Cancer

Kou Reishi

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

One day I discovered by chance—though I presume most of you may not fully grasp the meaning of this 'chance'—a curious lump of flesh on the inside of my left eyelid. Needless to say the thought of 'cancer', so visibly tumorous in Chinese, instantly plunged me into despair. I touched my eyelid. It was a hard, round lump, about one and a half centimetres across.  At these one and a half centimetres, as well as at my having been completely oblivious to the lump until it had grown to this size in total oblivion, I panicked. I never noticed it because it didn't hurt or itch at all, which only made me more convinced that it was cancer. I felt the shadow of death upon me so palpably that I didn't dare look at my face in the mirror.

"Hey," I called my wife over. "Looks like I've got cancer."

But my wife was not one of those women who turned into shrieking headless chickens in these situations. She listened to my great discovery, then turned to look at the trees in the garden bowing to each other in morning greetings. Her reaction may be explained by my tendency to embellish; even now there were times when, in a fit of poetic ecstasy, I would call an injury  'so grave as if I'd fallen headlong into a bottomless ravine,' or say that 'my tears ran like the Niagara Falls' or that the thermometer was 'flabbergasted at my fever.'

"It's rather small," she said, casually touching my eyelid.

I was utterly disappointed. In any case, a gentle wife and loving mother ought to be readily shocked and fuss over the tiniest matter. It goes without saying that I was very distressed by how oblivious I'd been to this lump of flesh. But here I must confess my amazement at that mental fortitude which allows women to, for example, get blood all over themselves during childbirth without so much as batting an eyelid. I also found myself trying to extract some auspicious meaning from being told that my lump was rather small.

"What should I do?"

" 'What should I do' indeed; just go see a doctor."

I had never before asked for my wife's opinion when making a decision. Neither had she ever asked for mine, and I couldn't deny that this arrangement was not only convenient but in fact instrumental in the preservation of domestic peace. This was because we agreed about nothing at all, and consequently we didn't even know what kind of clothes the other owned. But I had asked the question "What should I do?" To be certain, I was more or less talking to myself, but then again I was more or less talking out loud. Upon hearing her tepid response, however, I instantly reverted to my old self. Wife be damned.

I was someone who always demanded 'first class' performance of himself. If I weren't working, that would be another story. But doing any work at all, even something as trivial as uprooting a single blade of grass, meant that I had to be a first class grass-uprooter. First class—nothing else had any value in this life. In that light I still wasn't doing anything that resembled real work. It's not that easy to get involved in first class enterprise. I had full confidence that I would accomplish something great, some day. Despite that confidence however, I found myself on the brink of forty, being consoled by the occasional article in the papers about increasing life expectancy in this country. But now, burdened by this one unacceptable word 'cancer'—now it was impossible for me not to look back on my nearly forty years of unproductivity.

When my family built this house in the mountains on the city outskirts, we relied on a man from a nearby farmstead for tasks such as keeping watch over the shed, managing the water supply and even eradicating snakes. He was the head of his household, an honest and sturdy man of forty-four, forty-five. When the house was completed, he was diagnosed with nasal cancer. Every day he would go down the mountain to the county hospital for a shot of cobalt-60. His face grew darker and more haggard with each passing day. That frame which had been so sturdily built grew thin and frail with alarming speed. Not even his body, evidently, could withstand the effects of cobalt. Or perhaps it was the case that not even cobalt could have stopped the cancer. When I saw him again about a month later, he had grown so weak that he was unable to stand on his own. The funeral was held a short while after, and my heart grew heavy thinking of his two young sons...

And now the fate that befell his household had fallen upon me. I had a daughter, a little girl waiting to enrol in a primary school in these mountains, and I couldn't suppress the thought that I had nothing yet of worth to bequeath her.

My father had been a so-called gentleman in his time, involved in business, politics, and literature. His fortune was certainly not inconsiderable. His residence was entirely befitting of a member of the upper class; he kept four concubines, and would sometimes revel the night away in unstinting luxury. These parties often enlivened the talk of the town. But he appeared most like a father to me when he stood in his study amidst tens of thousands of scrolls and books. My father's property, numbering several hundred hectares of rice fields, was all redistributed to the peasants after the war by a single law. He didn't seem to realise that social institutions periodically evolve, that they must evolve. Or I should say that such changes were probably inconceivable at that time. The property that he desired as a father to leave to his sons (and died peacefully believing that he had) ultimately never made it into their hands. Fortunately, however, he bequeathed me a single volume of poems about the Red Crane Tower. When I struggled to maintain my bearings with crane-like grace in the depths of poverty, when I refused to let tears fall in front of the newly rich upstarts, that volume of poetry became a source of incomparable strength. In the same way, even if I managed to amass a fortune, I wouldn't be allowed by this era to leave anything to my daughter. The only thing that I could bequeath her had to be gratification of the mind, which of course meant that I had to produce some great cultural object. But I still had not created any such object, not even something remotely close. This anxious appraisal of my life all began with the discovery of that impudent lump in my eyelid.

After breakfast, I boarded the bus from the stop in the mountains where the morning sunlight was near blinding. It felt like the first step towards an execution. When I went up the small steps at the front and heard the door shut gatan! behind me, I felt somehow that the hibiscus blooming by the bus stop were bidding farewell to me. It was most unpleasant. Up until now I had casually boarded the bus and casually taken this same route to town, and I couldn't help thinking that I wouldn't be able to look out of these windows for much longer.

The conductor was a girl I had seen before. Her smile held, as it always did, a youthful benevolence. But she did not notice that my face had changed since yesterday. I thought of the distances between persons. We were, after all, nothing more than two out of the many people who cross paths in this world. However, I realised that I was no longer looking at her as I did yesterday, with just the smallest sliver of expectation.

At the very least, I could take some comfort in the fact that she didn't discover the fleshy lump brashly displaying itself through my eyelid. I was more than ready to believe anything that proved my lump was still small.

The bus was about seventy percent full. All the seats were taken, and there were about ten of us holding on to the strap handles. It struck me then that the passengers were all quietly shut up in their own worlds, living their individual lives. One of them was thinking about something with eyes wide open. Another lolled sleepily in the realm of oblivion. And yet another was—but there was no one confronting death as tragically, no one who tried to live as single-mindedly as I did, thinking of life and thinking of death. They were the very picture of who I was yesterday, and somewhere in my heart I savoured an emotion akin to superiority. I knew, too, that this superiority would momentarily collapse and vanish with a single word from the doctor.

The bus descended the mountains at full speed. In the morning it never got overly crowded, so there was no need to hurry. Yet it always went like a bullet down the mountains. Whenever the bus ran over a pothole, I was reminded yet again of the lump's existence, if even for one brief bounce. Even as the bus roared along, the fleshy lump continued to terrorise. It was steadily growing all this while, surely. I had to get to the hospital at once. In many cases, by the time the cancer is discovered it's usually too late. I hadn't even noticed the lump until it had grown to its one and a half centimetres. I felt my entire life had been completely derailed.

Then again, getting to the hospital at once also meant receiving the death sentence more quickly. Inside the speeding bus, I somehow hoped that it would slow down just a bit, for my sake.

There were many outpatients at the university hospital. There was a man with an eye patch quietly waiting for his turn. There was an old woman who saw the world faintly through rheumy eyes. There was a woman from the countryside anxiously awaiting her turn, a difficult child in her arms. Those with eye ailments—no, this probably applied to all patients too—were the epitome of virtue in my eyes. No one in misfortune ever looks like a bad person. A couple of nurses walked around busily.

My name was called. I entered a room where there was a female doctor of twenty-seven or twenty-eight who looked as if she had recently completed her internship. When asked what the matter was, I pointed to the lump in my eyelid. Now came the moment of reckoning. I was absolutely terrified. The doctor adjusted her glasses ever so slightly with her fingertips, then she inverted my eyelid. A sharp pain shot through my eyelid, reviving a childhood memory of having pus squeezed out of a growth on my foot. For a second I thought the lump might have been squashed, and I was afraid that the cancer would spread right away.

But the squashing of the lump was not necessarily the only reason for the pain. It may have been caused by the eyelid-inverting doctor's fingers, perhaps far rougher than they seemed. When she let go of my eyelid and looked down at me, I felt a loathing, such as I have never felt even towards wild beasts, for the cold cruelty of authority.

"It's cancer, right?" I asked, getting straight to the point.

The doctor glanced at me. That glance may have contained genuine surprise at my posing an unexpected question. But I detected the cool rationality of authority evaluating me. There are so many patients like you who know absolutely nothing and just worry to death about cancer. If she had shown some clear sign of this judgement in her eyes, there was no telling how relieved I'd have been, because it could only mean one thing: that it wasn't cancer. But she replied—

"I can't say anything without further examination."

She proceeded to ask me many questions. When did I discover the lump, did it hurt, did it itch, had I detected any other foreign bodies, could I sleep well, did I have other conditions, for instance syphilis, gonorrhoea et cetera?

Never had I thought it possible that one woman—a younger woman, at that—could direct such insolent words at a man who sought only to become first class. I seethed in silence. To think that just earlier I had considered introducing a friend to her, since she seemed single despite being somewhat pretty, but all my good impressions of her dissolved instantly into a hatred for those who openly acknowledge their own expertise. And yet, something akin to shame raised its head inside me, I didn't know why. A younger woman had somehow managed to become a respectable physician, and here I was just shy of turning forty and having done nothing at all; this might have been part of the shame. After writing long lines of Roman letters on my patient record, the doctor stood up and brought it to the next room, to which I was then told to go.

In the next room sat a doctor of about sixty, clearly a professor, surrounded by seven or eight interns. He told me to sit down, whereupon he looked over my record. Then he stretched out his hand—there was no doubting his skill, and I was amazed at how painlessly he turned over my eyelid. I looked at his hands as he lowered them. His fingers were unexpectedly short and fat.

"It's cancer, right?" I asked tremulously.

"No, it isn't cancer," replied the professor, instantly. How gratifying those words were to my ears! Of course, I knew that with cancer cases doctors almost always said that it wasn't so. But there was no denying that being told it wasn't cancer felt better than being told it was. Moreover this doctor delivered the line very naturally or at least too smoothly for it to be a lie.  And there was nothing in his demeanour that suggested craftiness, or that he was a veteran at lying. Just like a country bumpkin, there was no sign of grease in his graying hair. The professor went on to say—

"Let's remove it right away."

I heard the words "right away" and right away I sank into the dark abyss. I had just found relief in being told it wasn't cancer. Now it was impossible for me not to think that the lump was cancerous after all, and extremely advanced at that. First of all, operations are a serious matter for us patients. But today I had come to the hospital alone. If I should die during the operation, I wondered, who would come to claim my remains? "Right away?" I asked, the distress of the death row prisoner evident in my voice. But the professor and his interns were already on their feet. He walked over to a door labeled 'Operating Room' and urged me inside.

The death row prisoner is allowed nothing else than to obey, and to the patient, the doctor is none other than a judge. The hope remained though, that if this lump in my eyelid were removed successfully I might just be able to survive. I had the sensation of being watched from behind, by hidden eyes that resembled scooped-out squid eyes lying about in a cookhouse sink. They were also like my dead mother's eyes.

I took off my shoes and arranged them with great care before getting onto the operating table. I felt like a participant in some ritual. When I arranged my shoes, I did so with the awareness that they might be presented later to my freshly bereaved wife. For last belongings, they were rather shabby leather shoes.

Standing by a bright window, the professor filled a syringe with some kind of liquid. I inferred from his experienced hand that he had treated many patients like me before. That helped allay my fears. With the syringe pointed upwards in one hand, the professor walked over to the operating table, squeezing the air out of the syringe with the other hand. He seemed transfigured against the brightness of the window, the outline of his body strangely enlarged. The interns surrounded me as ants swarm their prey.

Everything happened in the blink of an eye. When I went to sleep last night I didn't think that I would come to the hospital today. I didn't even realise that there was something wrong with me. And now I lay on a table about to have an operation. My life could end here. But I had to have this operation. Without it I would have barely a few months left to live. I gathered my qi at my energy core.

I felt the doctor's hand on my eyelid. I could tell it was doing something. It became oddly quiet, as if the empty space in the room were reverberating off the metallic scalpel. Then without warning acute pain coursed through my eyelid. He must have inserted the syringe. Whether the needle had pierced the back of my eyelid or the fleshy lump itself, I couldn't tell. The sounds of metal and glass followed, and I knew that he had taken the surgical scissors from its tray.

By nature, I had a fatal aversion to blood. Seeing blood spurt from a finger cut was more terrifying than coming across a wild tiger. The slightest hint of a nosebleed and I'd suffer an anaemic attack. Sensing that the doctor had picked up something scissor-like wracked my nerves. I suddenly noticed that even though I lay perfectly still, my breathing had become extremely erratic.

At last the scissors came down. I remember that my breath stopped in that instant.

"Does it hurt?"

In response I shook my head. No, I tried to shake my head. And winced at a sting in my eyelid. The doctor hurriedly restrained me.

"Now, you mustn't move. You mustn't..."

The doctor spoke in a panic, which made me think the cancer was spreading and then it was my turn to panic. But that milk had long been spilt; the cancer might have already spread. Then there was the dreaded bleeding that had no doubt started within my eyelid. I shut my eyes with all my heart.

My throat felt awfully dry. My tongue was all twisted. In a fading voice I begged—

"Please remove all of it, carefully. Carefully..."

There was a story in the collected works of Murou Saisei, I forget which volume, about a man who goes over and over again to the doctor to get an eye wart taken out. I suddenly thought of the story. Up until yesterday, simply recalling the story would bring a smile to my lips. But today I was that man, struggling to pick out the word 'cancer' among the flood of European syllables that issued from the professor's mouth. The professor had been explaining something to the interns for a while now. I still did not hear the word I was looking for.

Finally, the operation was over. Someone applied a cold ointment and a patch to my eye, then I sat up on the operating table.

The extracted lump of flesh sat in a glass tray. It was peach pink and looked softer than I'd imagined. I'd also thought it would be perfectly round, but it was more or less mushy. He, this thing which had been a part of my body, now lay limply in his tray, somewhat embarrassed to be there. Shame for failing to subjugate me was writ large all over him. He did not deserve to be called a malignant tumour. I felt something close to pity for him. Surrounded by the interns, he would have to live on in disgrace. And every time the professor turned it over with the tip of his scalpel, I felt as if I was the one being humiliated.

I really wanted to ask—it's cancer, right?—but in front of all the interns I felt a little hesitant. Noticing that I was peering at my ex-lump from behind the interns, the professor said to me—

"Don't worry, it isn't cancer."

Those words were clearly meant to put me at ease. I felt a great weight lifted from my mind. Outside the window, the green leaves on the trees caught the sunlight and my remaining good eye. I said my thanks and got off the operating table. As I was about to exit the room, the thought that the fleshy lump might be lonely suddenly worried me. And as I stepped out, I began to suspect that the professor might have told me it wasn't cancer on purpose, just to get rid of me. Even after I'd left the operating room, the professor was still explaining something to his antlike interns. When I saw that there were still patients outside waiting for their turn, however, I felt a strange sense of privilege. There was also some relief at having resolved the morning's crisis. It was certain, at least, that I felt much better than I did this morning. Lie or not, the doctor had told me that it wasn't cancer. In the faces of the waiting patients I saw anxiety for unresolved problems; their worry was like that of green leaves fallen too early to the ground. I deliberately put my hand to my eye patch and walked out of the hospital, putting on a show of misfortune.

I returned home to find that my wife's elder sister had come by. After I had left for the hospital, it seemed my wife finally realised that I might actually have cancer. She must have pictured my corpse and then called her sister out of fear. That was why her sister panicked and rushed over. She was much more feminine than my wife. She smiled at me when she saw me with my eye patch. Although we were the same age, I thought of her as a kind 'elder'. In that smile, however, I detected something that was on the brink of bursting into tears. What's more, something in the air told me that the two sisters had been crying together all throughout my absence. That precious lightness of mood, from being told by the doctor that there was no cancer, instantly started to waver. Nonetheless I remember trying to talk to my wife's sister as cheerfully as I could. The truth is if I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to remain in that room. I was also aware that she was trying to do the same. When my simpleton of a wife laughed so heartily, so innocently at the whole situation, however, my wife's sister and I suddenly had nothing left to say.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto

Excerpted from Sou-ou no In, edited by Okazaki Ikuko and published by Keiyusha (2002). By permission of Kou Reishi, Okazaki Ikuko, and Keiyusha.



Read the original in Japanese

Read translator’s note

Kou Reishi (born Kou Tenki) is a writer, sculptor, the president of the Taipei Haiku Association, and has the distinction of being the last living Japanese-language writer in Taiwan. Born in Tainan in 1928 when the country was under Japanese rule, Kou received his education in Japanese. While many Taiwanese writers who wrote in Japanese made their literary debut during WWII, Kou began writing in Japanese only after the war ended, at the age of 17. His output includes haiku, tanka, modern poetry, novels, and criticism, but these works have remained unpublished for decades ever since public use of Japanese was forbidden in Taiwan in 1945.

In 1970, Kou founded the Taipei Haiku Association and started publishing private editions of his works, despite censorship under the Nationalist Party's rule. Known for their wit, pathos, and humour, his works are now attracting new readers among the post-war generation, wining several prizes such as the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize (Japan, 2004), The Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2006), and the 台湾文学牛津奨 (Taiwan, 2006).

Sim Yee Chiang is a contributing editor at Asymptote. He was born in Singapore, received an undergraduate education and a master's in English from Stanford University, and researched issues of English-Japanese and Japanese-English literary translation under the auspices of the University of Tokyo, where, seduced by the praxis itself, he now hopes to contribute to the exponentially growing mass that is world literature.

Sayuri Okamoto is a contributing editor at Asymptote. She holds M.A. degrees in Art History and Japanese Literature (Waseda University, Japan), certificates in Photography and Film (Art and Architecture School, Waseda University, Japan) and Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language (IIEL, UK). Born and raised in Shizuoka, Japan, she is currently living and working in London (UK) and Padua (Italy).


Following the Zhang Wenhuan excerpt in the Jan 2012 issue, we are delighted to introduce another story (this time in its entirety) written in Japanese by a Taiwanese author. Kou Reishi's Cancer was published privately in 1973 and later introduced to Japanese readers via an anthology of Kou's stories published in 2002, edited by Okazaki Ikuko, a Japanese scholar of Taiwanese literature. Now, 10 years later, we hope to share this charmingly myopic tale with readers in English.

Cancer is the story of a man who finds a curious lump of flesh in his eye and instantly convinces himself that it is malignant. Irrepressibly, compulsively even, this self-styled exaggerator magnifies every little thing, word, or action, alternately looking for signs (as the mood takes him) that confirm or deny his initial belief. His tone in Japanese is marked by restlessness; often conjectures are made and immediately mediated, almost to the point of excess. We have smoothened out some parts for the sake of fluency, but remain hopeful that his agitation is faithfully conveyed.

One may also read this as a wry comment on the values assigned to human endeavours (including translation, of course). The man insists on being "first-class," that the only thing worth bequeathing his daughter is "gratification of the mind," and yet he leaves us with this sketch, in minute detail, of a personal tragedy that may well be a whole lot of sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing. The Red Crane Tower poems aside, one wonders what gratification his daughter might derive from receiving this story!