o.ddess Nuwa, but as soon as they touch the earth they vanish.'

'White beans do you mean snowflakes? Your mind's playing tricks on you. It can't be snowing. Today is March the 9th, the first day of spring. Yes, I can see the sun is about to come up.'

Water begins to lap over Meili's legs. Her white toes rise above the surface like lotuses on a green lake. 'He still hasn't cried yet,' she says. 'Carry him up onto the field so that the sun can shine on his face.'

Meili isn't smiling any more. The wreck has completely disintegrated, and she's lying in the water, her long black hair extending behind her like a boat. Slowly, her body sinks below the surface, and her hair sinks too and wriggles about her face like a shoal of fish.

As Mother's body descends towards the riverbed, the infant spirit breaks free and begins to retrace its long journey backwards through three incarnations, travelling upstream along the many rivers and waterways towards its final place of rest.

Holding his child close to his chest, Kongzi climbs the bank and heads out into a grey expanse of waste that seems to stretch to the horizon. He treads across corroded circuit boards that poke up from the ground like excavated tiles, across graphic cards stripped of their memory chips, and over the copper and silver sh.e.l.ls of mobile phones. He crunches over Intel microchips and bullet-shaped audio connectors, then, his legs shaking from exhaustion, he struggles up a hill of stripped scanner motherboards and lifts the motionless child up to the first light of dawn.

Also by Ma Jian.

Red Dust.

The Noodle Maker.

Stick Out Your Tongue.

Beijing Coma.

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