Dancing Through Red Dust
Translated by Harvey Thomlinson
I was thirty-eight. Not old. Not young. There were still many things I wanted to do. But I was going to die. I had lived on the edge of the knife for more than a decade. I thought I was really clever, that I could succeed at the game of life through cunning, that I would have the world in the palm of my hand. But I never imagined cleverness would be my undoing.
According to the facts laid out in my confession, I was guilty of crimes including bribery, perjury, buying 330,000 yuan of counterfeit notes and the possession of half a kilo of ecstasy. I was a leading member of criminal gangs and an accomplice to murder and mutilation. There was only one possible sentence for these atrocities: death.
Shouyang court rejected my appeal, which was no surprise.
My second statement had named thirty-three judges, four prosecutors and six cops. The whole justice system though I was toxic. The sooner I was dead the better.
Condemned by them all, there was no escaping it: I wasn’t sick, but I was going to die. I was a thorn in everybody’s heart. Some of them had been my friends, but every single one of them wanted me dead. I had lived an unfettered life of excess and high living. I had drunk enough to drown an elephant, but I hadn’t made one real friend. I could ask the world for nothing more. Others were treating me the way I had treated them. Only money counted for anything in this city. I shouldn’t ever have expected anything else.
Sometimes it seemed to me I had fallen into a dream from which I would never wake. I used to think I had life figured out, but I never imagined I would end up in such a weird place. It was incomprehensible how the jail stank so much, unimaginable how the food was so horrible.
The corn cakes were cooked on the outside and raw in the middle so your stomach swelled up with gas. There were big, bold farts like croaking frogs and small, scared farts sneaking out like mosquitoes. Chen Peng ate the most and farted in batches: ‘Pu pupu pupupu’. The modulations of this melodious sound made an expressive tune with the rhythm of a threefold chant.
As you listened, you forgot your cares. The food was always too fucking obscenely bland, or so salty it would make you gasp and roll your eyes. It was also spiced with all kinds of extra seasonings – white hairs, fuse wire, bits of wood, pieces of plastic and cigarette butts as well as flies, roaches, geckos and all kinds of living things. If you collected them all together you’d have enough to open a hardware shop. The worst of all was when Little Six pulled a condom out of his soup. No one was that surprised when they heard him shouting, but when he showed everybody what it was, there was an eruption.
Privacy was out of the question in Caoxi detention centre. Everyone ate and drank and pissed and shat in one small room – even a gentleman had to lower his pants and show his butt to us all. Black Three tried to keep up his regal air on the toilet, with someone to flush, someone to hand him paper and someone to squat on the floor in front of him like a human footstool. But his shit was as hard as a brick. He’d sit there boiling with rage, gritting his teeth and gripping the handrail as he struggled to get it out.
Every night someone would start up a conversation with the women on the other side of the wall. But it wasn’t really talking, just swearing. Someone would shout out an insult and some smelly crone would hear it and yell ‘Fuck your mother’ or ‘Fuck your grandmother.’ Some bastard on our side would answer ‘Fuck your father, fuck your grandfather,’ setting up a refrain that would be passed backwards and forwards across the wall like monks chanting sutras. Even if the prisoners were guilty of all their crimes, what had their ancient relatives ever done to deserve such abuse?
I couldn’t believe it was all real. I didn’t dare to believe it was real. There was no reason our cell had to smell this bad. If they’d leave the water on at night, all our shit could be flushed away and wouldn’t pile up on the tray. If they’d leave the corn cakes in the oven a little longer, they wouldn’t be so hard on our stomachs. Maybe they thought they were being generous giving us all those cockroaches and lizards – they were meat, after all – but what about that condom? Condoms belong on your cock. There are big cocks and small cocks, cocks you could use instead of the axle on your car and cocks that are only good as a feather duster, but I’d never heard of someone using their cock to stir soup. Why couldn’t our night-time chats be full of romance? Why couldn’t the women lament their bitterness in the moonlight while the men put on armour like European knights to sing them serenades?
But none of this was real.
They say Taoists can reach a magic state called ‘held in emptiness’ which makes them go crazy, black out, speak in tongues, do the most extraordinary things and see the world dissolve into confusion. Maybe Hai Liang had caught me in this trap with some black magic he had learned in his youth on Dragon Tiger Mountain. That bald donkey certainly had a dark side. I had called him a prick and now he had summoned somebody to grab a cock before my eyes. It was just the kind of thing he would come up with.
There was a song on the poet monk’s CD called The Land of Buddhism, where he chanted a bitter song about the world being flowers in a mirror, the moon in a lake. All life was a dream, he sang, some woke from it early, some slept until they died. But the poet never shut his eyes, he just walked through the world alone with his lantern, looking for the land of Buddhism amid the endless swirl of red dust. It didn’t sound like the land of Buddhism was anywhere in China. It was not in Beijing or Shanghai – you couldn’t just buy a plane ticket, you had to search for it with a lamp. According to the poet, the land of Buddhism is cut off from the world. The customs are very strange: the lights never go out, the people never sleep. Things are different there. At first I thought this was all rubbish, but finally I realised the monk was only looking for Caoxi detention centre.
This was my land of Buddhism: a place of swindlers, butt lickers, brothel keepers, thieves and people flogging illegal DVDs. There were no heavenly Buddhist drums, just the unending refrain of exploding farts. Our thousand eyes did not stare all-seeing into the distance, but boiled red with our longing for sex. I had stayed in many top hotels, but I never imagined the Caoxi detention centre would be my final resting place. The spirits of Qielan Temple were said to see everything, to hold the fate of the world in their hands. But they couldn’t see me, or if they did those turtles pretended I was invisible.
The warden Tang Mingli came to look for me after dinner, and asked me if I wanted anything else to eat. As soon as he said it, I started shaking.
‘The dark road to the underworld is very long,’ he sighed.
‘They say it’s ninety-nine li from Home Viewing Pavilion to the Bridge of No Return. A bit of food will make the journey easier.’
I stared blankly at him.
‘Am I going to die?’
He shook his head and pulled out a sheet of paper.
‘This is a consent form to donate your organs. You just have to sign here, and here…’
I shrank away from him. ‘No, I won’t do it. I’m not dead yet.’
He patted me on the shoulder.
‘Don’t be silly. Your family aren’t coming, so it doesn’t matter if you sign or not. They’ll have an ambulance waiting. As soon as the shot is fired, they’ll carry you in and cut out everything they can. A cornea’s worth a few tens of thousands, same for a kidney. Why should they get all the money? We haven’t treated you badly lately. You might as well let us make a little profit.’
‘What commission are you on if I sign, Cadre Tang?’
‘Only a few thousand.’ He seemed a little embarrassed. ‘And it’s not just me.’
I let out a cold, hard laugh.
‘I’m about to die and you still try this? I won’t sign it.’
His face turned to thunder and he looked at Chen Peng. Chen gave a nod and a bunch of prisoners jumped up and pinned me down. Tang gently held my hand and made my mark on each page. He smiled, strolled off and locked the iron door.
What kind of a world was this?