MA LAN was born in Meishan, Sichuan, China. Formerly an accountant at China Construction Bank, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1993. Since 1982, Ma Lan has published poetry, essays, and fiction in various Chinese literary journals. Her works have appeared in multiple annual anthologies. Her short story “Going Deaf” has been translated into German and Italian, and several of her poems in English appeared in Poetry in Translation (Summer 1996) and Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry, ed. Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong (New York: Talisman, 2008). Ma Lan has self-published a poetry collection Zuozainali (Where to Sit) and a short story collection Hua Feihua (Flowers Are Not Flowers). She has served for many years as an editor of The Olive Tree online literary magazine, the first online Chinese literary journal.
Read a section from Ma Lan’s story:
FLOWERS BLOOM, FLOWERS FALL
by Ma Lan
Translated by Charles A. Laughlin
Women have been dying in our town, jumping off buildings, drowning, hanging, and poisoning themselves.
Four women have died, their ages between thirty-eight and twenty-three.
They died in place of me. The odor of death filled our Bent Neck town. Entertainment venues, like karaoke bars, quickly shut their doors. The streets were empty. Singing and dancing had long flourished in Bent Neck without being impacted by any deaths, even though people die all the time.
The people of our town had lived peaceful lives, waiting to live out our allotted years until the eternal sleep. The word “suicide” had been removed from The People’s Dictionary of Bent Neck.
We had reason to believe that suicide was a thing of the past. The town’s young and old, men and women, all stride forward, weathering all storms.
We had reason not to believe that death is right beside us, that death is inside the bodies of our loved ones, that death is a chronic disease just waiting for the time to be ripe, and that it can’t be avoided. That no one can hold death back, or that it is like a broken sword thrust into our hearts, tearing us asunder.
I sat upright in my bed and turned my eyes outside the window. There were seven inches of snow. My mind was blurry white clumps as the snow was quavering on the tree branches. So much snow; this winter seemed to never end.
Every time you thought it was the last snowfall, it would again come falling from the sky.
In this snowy winter, as I recollected the dead women and sketched them out in my mind, I felt that they came into my body, gradually making me swell like a balloon getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, not being able to withstand the tension anymore, the balloon exploded with a pop in midair and its shreds scattered about. Some of the shreds fell into my computer. Chinese characters flashed across the screen like a group of dancing snowflakes; with no other place to go, they escaped into my fingertips.
I used both my hands to search for fire, wanting to melt the snow. Instead, I gradually became a flurry of snow with nowhere to run. I couldn’t distinguish the dead women from me. Together, we formed gibberish symbols. I saw myself in a certain detail, and in the end I did not die, because they died.
One jumped from a building;
One swallowed sleeping pills;
One walked into a river;
One hanged herself.
The causes of death were various, but the common thing was that they all died.
Dead, yet they live today, and they don’t think about the future. They are women I don’t know, but they died. They were hurt by their feelings; in other words, they murdered themselves.
On the fifth of April, downy seeds fluttered and danced in the air. She didn’t know what she was wearing when she jumped off the building. It was probably an ordinary floral print dress.
At the beginning of that day, she had no idea that she would end her life soon. Her husband told her to go buy some spicy boiled beef, thirteen yuan per serving. She had been to the neighborhood Sichuan restaurant ten times already this month.
Before they got married, she thought he wasn’t particular about food, but that he just liked to drink. She didn’t know how it started, but every few days he wanted some spicy boiled beef.
She suspected it was because of a woman, a lovely, little Sichuan girl. But she had no proof. Apart from his infatuation with spicy boiled beef, everything else was normal. His moves in bed were comfortable and orderly. His departure and return from work was like clockwork. He was a punctual man.
So what was it?
Her husband said, “It’s just tasty, nothing more.”
She didn’t believe it could be so simple. Could life ever be that simple?
On the fifth of April, downy seeds danced in the air, making her heart flutter in a panic.
When she entered the restaurant, the owner came up to greet her and said, “We didn’t buy any beef today. Would you like some spicy boiled pork?”
She was stunned. There was no beef! How could there be no beef?
The owner said she didn’t know why; she went out early in the morning to shop, but Wang, the butcher at the wholesale market, said the beef was sold out, and he didn’t know why everyone in town wanted beef either.
She was an easygoing woman, or you could say she didn’t really care whether they had beef or pork.
She said, “Alright, pork then.”
How could she have known her husband would be so sensitive about pork? He wasn’t a Muslim, after all.
Her husband roared, “Why is this pork??”
She told him there was no beef, so they substituted pork, as if she was saying that there was no spring water, so they substituted distilled water.
But her husband exploded with rage, shouting, “This is an insane world, an insane restaurant, and insane spicy boiled pork! It doesn’t make any sense!”
She said, “Why don’t you eat something else?”
Her husband smiled coldly. “You’re stupid; you used to be smart. If they don’t have it, just don’t buy anything! Why would you want a substitute? Substitutes are garbage! You can’t have garbage in your life!”
She told him to keep it down—the neighbors would hear.
This made her husband shout even louder, “What are you afraid of? I just wanted to eat some spicy boiled beef and you came back with some spicy boiled pork. How do you expect me to deal with that kind of a shock?”
“What do you want, really?” She was at her wit’s end.
Her husband said, “A divorce.”
She said, “Okay.”
Since her husband could bring up divorce on account of an order of spicy boiled beef, why couldn’t she jump off a building on account of divorce?
She walked over to the restaurant building and jumped off. Her body hit the ground. She was dead. The fluffy seeds were still swirling in the air. All the townspeople were under a shroud of fluffy seeds.
No one knew where her husband had gone.