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Translated by Ken Liu

1

Morning climbs in through the window as shadow recedes from Tang Xiaoyi’s body like a green tide imbued with the fragrance of trees. Where the tidewater used to be, now there is just Xiaoyi’s slender body, naked under the thin sunlight.

She opens her eyes, gets up, dresses, brushes her teeth, wipes away the foam at the corner of her mouth with a towel. Staring at the mirror, all serious, her face eventually breaks into a fifteen–year–old’s smile. Above her, a section of the rose–colored wallpaper applied to the ceiling droops down. This is the fourth place where this has happened.

My house is full of blooming flowers, Xiaoyi thinks.

“There must be another leak in the pipes,” her mother says. “There’s a large water stain growing on the wall.”

They sit down together to have a lavish breakfast: soy milk, eggs, pan–fried baozi, porridge. Xiaoyi eats without speaking.

When she’s ready to leave the apartment, she takes out a stack of money from her backpack and leaves it on the table. Her mother pretends not to see as she turns to do the dishes. She has turned up the faucet so that the sound of the gushing water is louder than Xiaoyi’s footsteps.

Xiaoyi walks past her mother and the money on the table and closes the door. She can no longer hear the water. It’s so quiet she doesn’t hear anything at all.

Her knees shake.

She reaches up for the silver pendant hanging from her neck, a dog whistle.

 

2

The school is on the other side of the city, and Xiaoyi has to transfer buses three times to get there.

Li Bingbing once asked Xiaoyi whether she wanted to get a ride with her in Bingbing’s father’s car. Being chauffeured around in a BMW is very comfortable.

But Xiaoyi had said no because she didn’t think it was a big deal to ride the bus. School was so boring anyway; it was like riding another bus. Since she had to ride the bus, as it were, what did it matter where she got on? Of course, Xiaoyi didn’t say that to Bingbing. As a general rule, she doesn’t like talking, unless it’s to them.

They would never appear at the school, which makes school even more boring. Xiaoyi sits in the last row, next to the window. All day long, she sits and broods. Whether it’s during class or recess, no one bothers her.

She has no friends. No one talks to her. No one sees her. The girls like to form cliques: those with bigger boobs in one clique, those with smaller boobs in another. Once in a while a busty girl might be friends with a flat–chested girl, but that never lasts.

Xiaoyi is different from all of them. She doesn’t wear a bra. Never. Many found this odd. Then, the girls found out about them. So, wherever Xiaoyi went, there would be a sudden circle of silence. But as soon as she had left the area — but not so far that she couldn’t hear them — the buzz of conversation would start again: “Look, that’s Tang Xiaoyi!”

Yes, that’s Tang Xiaoyi. No one knows what to do with her. If it weren’t for Bingbing, who sometimes got obsessive, Xiaoyi would have a completely peaceful life.

“Hey, you know that Li Jian and Ding Meng are together now?” says Bingbing.

It’s the end of Geography, the last morning class. Bingbing sits down next to her and starts babbling. Once in a while, she pauses in her monologue and takes a drag from her cigarette. When she’s finally done with the cigarette, she can’t hold back any longer.

“Xiaoyi, you know that lots of people are talking about you behind your back. Is it true? Are they all really old and really rich? Are they richer than my dad? How much do they pay you each time?”

Xiaoyi rests her chin on a palm and stares out the window. The lunch queue outside the cafeteria grows longer and longer, all the way to the wutong tree at the school gate.

Just then a nondescript little car stops at the gate. The car door opens, but no one gets out. He’s waiting, waiting for Xiaoyi.

Xiaoyi stands up slowly and strides out of the classroom, her steps lightly echoing against the ground, her hair waving over her shoulder, as though a breeze is blowing in her face.

There’s no sound around her. Sunlight slices across her shoulders like a knife blade.

 

3

“I did as you said and switched to a different car. Can you tell me why? It’s… unusual.”

The middle–aged man turns to gaze at Xiaoyi. This is the first time they’ve met. The two are squeezed tightly into the backseat of the little Daihatsu Charade: the schoolgirl in her dark blue, short skirt, the man in his elegant hanfu. Once in a while, in a moment of carelessness, their knees bump into each other and separate immediately.

In the driver’s seat is the chauffeur, his uniform neatly pressed, silver epaulettes on his shoulders, brand–new white gloves on his hands.

“You brought a chauffeur.” Xiaoyi frowns.

“I haven’t driven in a long time.”

Xiaoyi turns her eyes to the flow of traffic outside the window — which is not flowing at all. It’s Friday, and the traffic jam started at noon. It doesn’t really matter. They’re not in any hurry. The man takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow. The Charade’s air conditioning isn’t working — unpleasant for those used to Cadillacs.

“Where to?” he asks.

“Nowhere.”

“Okay. Just so long as you’re happy.”

They are always so good tempered, treating her like a pet, adoration mixed with contempt. Before they really start, they’re all the same.

Xiaoyi turns to give the middle–aged man a careful look. His eyes are dark, strange but friendly. They seize her and don’t let go.

“What do you want me to do?” she asks.

“Like you do with the others.”

“So you haven’t thought through what you want, yourself.”

The man laughs. “I just can’t be sure that you can satisfy me.”

“You’re greedy.” Xiaoyi winks. Her eyelashes are long and dark, fanning seductively.

The man’s Adam’s apple moves up and down. The way Xiaoyi’s shirt clings to her body tells him that she’s not wearing a bra.

“Let’s start now,” Xiaoyi says.

“In the car?”

Xiaoyi reaches out and closes the man’s eyelids. Her hands are ice cold.

 

4

The man opens his eyes and looks around. Nothing has changed. The Charade is still the Charade. The road is still as congested as a constipated colon.

But the chauffeur is gone.

He’s an experienced man. He knows when he must remain calm.

“They’re right about you. I guess I finally found the right one.”

“You can straighten out your legs. There’s lots of legroom.”

The man does as she suggests. He sees his own legs slowly passing through the front seat, as easily as passing through a shadow. He relaxes and leans back. Much more comfortable. He has paid the fee and he should enjoy it; this is part of the transaction.

For a long time now, private clubs, custom services, and other forms of high–class entertainment haven’t been able to satisfy him. He’s been looking for special experiences, like this girl. The web site described her this way: I sell stories. Special. Expensive. No substitutes. You must come in a beat–up car. You must bring enough money. No matter what happens, you may never come see me again.

His right index finger trembles. Everything is set. He sits, expectant. He begins to believe that she can offer him what she claims.

“I’m ready,” he says.

Xiaoyi nods. Without him noticing it, she’s now sitting across from him, in an armchair located where the driver’s seat ought to be.

“I’m going to ask you again: what do you want?”

“I have everything.”

Xiaoyi says nothing as she stares at the man. Suddenly, she takes off her shoes and tucks her feet under her on the armchair. She curls her whole body into a ball and sinks into the soft white leather.

“When you’ve thought it through, tell me. I’m on the clock, by the way.”

This is a difficult client, she thinks. He’s going to wear me out. Xiaoyi decides to close her eyes and conserve her strength.

“Why don’t you tell me something special, something I don’t have or haven’t experienced?”

“A story,” Xiaoyi says.

“That’s right.”

Xiaoyi opens her eyes, but keeps her body in the same position.

“They tell me that you’re really good, unique. But you’re expensive. All those who had used your services, they say that you…” The man seems not to notice that his voice is too excited.

The noise of other cars honking interrupts his speech. The sounds seem to come from far away. He begins to feel that something is wrong. The air feels thin; the sunlight seems harsh; a susurration fills his ears. He has trouble telling the density of things. This is another world.

The man stands and walks around the confines of the shadowy outline of the little Charade. But the walk takes him ten minutes to complete. He’s never even dared to think that the passage of time can change.

When the man sits down again, Xiaoyi says, “I’ll tell you a gentle story.”

“I’ve heard such stories. They’re liquid. Sticky, wet, filled with the smell of tears and mucus. I don’t like them.”

“Stories are not liquid.” Xiaoyi glares at him.

Before the man can argue with her, something tumbles from above and falls into his lap. It’s warm, furry, and squirms around: a pure white puppy! Round, dark eyes. Wet nose. Oh, it’s sticking out its pink tongue and licking the man’s finger.

“Stories are like dogs,” Xiaoyi explains. “When called, they appear.”

“How did you do this?” the man asks, carefully cradling the puppy and watching it suck on his finger.

“With this.” She shakes the pendant hanging from her neck.

“A dog whistle?”

“Only I can work it. When stories hear my call, they come, and then people take them away.” Xiaoyi leans up. “So, do you want this one?”

The man looks at the puppy. “I’d like to see some others.”

 

5

“How about this one? Do you like it?” Xiaoyi asks.

The man shakes his head.

Xiaoyi glances around the car. It’s filled with dogs she’s called here. They sit quietly, their faces expectant. More than twenty pairs of eyes stare at her innocently.

The Rottweiler that she just summoned pushes against her hand with his wet nose. Xiaoyi absentmindedly strokes his ears. She’s tired and cold. The cold feeling is close to her skin, like a soaked–through shirt.

“Do you need to take a break?” the man asks. But his eyes say Keep going! Faster! Faster! I want my story!

Xiaoyi stands up and grabs the man’s hand.

Wind against their faces. An unfamiliar smell.

The sky spins. An ancient, somber prayer song echoes around them.

The herdsmen have lit a bonfire of cypress leaves. Goshawks gather from all around and land with puffs of dust around them.

The old priest–shaman sings with a trembling voice. He sharpens his knife and hook until they glisten. The living bow their backs as the dead lie with their naked chests exposed. The goshawks flap their wings and take off, circle in the air, cry out.

In the far distance, at the limit of vision, bright flags flap in the wind.

They’re standing under a big sky, on a limitless prairie, bathed in bright, harsh sunlight.

The man blanches. “What the…?”

“To simplify somewhat, this story is too big. Moving us is simpler than having him move.” Xiaoyi moves to the side.

The man now sees the hound. Though, strictly speaking, it’s not a “hound” at all.

It’s gigantic. Its mouth is wide and its nose broad. Its teeth are as sharp as knives. It crouches, not moving, only its thick fur waving with the wind. Ancient blood thousands of years old courses through its veins. It is the embodiment of the cruel and strict law of nature. It is a sacred beast.

“Do you like him? He’s very expensive.”

“You’re saying that I can bring him with me?”

“Yes, if you’re willing to spend that much.”

“A very high price to pay, and not just in money?”

Xiaoyi’s throat tightens. She nods.

The man looks at the massive hound, which still isn’t moving but seems to arrogantly take in everything before him. In the end, the man shakes his head.

“Any others?”

“You are sure you want to keep looking?”

The man doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to.

Saaaaa–saaaa. The sound of the wind comes from Xiaoyi’s chest: thin, dry, lingering, like sand passing through an hourglass.

 

6

Everywhere they look, it’s the same. The world is one substance. Bright light sparkles from the deep blue.

They’re at the bottom of the sea. The water pushes and pulls noiselessly.

Xiaoyi’s hair and skirt drift alongside the kelp.

The man opens his mouth. No bubbles. There is no need to breathe at the bottom of the sea.

“This is my last story.”

The man’s eyes quickly grow used to the ocean. He looks around but cannot see any dogs. “Where is it?”

“The dog is only a shape, to make them easier to call and to be accepted. But here, you see them in their native state. No, that’s not exactly right either. Fundamental nature consists of zeros and ones, part of the ultimate database. This sea is an illusion, a projection of that fundamental nature. The sea of data is too big to be compressed into the shape of a dog. Of course, you may still call it a dog. From the perspective of the story, nothing is impossible.”

Xiaoyi pauses and takes a drink of seawater. It’s salty, and makes her even thirstier. “This place has existed for a long time, and it’s too strong. My computing power is insufficient to alter it, to call it. I can only… be called by it.”

“You’ve brought others here before?”

“Most people are easier to satisfy.”

“What happened to those you did bring here?”

Xiaoyi smiles without answering.

The man can feel the transparent currents — 1100110111 — pass by him. They’ll flow to the countless trenches and caves at the bottom of the sea and leave this place behind. Some day, this ancient source will dry up, too. But not now. As far as the man is concerned, it is eternity.

He takes a step forward. The sea trembles; the sky trembles; everything in the sky and in the sea trembles. If, someday, a bird dives toward the surface of the sea, then he will feel the excitement and joy of that dive through the seawater, as well.

“You like this?”

“Yes.”

“It’s even more expensive than you think.”

“I know.”

“What I mean is that I don’t have any way for you to bring it with you.”

The man is silent. Far to the north, a part of the sea roils with dark, surging currents. He can no longer think it over.

“Then I won’t leave.”

Xiaoyi bites her lips. After a long silence, she opens her mouth, and lets out a word soundlessly.

A school of orange lyretails swims between them, obscuring their faces from each other.

When they can see each other again, both are smiling.

 

7

Six p.m. Rush hour. A tidal wave of humanity emerges from the subway stations, fills the shops, the roads, the overpasses.

Xiaoyi gets out of the Charade. This is the world of the present. Dusk burns brightly and gently. Pedestrians part around her.

Behind her is her shadow, stretched very long. Together, they walk slowly, with great effort.

Xiaoyi lifts her hand to find the dog whistle hanging around her neck, touches it.

They exist. They’ve always existed.

She’s not alone at all.

She does not cry.

 

Ms. Tang originally published this story in Chinese as the winner of an online contest.

Tang FeiTang Fei is a speculative fiction writer whose fiction has been featured (under various pen names) in magazines in China such as Science Fiction World, Jiuzhou Fantasy, Fantasy Old and New. She has written fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, and wuxia (martial arts fantasy), but prefers to write in a way that straddles or stretches genre boundaries. She is also a genre critic, and her critical essays have been published in The Economic Observer. Call Girl won an online fiction contest, and is Tang’s first publication in English.

 

She lives in Beijing (though she tries to escape it as often as she can), and considers herself a foodie with a particular appreciation for dark chocolate, blue cheese, and good wine.

 

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

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Total Word Count: 3087 words

2 Comments

  1. I never have anything particularly intelligent to say the moment after I read a story, so I’ll just say that this one is fantastic.

  2. Gorgeous.

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