- The Zither
People have called me Old Zhang for more than forty years—ever since I was thirty. Now I'm really old: from my bones to my heart, everything is opening up toward death. In TV commercials, people my age wave little tourist flags and proudly claim, "My back is young. I'm strong." I don't know how they can do that. There's no way I can compete with them, and it leaves me deeply ashamed. I'm a haggard old zither teacher, whose aged skin is as brittle as an old newspaper. When I go to bed, I never know if I'll wake up the next morning. Even so, I don't want to move back home with my children for the rest of my days. Instead, I insist on staying in the opera-troupe dorm so that I can watch girls go by who are as fresh as flowers. This behavior is really shameful. My wizened body is still improperly steeped in the moisture of desire, like an old cucumber being pickled in soy sauce. I frequently hide behind the window and peer out with dimming eyesight. The actresses pass when they have finished rehearsing or have just bathed. Warm and wet, they look languid. Through my eyes, I breathe in their female scent. I tremble from it. It's as though summer light is coursing through my body, and yet I'm cold all over—except for that one part. There, I feel warmth—even if it's only negligible warmth. Still, compared with the numbing coldness in the rest of my body, it's a burning arousal. It's shameful for an old man to feel this way.
This shame has become my innermost torment. It began on the day that my granddaughter, Lin Shan, killed someone. Before that, I had ignored it, just hiding behind my window and inhaling with my eyes. This wasn't hurting anyone. I was so old and weak that my skin was covered with brown spots. So was my heart. I had all the wisdom a man my age should have. I had come close to learning the essence of human nature, and as a result I accepted that humans are weak. But then Lin Shan killed someone. She used to be the pride of our family, as she was studying for her Ph.D. But Lin Shan killed a woman who worked for her school. Everyone was grief-stricken, shouting themselves hoarse, asking Why, why? What motive could Lin Shan have had? Even the police couldn't think of an answer. I didn't ask why; instead, one windy day I went to the detention center. I waited from morning to sundown outside the big, iron gate before finally getting to talk to the police officer assigned to the [End Page 176] case. He was a young guy, just beginning to grow facial hair. I said earnestly, Arrest me and let Lin Shan go. Hardly glancing at me, he roared off on his motorcycle. I knew he had heard this kind of unreasonable pleading all too often and had lost the patience to explain and educate. I had this much sense, but still had needed to go to the police and tell them I had done it. I had reached life's exit. I was like a runner who sees the finish line up ahead. I was entitled to make a request. I went home alone. The wind was strong and seemed to be blowing stronger by the falling light of dusk. Stimulated by it, I moved along as though in a trance. I thought, This is all my fault. God is punishing an innocent lamb for the sin committed by an old goat. As I wandered, not watching where I was going, a speeding farm tractor suddenly ran over my left leg, sweeping it under the wheels. I didn't register any pain at first. In fact, I even felt I was correct to judge myself harshly. The accident was a punishment; moreover, it was this same left leg that had...