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  • Ephemeral Life
  • Zhu Wenying (bio)
    Translated by Karen Gernant (bio) and Chen Zeping (bio)

The Fox

Yunniang chose a double sprig of jasmine and clipped it in her hair. As she'd washed her hair, the little maid Hong had slipped red peach-blossom petals—saved from springtime—into the water. After a night of wind and rain, the whole courtyard was a mat of red, fallen from an old peach tree. Yunniang told Little Hong to fill two porcelain jars with peach petals. One was to be buried below the eaves of the house next door, near Cerulean Pavilion. The contents of the other would be used for adding aroma to tea. In the summertime, Yunniang didn't make tea of peach blossoms; instead, she waited for the water lilies to bloom. They would bud in the evening, then burst into bloom with the first dew of dawn. Yunniang would wrap tea leaves in a gauze bag and place it in the heart of the flowers. Anyhow, she rarely bathed in water infused with the essence of peach petals. But because she had done so today, her hair felt unusually soft. Of course, when their hair is especially soft, women generally feel buoyant. This explained why Yunniang was feeling buoyant now, at twilight.

The merry Yunniang suddenly remembered something. Turning to Sanbai, who stood at the lattice window, she said, "The old woman from Geng Lane came by again today."

"Uh-huh," he said, not really answering. He was gazing at the miniature terrarium of cypress vines on the windowsill. Two little insects were climbing on it: a dark cockroach and a light butterfly. Sanbai blew at them gently. The wings of the butterfly stirred, but it didn't fly away. The cockroach grasped the reddish cypress leaves, and clung there, its thin limbs bent. Sanbai looked at Yunniang with interest. She is really a clever woman, he thought to himself. Who else would think of piercing insects with a needle, then hanging them with fine silk threads among the flowers to make the scene more lifelike! Sanbai let his mind wander, his mood wavering.

Since Sanbai hadn't replied, Yunniang prodded him again. "Are you listening to me?"

"I heard you, I heard you," he said. "The old woman from Geng Lane came over. What did she want?" [End Page 29] [Begin Page 31]

Sanbai opened the window facing the river. It was a cloudy day, so the sunset was drained of color. Across the way, a few people were sitting on the stone bridge leading to Cerulean Pavilion. He could also see the maid Hong farther off, pressed among several women holding curved baskets. From their clothes, he guessed they were flower growers from Tiger Hill or Mountain Pool.

"She came to talk about the place she has for rent. From her tone, it sounded as if she really would like us to move over there."

Yunniang walked over to Sanbai. The window he had opened had been closed all day. Only now, with it open, could one see Cerulean Pavilion clearly. The gloaming crowned it with a yellow halo. Even though the sunset did not, as usual, add its reddish hue to the yellow, the halo still glowed. And so the twilight seemed to take a long time in coming, like the slow water beneath the stone bridge. One could see a woman standing on the stone bridge and holding a curved basket. Someone was buying flowers from her: her hand extended through a curtain, but because of the distance and the twilight, we couldn't see the outline of the hand.

"She said she could vacate one bedroom for us. It faces south. The fence and door are made of bamboo. Vegetable gardens lie all around. And there is also a small pond—"

"Of course she'd say her house was great. They all say that," Sanbai said impatiently, interrupting Yunniang. Noticing that his words had no effect, he went on. "But of course, I can go take a look. If it is anything at all like Cerulean Pavilion, we'll move there for a month or two."

"Like Cerulean Pavilion?"

"Yes. Like Cerulean Pavilion...