Crow Mountain

Can Xue

Illustration by Cody Cobb

I'd been waiting for a long time for Qinglian, who lived on the fifth floor, to take me to a place called "Crow Mountain." It was a vacant five-story building on the brink of collapse. It used to be the municipal office. I had passed by it only once—the year I was four. I remembered Mama pointing at the large, tightly closed windows and saying to me, "This is 'Crow Mountain'!" All kinds of questions occurred to me right away. "What do you mean, it's a mountain?" I asked. "It's obviously a building. Where are the crows? Are these windows shut so tightly because they're afraid the crows inside will fly away?" Dad was standing beside me. I wanted to ask still more questions, but he cut me off: "Come on, let's go!"

Later we moved to another part of the city. It was Qinglian who told me more about that building. Qinglian was only fourteen but already a beauty, and I envied her. She always frowned as she said to me, "Juhua, Juhua, how can you be so ugly? I'm embarrassed to be seen with you." I knew she was kidding, so I didn't get mad. We had been talking about "Crow Mountain" for a long time. Everything I knew about it came from Qinglian. Though I could still vaguely remember that large building outside the city, I hadn't been back a single time. The city was too big. But Qinglian went every year because her uncle was a gatekeeper there.

"They're always saying it's going to collapse, but actually it isn't. It'll be fine for decades. It's so much fun inside!" she said.

Year after year, I pleaded with her to take me there, and finally she agreed to take me there one Saturday. It was a Monday morning when she made this promise. Those five days dragged on forever, because I was afraid she would change her mind. I needn't have worried, though, for we finally set out for the building as scheduled.

On the bus, Qinglian frowned sternly and didn't say a word. Whenever I asked a question, she just shook her head.

After we got off the bus and walked along the dirt road, I began to relive all my memories. Not far from the office building was a well. Back then, its water had overflowed into the nearby fields. My dad had filled a bottle with the well water and given it to me to drink. Now the well had gone dry, and the nearby paddy fields had also disappeared and turned into wasteland.

"When we reach 'Crow Mountain,' you can't just keep asking questions."

I thought Qinglian was making it sound like a big deal just to impress me.

Her uncle lived in the basement. Qinglian knocked several times, but he didn't come to the door. Qinglian said, "He's always like this." She said we could go inside first and look around. As soon as she touched the door, it opened. She dragged me in. The door closed with a creak. We could see nothing inside.

"Qinglian, Qinglian, where are you?"

I sounded like a mosquito; my voice was distorted.

"Juhua, I'm in the mountain valley . . . Take it easy. Just lift your feet high and walk . . . "

Her answer came from somewhere far away, and I thought she must be somewhere above me. Was she hanging out with the crows on the fifth floor? I did exactly as she said, and started lifting my feet and walking. But it seemed as though my feet were being held in place by a powerful suction on the floor. I was sweating all over. When I lost heart and stopped trying, Qinglian's voice rose again.

"Juhua, there are red cherries here!"

She was still above me. I started trying hard again, and this seemed a little more effective. The floorboards sounded as though they were cracking, which frightened me. When we were "horse vaulting" at home, Qinglian was the "horse" and I vaulted over her. Every time I jumped over her, it felt as though I were chopping her head off with my legs. The very thought made me tremble. Now, stamping on the cracked floor was giving me the same feeling. I realized I had managed to take several steps! My arms flailed in the dark, and I wanted to hold on to something.

I stepped on a small animal that squealed weakly. Could it be the crow? It didn't sound like one. Maybe it was a rat.

"Juhua, you're on the second floor now. That's great. The floor tilts to your right. Can you tell?" Qinglian seemed a little closer as she shouted to me.

"Sort of . . . I guess."

This time, my voice was back to normal. But I had taken only four or five steps. How could I have reached the second floor so quickly? And since it was the second floor of a building, how could there be a slope? She kept telling me to climb harder, and threatened me by saying if I didn't try hard enough, something bad would happen. So I began lifting my legs high and setting them down, just like a robot, lifting them up and setting them down. But I wasn't getting anywhere. I was back where I had started.

The floor was tilted at an angle, and I slipped and fell. And kept falling. Where was I? Was that what Qinglian meant when she said that something bad was going to happen? Oh my god, I must be about to enter hell. I eventually slid to a halt. When I stood up, I was free to walk around. But I didn't dare just walk wherever I wanted, because I was afraid.

"Have you come here to play games, child?" It was an old man's voice.

It was probably Qinglian's uncle. And since her uncle was here, this couldn't be hell.

"No, I've come, I've come . . . " I didn't know how to answer.

"There's something here that's even more fun. Can you see me?"

"No."

"Try harder."

"Oh, I think I can see a shadow. Are you on my right?"

"No, I'm on your left."

"Then I was mistaken. I can't see you, Grandpa. Are you her uncle?"

He didn't answer, and he didn't say anything else. Perhaps he had gone.

He had asked me if I'd come here to play games, so maybe all the people who came here did so in order to play games? Once I thought carefully about it, I broke into a cold sweat. What a terrifying game this was. I sat down on the floor and thought back on my years of friendship with Qinglian.

She lived with her widowed mother on the fifth floor. Our family lived on the first floor. She was like a tulip—not a rose or a narcissus. A tulip. And I? I was just a plain old daisy. Qinglian wouldn't have admitted that we were close friends. She liked being a loner. Sometimes she called me "Little Daisy" to show that she looked down on me. But I still liked it when she called me that, even though she was only a year older than I, because I thought it made us sound close.

She didn't play with me very often. When the two of us were together, we just played simple card games. When I asked her what she played at home, she replied listlessly, "I have to work. There's no time to play." She had never invited me to her home. I had heard that she and her mother did embroidery. One day, I ran into her on the street and tore the linen cover off the bamboo basket she was carrying. I was stunned when I saw her work. She took it out so that I could look at it more closely. It was a piece of double-sided embroidery. One side was a scene of the ocean; the other was a waterfall. I was speechless. I gripped her hand—the one holding the embroidery. She angrily dropped it back into the basket and pulled her hand away.

She wouldn't let me ask any questions about the embroidering. She looked glum. She said I wouldn't understand, and of course I didn't. I couldn't imagine what it must be like when she and her mother embroidered together. I had no idea. Qinglian's mother looked like an old monkey. She always crept when she went up and down stairs. She smiled at me when we met, but never said a word. I had no way of approaching the remote world inhabited by Qinglian and her mother. Was this why I adored her?

Now that Qinglian was taking me to this place, wasn't the distance between us just the same as it had always been, like the distance between heaven and earth? I had wanted to see the inside of "Crow Mountain" for years. I had even imagined an exceedingly tall tree in the middle of this building. Now that I had muddle-headedly tumbled into this dungeon, was it really what I'd hoped for?

Dismayed, I heard Qinglian call out again. She sounded far away, as if calling down from the sky.

"Juhua, after you go up the slope, don't stop to pick the cherries. Once you start, you won't be able to stop. You have to be resolute."

"Qinglian, Qinglian! I'm done for! I can't get to the place you're talking about!"

I heard my voice rebounding like an ear-shattering explosion. How had things come to this? I made an effort to stand up, and held out my arms to feel my way as I walked. I touched a pillar! I hugged it tightly. I was overcome by emotion.

"Why are you hugging my leg, kid? You have to do this by yourself!"

The old man's voice came down from above. The smooth pillar turned out to be his leg! I blushed. I hated myself for not being better at this. So this person was a giant. Who was he?

"I'm Qinglian's uncle, the gatekeeper here."

He was talking from somewhere above me. He could see through to my thoughts. Qinglian's uncle was a giant. She'd never told me this! I felt somewhat reassured; this place wasn't a dungeon; it was merely the basement where Qinglian's uncle lived. I wondered whether he'd been testing us by not opening the door when we'd knocked for such a long time. How strange he was.

"Hello, Uncle! Qinglian and I came to see you. Can you tell me where I am? And where Qinglian is? My name is Juhua."

"I've heard her speak of you, Juhua. Of course you're in my home. Where else could you be? Generally, I don't let anyone in. Anyone I let in can get whatever he or she wants. Juhua, think carefully: what do you want?"

"Me? I want to go wherever Qinglian is!" I said loudly.

Then I saw a little light across from me, as if someone was carrying a candle, or as if a candle were floating along of its own accord. When I moved toward the light, I sensed someone holding me back.

"Uncle, is that you?"

No one answered. After spending so much time in the dark, I couldn't tear my eyes away from the light. I was afraid it would vanish. All of a sudden, the pinprick of light became a gigantic pillar of light as wide as a bowl, which kept stretching upward. I realized that this wasn't a five-story building—it was a huge vacant room. The column of light penetrated the roof and shot toward the sky, and I finally managed to approach it. I tried putting my hand into the column itself, and immediately the tragic caw of crows reverberated. Frightened, I drew my hand back. After resting a while, I had to try again. This time I couldn't put my hand in because a strong electrical current threw me to the floor. The crows, the crows! I thought my head would explode.

I lost consciousness. It was a very long time before I came to and heard Qinglian's feeble voice coming intermittently from far away.

"Juhua, there are so many . . . Are you coming? Oh . . . "

Her voice was drowned out by the caws of the crows. I stepped away from the pillar of light and hid in the dark. The floor was shifting under my feet, and in relation to the column of light, I sensed that I was ascending. Perhaps I had reached the third floor! The crows' caws changed to whispers. I had never heard crows make sounds like this. Perhaps they weren't really crows?

"Qinglian!" I heard myself cry.

I couldn't find the wall. Why not? Wasn't I in a large building? Even if the building had no floors, it must have an outer wall. I walked and walked, and still couldn't find the wall. The crows had all flown down below me. I was excited to think that I was in a vacant building where I could walk up and down freely! I could tell I was walking fast. But where was Qinglian? I had no destination, and I was disoriented. No, I still had some sense of direction. My aim was to avoid the pillar of light. So was I going in circles? No. Look, I was ascending again, perhaps as high as four stories, I thought, since there were no floors.

"Qinglian!"

"Don't shout . . . I'm almost there . . . "

She would be there soon. Maybe she was approaching the peak of "Crow Mountain" along a path that had red cherries and maybe chestnuts along the way. I had nothing here. We were on the same mountain, but I was also in a vacant building. How bizarre. Ah, I saw the giant's feet cross the pillar of light. He made no noise as he passed by.

"Uncle!" I shouted.

"Don't shout. Be quiet!" he said.

The sound echoed all over the room, as if Uncle's voice were booming from a loudspeaker. Qinglian's uncle must be a powerful man. She'd never told me what she did here, even though she came to see him every year. She was good at keeping secrets. How would it feel to have a giant for an uncle? I simply couldn't imagine. I suddenly recalled her embroidery of the waterfall and the ocean. Ah, now I dimly understood her. She belonged to a different world. As for me, I was only a shallow young girl. No wonder I admired her! Not one of our neighbors knew that Qinglian's uncle was a giant. Was it something she wanted to hide? I thought it was quite the opposite—something to show off. Qinglian and I saw things completely differently. She was different from all the rest of us.

I kept walking. How far had I gone? I had been calling out to Qinglian, but she didn't answer. Had she reached the mountaintop? Was she unable to hear sounds from below? The floor under my feet rose much higher again, but judging by the height of the pillar of light, I was still quite far from the roof. Maybe I wouldn't ever get there; maybe that place belonged only to Qinglian. The path she'd taken had everything—flowers, birds, cherries, chestnuts. I, on the other hand, was surrounded by darkness. When I was a child, Dad had dragged me past this building, because he had known that I wasn't made for places like this. I never guessed that after so many years, I would be able to revisit this place—and even see the giant uncle. When I considered this, my excitement rose again.

Look, he was crossing the pillar of light again! When he wasn't talking, there was no sound to be heard. His feet stood on the level where I was; his head was probably on the mountaintop.

"Uncle!"

He didn't answer.

I continued wandering in the dark. Snowflakes were falling inside the column of light! Or rather, not snowflakes but extremely tiny birds falling toward the ground. I heard the gentle thumps as they thudded to the floor, and then they scattered. Although I couldn't see them, I could sense the vitality inside this deserted building. They didn't call out, but I kept hearing their voices. All of a sudden, the shrill caw of the crows rose, and then the column of light disappeared, and the room fell deathly still again. Perhaps this was a gigantic crow. It called out three times, and then the silence grew even more frightening. My blood curdled. What was going to happen?

I grabbed something out of the air. It seemed to be a lizard. It was odd: I felt particularly tender toward the tiny critter I was holding. I even stuck it on my face. The thought of its being alive was comforting. Something alive was here with me, but it bit me on the face and my face swelled. The wound smarted, but I didn't want to just throw it away. I kept clutching it. Maybe it wasn't a lizard after all. It had rough skin.

There was a buzzing sound, and the air seemed to be vibrating. It was probably Uncle talking, but I couldn't hear a word he was saying.

"Juhua, I'm really happy . . . You've managed to get hold of . . . "

Qinglian's voice came from a faraway place above me. I thought wherever she was, she wasn't in the building. Maybe she was in outer space. What had I gotten hold of? Did she mean this little creature I was holding? This was a cold-blooded creature. I was holding it in my hand. It had no wings, yet it could actually drift in the air. I decided to take it home and raise it.

I was excited about going home! Qinglian, you gave me such a bizarre experience. Now I really wanted to go home, but I also really wanted to try some new things. What I wanted most right now was to meet up with Qinglian. Did she still care about me? She certainly wasn't avoiding me. This was the first secret the two of us had shared. I decided not to tell my parents about "Crow Mountain." Then again, we probably wouldn't meet here. This seemed to be one of her principles: she had to be in her place, and I had to be in my place. My face was numb where it had been bitten. Would I die? The little thing bit me again on my palm. It hurt a little, but it was much more exciting. If I brought this little wingless thing that could still drift in the air home with me, it could drift back and forth in the air all day long. How jealous the neighbors would be when they saw it!

But where was the door? I couldn't find it, and so I had no way of leaving. I sat on the floor, the little thing in my hand. I listened closely. It was the roar of a faraway waterfall, and I imagined what it must look like—the mist of the waterfall against the sky.

"Uncle," I said to the air.

"Have you gone where she is?" I immediately heard Uncle's voice and then the echoes in the vacant building. I felt a tremor, like a small earthquake.

"No, Uncle! Qinglian is far away from me!"

"You're such a silly child!" Uncle laughed.

The floor where I was seated shook with the sound of his laughter. I was terrified.

He finally stopped laughing. Once again, I saw the candle drifting in the air. A door appeared where the candle was. I got up at once, walked over there, and pushed the door open. Next to the door was a small basement room. A weak beam of light on the floor passed through the window. The room was neat, and there was even a mosquito net over the bed.

When my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I noticed many small bookcases lining the wall of the room. There was an ancient book on the table, and next to it was a pair of small spectacles. There were also some ancient books on the bedstand. Wasn't Uncle a giant after all? Was this his room? Why did I think it must be his room?

The door creaked open, and a humpbacked old man with glasses and a goatee came in. Who was following him? Oh my god, it was Qinglian!

"I came into this building from another entrance," she said. "When I turned around, you weren't there. After playing for a while, I came down here. What do you think of my uncle's place?"

"Don't ask questions like that, dear." Uncle put his hand on her shoulder. "They bring bad luck."

I noticed that Uncle had a pointed red nose. He looked quite wretched.

*

Qinglian and I took the bus again. I felt a surge of emotion. Qinglian's expression was indifferent. All of a sudden, I thought of the little thing. Where had I left it? I gazed at my palm; there was no wound there. Then I felt my face; there was no wound there, either. I was filled with regret and sadness.

When we were almost home, Qinglian suddenly said to me:

"You're welcome to go back there with me anytime you like."

I cheered up as soon as she said that. I had a secret! This was our secret—Qinglian's and mine.

translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping