Midday, when we lay in the hot sleep of noon, my father stalked the house with a flyswatter. Splat. Splat. Little corpses dropped to the ground. I pressed my ear against the bamboo mat and listened for the sound of crushed wings. I heard—
My father’s foot crashing down.
My father creeping steadily across the room, flyswatter up and alert, his shuffling broken by another splat.
My father had good reason. The house was big and pristine. The walls were painted white, the floors tiled. The windows were filled with glass to keep dust outside. Who else had a house like this?
In the mornings while my mother boiled porridge for breakfast, my father ran a damp cloth over each piece of furniture. His ragged finger penetrated every groove—he kept even the carved designs on the backs of the chairs dust-free. He had worked hard to earn and keep all this, he reminded us. He took nothing for granted.
For my father, I was another one of these things—the house, the furniture, the glass windows—to be kept fly-free.
I didn’t understand this until I was much older. As a boy all I knew was that at times I envied my two older sisters. My envy confused me. I had no chores. I picked the best pieces of meat at meals. If I even got a cough, my mother and grandmother pampered me with attention. Why was I so unhappy, to be so loved?
My father threw out the dead flies before I could look at them.
A bamboo mat rustling under my ear, a broom bristling against a smooth floor—to this day, these sounds will lull me to sleep.
A father looks at his grown son and cannot understand how that man, now bigger than he, was once an infant. Not only was once but is still—that the man is the same person as the infant. So I am with myself, unable to recognize who I was. It is not only that my body has changed. Each time I stop to take measure, I feel not as if I have grown, but as if I have left behind many corpses of former selves.
Today I am 1.79 meters, with bony broad shoulders and long legs. I am thin. No one would call me muscular, but my muscles do their job, and their movement over the years has etched a certain shape into my skin. My skin, pale and hairless, has just begun to sag. My bones are stiffer in their joints. My hair is full and thick but peppered with white.
Bodies I have shed: plump white babe; sturdy toddler with a square face and rosy cheeks; runtish boy, his body smaller than he felt; gangly teenager with legs that shot up daily and a torso that could not keep up; tall young man with long legs and a full frame, sprightly, not chubby, but with meat on his bones. This middle-aged body, rougher, weaker, beginning to shrink. I shed my bodies for something uglier each time.
I shed their memories too. The meat of them. So, when I read the bones of my past, I feel as if plunged into a terrifying book, identifying too well with a story about someone else.
Picture the sturdy toddler. He was just tall enough to see into the bowls of old yellow wine his grandfather left around the house. It makes the flies sluggish, his grandfather said, easier for your father to kill. The toddler’s father waved him over and drew on a corner of old newspaper the molecular form of ethyl acetate: four carbons, two oxygens, the triangular plane formed by the double bond, followed by the ethyl tail. If the flies were trapped in a glass with a spoon of wine, his father said, the air would fill with this, and the flies would choke and die.
It was summer in Hangzhou. In the evenings after dinner I walked to West Lake with my big sisters to watch old men play chess and tourists drink lüdotang on the banks. If we were lucky, Mother gave us a penny and a handful of raw rice for the baomi man to pop. On one such evening, walking home from Xihu and eating from Dajie’s bag of popped rice, we found the road ahead lit with pinprick yellow lights. The sky was purple, and it looked as if the stars had fallen down.
Fireflies! Dajie cried.
I stood still and listened for the buzz of flight. The lights drifted around me, blinking on and off in the branches of the peach trees lining the sides of the road.
Dajie and Xiaojie poured the popped rice into their mouths. They danced around chasing fireflies with the empty paper bag until finally Dajie raised her hand, triumphant. The bag glowed, a lantern.
We ran home. Xiaojie sneaked a glass jar from the kitchen and we dropped the captive inside. We huddled around it in the corner of the garden. Dajie covered the top of the jar with paper and poked holes in the paper with a needle. I took the jar in my hands and was surprised to find the glass cold. It was still emitting bursts of yellow light. Our father called, and Xiaojie tucked the jar behind a potted orange tree before we ran inside. At the door I stopped and turned. A weak light pulsed against the ceramic base of the pot.
The next day after lunch when everyone was asleep, I went to the garden to check on our firefly.
At first, I thought it had disappeared. In the dark I had imagined it as a floating flame with wings, and I saw no such thing. Instead, a black beetle sat motionless at the bottom of the jar. I wondered if the firefly had burned up and died. I shook the jar and the beetle slid to the side. I tapped the glass. Suddenly it flew up, crashing into the paper, wings whirring. I tucked the jar between my knees and, cupping my hands to shield the light, looked inside.
Yes, it was glowing!
I crouched to look closer. The bug was ugly. It had a long, sectioned body and black wings folded over its back, two curling antennas, and three sets of thin crunchy legs. The bottom half of its hard body glowed faintly. The picture of hundreds of these bugs flying around me replaced the picture of walking through stars. Suddenly I felt sick.
I went inside for one of my grandfather’s bowls of old wine and brought it out to the garden. I dug my finger into an airhole and widened it. In a swift movement I poured all the wine into the jar, until the insect was drowning.
The firefly’s legs twitched and flailed madly. Its wings opened and closed. Its body spun in circles, curling and uncurling. It writhed for a very long time. Then all movement stopped, and it hung stiff and suspended in yellow liquid.
I poured the wine onto the earth and picked up the dead bug. I peeled its wings, layer by layer. I pulled off each leg. I pinched off the head. Finally, I squeezed the juice out of the bottom, where the glow had been. White pus oozed onto my fingers.
I buried the evidence in the dirt. I covered the jar with a new paper, punctured new holes, and left it behind the orange tree. When my sisters returned in the evening to retrieve their glowing pet, I didn’t say a word.
I HAVE NEVER thought of myself as cruel. Most of the time I think I must be ordinary. When I was younger, the prospect of being ordinary tormented me, but now it is comforting, almost a relief, like the first breath of warm air in the spring.
Yes, I am ordinary! I lay out the facts of my life and there is no other word for it. I have been married to my ordinary wife for ten years. Five days a week I go to an ordinary job translating foreign books at an ordinary office. The books I translate are ordinary too, neither trash nor great works of literature, detective stories and mystery plots that ordinary people read to escape from their ordinary lives. I collect my salary and return home. My home too is ordinary: a two-bedroom flat in a six-story loufang. It could be anywhere in Beijing.
I have one child, a six-year-old daughter who has just started school. She is thin and shy; she has a boyish haircut and thick glasses. Most days, she wears her school uniform: teal pants and zipped jacket, with a white polo shirt underneath. She wears the uniform happily; she is carefree and unselfconscious. On the weekends when my daughter may wear whatever she likes she pulls on shorts and a T-shirt, whatever is easiest to reach in the trunk of clothes her mother has filled, though she refuses to wear anything with flowers or frills. Prints of cartoon animals she tolerates. She pulls on her clothes without thinking about them, rinses out her mouth, splashes water on her face, and comes into the living room full of contentment and ease. Every day I am amazed by her peace with the world. I watch her anxiously as she grows, afraid that she will lose it.
She inherited these qualities from my wife, who is a practical woman. Practical and perfectly competent, my wife is everything I need and as much as I can stand, the kind of woman who makes me content in my ordinary life because she is so content in hers. She does not goad me to be anything more than I am: that is the beauty of her practicality. She is organized and efficient, an accountant; her clients’ lives settle neatly like her own. She wakes every morning at six to turn on the washer, boil six eggs (two for each of us), put out slices of sausage and bread, hang up the washed clothes on the balcony to dry, and shepherd us through breakfast before striding out the door with her smart work bag in hand. After work she swings by the market for vegetables and meat. I clean up after meals, but there is not very much to do. When my wife cooks, she cleans as she goes along. Every moment of the day she is doing three things at once. This is how she likes it. If I try to do any more housework than I’ve been assigned she hovers over me, wringing her hands, impatient, and I know she is thinking how much better and faster she could do it. She is warm, but always efficiently so. There is nothing desperate in her kindness, nothing at all desperate in her energy. I cannot imagine my life without her.
But mathematically, that was most of my life, without her.
Who have I been? I am an ordinary man, but would my past, put down on paper, make me look cruel?
For a year I have woken to the gasping urgency of this question— for a year since the text of an old skin resurfaced, while I was browsing in the Wangfujing Bookstore after work.
I DO NOT often go to the bookstore. It is close to my office, but I must walk ten minutes in the opposite direction from home to get there. When I left the office, I’d felt restless. The day was still bright—the winter was just beginning to let, for months it had been dark at this same hour—and I must have felt the possibility of it, must have wanted to use my legs, to feel the pumping of blood in my veins.
At the bookstore I scanned the shelves for something I had worked on. I took the escalator to the third floor and browsed in the foreign language section, flipping through titles in English. In the center display was a table of Harry Potter books. I considered getting one for my daughter, who would soon start to learn English in school. I picked it up and began to read.
I had sunk into the easy world of imaginative pleasure when I was struck by the feeling of eyes on my skin.
A man was staring at me. He stood two bookshelves away with the new Han Han book open in his hand, and he did not pretend to read. He was short and graying, with a substantial gut, rectangular glasses. He looked at me pointedly, his eyebrows furrowed in amusement, or was it confusion?
I’d seen him before. I thought he was some colleague of my wife’s, or perhaps, another father from my daughter’s school.
For a full minute we stood there with books open, staring at each other.
Then it struck me who he was.
I put down my book, turned, and walked to the escalator. Hearing steps behind me, I quickened my pace. I brushed past shoulders. A book flew from a pair of hands onto the floor. I stared ahead and plowed through. Behind me I could hear the man muttering excuse me, excuse me. Finally, as I ran out the front door into the brisk evening—now it was dark outside, the streetlamps lit and the fragrant smoke of food vendors thickening the air—I heard a shout.
Zong, is that you?
I’m sure it’s you, Yongzong!
I turned back.
It was him all right.
I gave him a look of utter bewilderment and stomped out into the dark.
The above is excerpted from Little Gods (Custom House, January 14, 2020), copyright 2020 by Meng Jin.