Egoyan Zheng

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

According to the formula for freefalling objects (h=1/2gt2) in classical mechanics, discounting air resistance, any object plummeting from an altitude of twenty-eight thousand feet would take 44 seconds to reach sea level. And, according to the formula for constant acceleration (v=gt), the said object would hit the sea surface at the speed of 431.2 meters per second.

My cousin and her husband have come by to drink to everyone at our table.

This is my older cousin's wedding banquet. The entire banquet hall is chaotic, like the passenger cabin of an aircraft just before takeoff. Probably because I was late, I got ushered to this table as soon as I arrived, and so I find myself sitting among "friends and relatives" whom I don't even know. Of the twelve people at the table, I only recognize my younger cousin. (It's odd; why is the bride's younger sister stuck at a table like this?) When I noticed her, my first instinct was to greet her. But she immediately turned her head to the side.

Here we are, sitting awkwardly at the same table. During the entire course of the banquet we have been trying hard to avoid each other's eyes. We are constantly looking in different directions like two broken weathervanes, and when our eyes meet by accident, we try to keep them unfocused, pretending not to have seen each other.

Until now, when my older cousin arrives for the toast.

Now my cousin, clad in bridal white, has come to drink a toast to us. Her face is covered in a layer of makeup thick as whitewash. Her movements seem rather stiff and unnatural, but perhaps that is because her formal attire is constraining. On the other hand, she does not appear to be at all shy about showing off her social adeptness (even though she knows very well that her smoothness is surpassed by the awkward estrangement between us). She makes a special point of raising her glass to me, saying with a smile, "Don't be shy, my dear cousin. It will be your turn next year. You know, we're all here today only because we missed that flight..."

Missed that flight? What does she mean?

Snap. (Snow-blindness.)

That was when I was eight years old.

As a special celebration for my grandmother's sixtieth birthday, the entire clan arranged to go on a carefully coordinated big trip together. Almost everyone on my dad's side of the family (my father, his two older brothers, his younger brother, and his sister) set aside what they had to do to take part in it. We purchased a total of twenty-two tickets on a night flight to Japan; however, just before our departure, news came that Grandma had suffered a stroke. All of us hurried to the hospital to see Grandma, and, upon arrival, we saw in the TV news up in her room that there had been an air disaster. The plane we were supposed to have been on had crashed into the sea midway, and there were no survivors among the two hundred and thirty-seven passengers and the crew. Grandma's sudden illness had, by a strange twist of fate, saved my entire extended family. Nobody knew whether to be glad or sad at the time...

So that was how it came about that my older cousin and I even lived to be old enough to marry and have wedding banquets.

When we were little, I was actually pretty close to my two cousins, one of them older and the other one younger than me.

That was back when I was in elementary school. These cousins were the daughters of my oldest uncle. All of us were close in age, and we went to the same elementary school. In fact, my older cousin and I were born in the same year. Since classes were done pretty early, our parents would still be at work when we got out, so we always went first to Grandma's, which wasn't far from the school, and there we would do our homework, watch cartoons, play with paper dolls, and do whatever else it was that little girls did. Between six and seven in the evening, when my parents and my uncle and aunt got off from work, they would come to Grandma's to pick us up on their way home. And during summer and winter vacation time, the same arrangement would be extended to half or even whole days.

That was how well we knew each other. In those days, just before we parted company around dinnertime, we would discuss, chummily and enthusiastically, our play themes for the following day, and divide up among ourselves the responsibility of bringing various items that we needed. (Oh, if we're going to play hopscotch or rubber band jumping in the back alley outside the red doors, we'll need rubber bands strung together into a rope, and some chalk. If we want to make believe that we're cooking up a wedding banquet for our courting dolls, then we have to remember the pots and pans, the bowls and chopsticks, and the dolls' beautiful paper costumes. And if we plan to play doctor, then we must collect syringes and medicine bottles and leftover tissue paper to wrap pills in...)

(In that quiet apartment where the afternoons were cool and dark, all by ourselves we played our little girls' games. Grandma took her usual naps in the inner room. There was a breeze, and a dim blue light the color of veins silently traversed the four blue-white walls. Oh, this is Barbie. And this is Angie. Barbie and Angie's day. They went to the market. They went on a date with their boyfriends. They went out to afternoon tea...)

(Puppet dolls. Paper dolls. All with their beautiful, vacant eyes wide open. They wore evening dresses as gorgeous and intricate as silk paper embossed with gold. Touched by the dim blue light, the faint patterns on their sumptuous gowns flickered against the gloomy objects standing still in the background. In that cool, dark, cellar-like apartment, their bodies stiffly swaying from side to side, they floated silently over the cold floor tiles. In my memory, everything within my vision was like an occult painting suspended before a track camera, rippling with turbulent underwater shadows as the camera slowly glided forward...)

Snap. (Flashbulb. The flashbulb on the camera goes off again.)

I raise my head and look all around me. The guests continue to tackle the sumptuous dishes with gusto, entirely unperturbed. A couple I do not know (they are probably friends or relatives of the bridegroom's) frantically attempt to quiet down the sudden wailing of their toddler. Nobody else seems to have noticed the intrusive flashbulbs that have lighted up everything in the background so starkly just now.

This is of course understandable. Before the first course was served, when all the guests at the banquet were attentively watching the PowerPoint presentation specially prepared by my cousin and her husband for the occasion, the lights had gone into a bout of spasmodic flashing, as though a fuse had blown. Everyone must have become oblivious to flashing lights after that.

Those bright white flashes between photo slides. (Just a second. Weren't the lights dimmed for the PowerPoint presentation? Could it be possible that the leaping flashes that had caused me to squint and blink, my vision out of focus like a dying person's, were mere hallucinations on my part?) Sometimes we saw images of the two lovebirds on a trip together. (An unknown beach. Both of them in tank tops, shorts and straw hats. The ocean behind them was bathed in the glow of the setting sun, and, true to some age-old fantasy, the picture was filled with shimmering, diffused golden light.) Sometimes we saw funny pictures from their daily lives. (Ladies and Gentlemen. Now the bridegroom returns home from work. The bride immediately falls upon her knees in front of the cupboard and reverently fetches him his slippers. All these are signs of the sweet-as-honey, set-in-three-seconds-for-permanent-hold marital bliss in store for them...) (Just then, a shrill male voice in the audience piped up maliciously, "Hubby dear, you're home? Let me run the bath for you..." and everyone burst into laughter.) Some of the pictures seemed rather artificial and contrived, depicting exotic, romantic settings, or passionate kisses between the Princess and her Prince (the kind that takes place on the center strip at some busy intersection, or in a skinny parkette under the shadow of the rapid transit train, with the bodies of the subjects absurdly contorted)...

Snap. (Snowblindness. Flashes of snowblindness.)

Later, everything changed. My cousins and I grew apart. They moved to the other end of town, and, a couple years later, we went to different middle schools. We couldn't play together all the time, like we did before. After a while we began to hear, off and on, about my older cousin falling behind in school and ending up in a second-tier class. (All these things we must have learned roundabout from various other gossipy relatives, for if we were to ask my aunt directly, she would adroitly change the subject with a smile.) With time, I graduated from middle school and donned the black and white uniform of a certain renowned girls' high school downtown, and so began my busy life as a daily commuter on city buses. Meanwhile, my older cousin entered a private vocational school with a very bad reputation, where she became something of a punk. She was allegedly spotted hanging out in Ximending with a bunch of youths who looked like drag racers, yelling and screaming as they chased and beat a lone young guy late at night...

Snap. (The screen goes blank. The image is drowned out by the light.)

After that came my older cousin's attempted suicide.

I remember when I went to visit her in her hospital room. That was during a disastrous romance with another man, before she met her husband.

I heard that the man was middle-aged and already had a wife and kids. The story was as corny as any penny romance novel (I envision my cousin as a formulaic, roughly constructed character in a novel, like a badly made shadow play puppet with head and arms inverted, churned out one after another from a plastic injection molding machine in some automated assembly line); my cousin fell in love with him. This was probably the crucial turning point that brought her life as a juvenile delinquent to an end. She quit her punk habits, tossed aside the faded, ragged, bell-cut jeans as dirty as sneakers that were in fashion then, and began to wear dresses and flowing skirts. She grew her hair long, and exchanged her outlandishly oversized, jingling earrings for delicate girly necklaces. Her voice became soft and her speech affected...

From there on it turned into a soap opera. My cousin, learning that the man had a wife and kids, began harassing him to get a divorce. Once she ran into him outside a department store with his wife and younger daughter, and made a scene right in front of the doors, among the throngs of shoppers. I heard that my cousin even prostrated herself before the wife, passionately begging her to give up the man...

Some time after that, my cousin cut her wrist at home.

It was quite bad. Her blood stained the entire bathtub red. Fortunately someone found her in time and rushed her to the hospital, which saved her life.

I remember making a special trip to the hospital to visit her. She was asleep when I arrived. Her left wrist was thickly bandaged (from then on, she always wore a watch or some other jewelry such as a bracelet to hide the scar). Her face was white as a sheet of paper. There was something aggressive about that pallor; for a moment I almost thought that the pallid color, like a drop of white paint in water, would continue to spread, until it entirely swallowed up what was left of the lines demarcating her features. I thought I was seeing a completely blank, featureless face, a face slowly sinking into the boundless shadows of the hospital room.

But just then, the TV screen in the room caught my attention.

A once popular slapstick game show called "Dare to Win" was on. It was filmed out of doors in a water park, and showed teams representing various companies and organizations competing against each other by taking on all kinds of "challenges." Since the point of the program was to make fun of people's ridiculous positions when they tumbled into the water, I would ordinarily have found it difficult to refrain from laughing if by chance I saw the variety of absurd postures in which they fell splashing in. But that day at the hospital, I remember, I intently watched the show for twenty minutes, seeing members of each team repeating their graceless, sprawling falls over and over again; (they lost their grip on the rope; they dropped off the edge of the colorful floating cubes; they rolled down the plastic-covered incline; they were shot down with water jets by the hosts...) For some reason, I did not find any of it funny.

I couldn't laugh at all.

Later, I discovered that it was because there was no sound. I didn't know whether the speakers on the TV were broken, or if there was concern about disturbing the patients, (or maybe someone simply forgot to turn up the volume?); anyway, the picture was completely soundless. The entire string of images consisted of the hosts opening and closing their big mouths, their faces and limbs in exaggerated motion as though they were puppets; yet the entire performance was silent, like a dumb show. Moreover, the silly canned sound effects (those electronic chords, the ding-ding-dongs and doink-doinks) that usually accompanied the droll images of people stumbling and falling were now absent. The movements that had seemed hysterically funny on former occasions now appeared as tragic and dismal as a gymnastic routine that ended in failure again and again...

Just then, I noticed that my cousin had woken up all of a sudden. Her eyes opened, and she sat up, moving slowly and jerkily as though she were a cogwheel-operated device. She seemed entirely unaware of my presence. I saw her vacant eyes turn until they came to rest on the TV screen on which the silent exhibition of the countless ways of falling continued. Her face was entirely devoid of expression. Her features appeared as though they had been whimsically and sloppily sketched out with a careless bit of charcoal, like simplified geometric patterns rather than the lines of a human face. I saw the iris-blue light from the screen dancing upon her face in the dark hospital room.

I continued to look at her for quite some time. Horrified by my cousin's heavily outlined face, which looked like some still-life oil painting, expressionless yet flickering in the changing light, I forgot to say anything. But just then, in that dark hospital room quiet as a dream (there was even someone seriously ill sound asleep in the neighboring bed), my cousin, for some unknown reason, abruptly burst into raucous laughter...

(Ha ha ha ha ha ha ...)

Snap snap. Snap. (Snow-blindness. Piercing white light like snow-blindness.)

"Don't be shy, my dear cousin. It will be your turn next year. You know, we're all here today only because we missed that flight..." my cousin is saying.

Missed that flight? What does she mean?

(But what about Grandma? What happened to Grandma after that?)

(Grandma? Isn't she still lying on that cold, damp bed in the hospital?)

(Like a vine that has ceased to grow. Her body completely wasted, her branch-like arms and legs withered and yellow. Her breath comes in gusts, like the white fog of early fall, quietly spreading in the stagnant, dark blue air.)

I suddenly notice that my cousin's left wrist, as she raises her glass, is completely unadorned with any of her customary jewelry. This exposes the large patch of twisted, gruesome, crustacean skin around her wrist, the scar from when she tried to commit suicide...

As I stare at my cousin's hand, her other hand involuntarily shoots out to hide that jagged, centipede-like, blood-colored mark clinging upon her wrist. But now, I notice to my astonishment that her two white arms, crossed to hide each other, are spontaneously breaking out in a rash of purple death-spots, like bramble bushes in bloom, or a broken jar of paint splattering everywhere...

Everyone present seems to have frozen still in mid motion. The hands momentarily lifted in speech, in movement, in consumption of food, in exhortations and polite declinations to drink, all hang unnaturally, stiffly in mid-air, like the hands of plastic mannequins in a boutique. Their bodies are completely naked. I see my uncle's oily, wax-colored potbelly sticking out. I see my aunt's gray, wrinkled neck and her sagging, withered breasts. I see my youthful mother, her stiff body bare, playfully making as if to fill my father's plate. I see my cousin, her fine, lovely white waist and black pubic hair exposed, sweetly hanging upon the arm of her equally naked husband, her empty wineglass tipped at a strange angle. Their elaborate clothing and jewelry are completely gone. And the lusterless skin on their bodies, like my cousin's dead, rotting hand, are rapidly becoming specked, at random, with purple death spots large and small, like the lotuses that had sprung up in the Buddha's steps at his birth.

They are all staring at me.

I'm having a sudden flashback to when I was eight, a snapshot of that happy trip the entire extended family was about to embark on. It was a rare family excursion, organized, I think, in celebration of my grandmother's sixtieth birthday. We purchased a total of twenty-two tickets on a night flight to Japan, and only missed that flight destined for death and destruction because my grandma suddenly fell ill. (Did we really miss it though? Did we really?...) An unaccountable fatiguing of the metal caused that Boeing 747 to slowly disintegrate at the altitude of twenty-eight thousand feet. I can almost see, as in a frame-by-frame analysis, the sealed cabin, cavernous as the belly of a whale, shattering into bits like a fallen porcelain vase in that cold, rarefied air. All the passengers, suddenly depressurized, die in the instant when the fuselage cracks open. Their bodies, their very blood vessels, burst apart. The jet stream rips away all their clothing. I can see the expression on their faces, frozen in the moment before destruction. I can see them, two hundred and thirty-seven dark and shadowy forms instantaneously deprived of life, falling through the clouds high up in the sky like shooting stars displaced from their constellations. During that seemingly interminable fall from twenty-eight thousand feet, as they hurtle through the fast-flowing air in the vast, empty night with their bare limbs spread like wings, they give one the illusion that they are flying...

That they are flying...

And shattering into smithereens in the instant when they hit the sea surface.

translated from the Chinese by Laura Jane Wey

The original Chinese is used by permission of 印刻出版。