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Love Must Not Be Forgotten, a short story

The following is a short story, from the translated collection The Vintage Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction, Copyright 1998.  In Great Britain it was published as The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction.  I found it profound, kind of insightful, and thought-provoking.  I hope you do too.  : )

 

Love Must Not Be Forgotten, by Zhang Jie

 

I am thirty, the same age as our People’s Republic.  For the republic thirty is still young.  But a girl of thirty is virtually on the shelf.

Actually, I have a bona fide suitor.  Have you seen the Greek sculptor Myron’s Discobolus?  Qiao Lin is the image of that discus thrower.  Even the padded clothes he wears in winter fail to hide his fine physique.  Bronzed, with clear-cut features, a broad forehead and large eyes, his appearance alone attracts most girls to him.

But I can’t make up my mind to marry him.  I’m not clear what attracts me to him, or him to me.  I know people are gossiping behind my back, ‘Who does she think she is, to be so choosy?’  To them, I’m a nobody playing hard to get.  They take offence at such preposterous behavior. 

Of course, I shouldn’t be captious.  In a society where commercial production still exists, marriage like most other transactions is still a form of barter.

I have known Qiao Lin for nearly two years, yet still cannot fathom whether he keeps so quiet from aversion to talking or from having nothing to say.  When, by way of a small intelligence test, I demand his opinion of this or that, he says ‘good’ or ‘bad’ like a child in kindergarten.

Once I asked, ‘Qiao Lin, why do you love me?’  He thought the question over seriously for what seemed an age.  I could see from his normally smooth but now wrinkled forehead that the little grey cells in his handsome head were hard at work cogitating.  I felt ashamed to have put him on the spot.

Finally he raised his clear childlike eyes to tell me, ‘Because you’re good!’

Loneliness flooded my heart.  ‘Thank you, Qiao Lin!’  I couldn’t help wondering, if we were to marry, whether we could discharge our duties to each other as husband and wife.  Maybe, because law and morality would have bound us together.  But how tragic simply to comply with law and morality!  Was there no stronger bond to link us?

When such thoughts cross my mind I have the strange sensation that instead of being a girl contemplating marriage I am an elderly social scientist.

Perhaps I worry too much.  We can live like most married couples, bringing up children together, strictly true to each other according to the law . . .  Although living in the seventies of the twentieth century, people still consider marriage the way they did millennia ago, as a means of continuing the race, a form of barter or a business transaction in which love and marriage can be separated.  Since this is the common practice, why shouldn’t we follow suit?

But I still can’t make up my mind.  As a child, I remember, I often cried all night for no rhyme or reason, unable to sleep and disturbing the whole household.  My old nurse, a shrewd though uneducated woman, said an ill wind had blown through my ear.  I think this judgment showed prescience, because I still have that old weakness.  I upset myself over things which really present no problem, upsetting other people at the same time.  One’s nature is hard to change.

I think of my mother too.  If she were alive, what would she say about my attitude to Qiao Lin and my uncertainty about marrying him?  My thoughts constantly turn to her, not because she was such a strict mother that her ghost is still watching over me since her death.  No, she was not just my mother but my closest friend.  I love her so much that the thought of her leaving me makes my heart ache.

She never lectured me, just told me quietly in her deep unwomanly voice about her successes and failures, so that I could learn from her experience.  She had evidently not had many successes – her life was full of failures.

During her last days she followed me with her fine, expressive eyes, as if wondering how I would manage on my own and as if she had some important advice for me but hesitated to give it.  She must have been worried by my naiveté and sloppy ways.  She suddenly blurted out, ‘Shanshan, if you aren’t sure what you want, don’t rush into marriage – better live on your own!”

Other people might think this strange advice from a mother to her daughter, but to me it embodied her bitter experience.  I don’t think she underestimated me or my knowledge of life.  She loved me and didn’t want me to be unhappy.

‘I don’t want to marry, mother!’ I said, not out of bashfulness or a show of coyness.  I can’t think why a girl should pretend to be coy.  She had long since taught me about things not generally mentioned to girls.

‘If you meet the right man, then marry him.  Only if he’s right for you.’

‘I’m afraid no such man exists!’

‘That’s not true.  But it’s hard.  The world is so vast, I’m afraid you may never meet him.’  Whether married or not was not what concerned her, but the quality of the marriage.

‘Haven’t you managed fine without a husband?’

‘Who says so?’

‘I think you’ve done fine.’

‘I had no choice . . .’  She broke off, lost in thought, her face wistful.  Her wistful lined face reminded me of a withered flower I had pressed in a book.

‘Why did you have no choice?’

‘You ask too many questions,’ she parried, not ashamed to confide in me but afraid that I might reach the wrong conclusion.  Besides, everyone treasures a secret to carry to the grave.  Feeling a bit put out, I demanded bluntly, ‘Didn’t you love my dad?’

‘No, I never loved him.’

‘Did he love you?’

‘No, he didn’t.’

‘Then why get married?’

She paused, searching for the right words to explain this mystery, then answered bitterly, ‘When you’re young you don’t always know what you’re looking for, what you need, and people may talk you into getting married.  As you grow older and more experienced you find out your true needs.  By then, though, you’ve done many foolish things for which you could kick yourself.  You’d give anything to be able to make a fresh start and live more wisely.  Those content with their lot will always be happy, they say, but I shall never enjoy that happiness.’  She added self-mockingly, ‘A wretched idealist, that’s all I am.’

Did I take after her?  Did we both have genes which attracted ill winds?

‘Why don’t you marry again?’

‘I’m afraid I’m still not sure what I really want.’  She was obviously unwilling to tell me the truth.

I cannot remember my father.  He and Mother split up when I was very small.  I just recall her telling me sheepishly that he was a fine handsome fellow.  I could see she was ashamed of having judged by appearances and made a futile choice.  She told me, ‘When I can’t sleep at night, I force myself to sober up by recalling all those stupid blunders I made.  Of course it’s so distasteful that I often hide my face in the sheet for shame, as if there were eyes watching me in the dark.  But distasteful as it is, I take some pleasure in this form of atonement.’

I was really sorry that she hadn’t remarried.  She was such a fascinating character, if she’d married a man she loved, what a happy household ours would surely have been.  Though not beautiful, she had the simple charm of an ink landscape.  She was a fine writer too.  Another author who knew her well used to say teasingly, ‘Just reading your works is enough to make anyone love you!’

She would retort, ‘If he knew that the object of his affection was a white-haired old crone, that would frighten him away.’  At her age, she must have known what she really wanted, so this was obviously an evasion.  I say this because she had quirks which puzzled me.

For instance, whenever she left Beijing on a trip, she always took with her one of the twenty-seven volumes of Chekov’s stories published between 1950 and 1955.  She also warned me, ‘Don’t touch these books.  If you want to read Chekov, read that set I bought you.’  There was no need to caution me.  Having a set of my own why should I touch hers?  Beside, she’d told me this over and over again.  Still she was on her guard.  She seemed bewitched by those books.

So we had two sets of Chekov’s stories at home.  Not just because we loved Chekov, but to parry other people like me who loved Chekov.  Whenever anyone asked to borrow a volume, she would lend one of mine.  Once, in her absence, a close friend took a volume from her set.  When she found out she was frantic, and at once took a volume of mine to exchange for it.

Ever since I can remember, those books were on her bookcase.  Although I admire Chekov as a great writer, I was puzzled by the way she never tired of reading him.  Why, for over twenty years, had she had to read him every single day?  Sometimes, when tired of writing, she poured herself a cup of strong tea and sat down in front of the bookcase, staring raptly at that set of books.  If I went into her room then it flustered her, and she either spilt her tea or blushed like a girl discovered with her lover.

I wondered:  Has she fallen in love with Chekov?  She might have if he’d still been alive.

When her mind was wandering just before her death, her last words to me were:  ‘That set . . .’  She hadn’t the strength to give it its complete title.  But I knew what she meant.  ‘And my diary . . .  “Love Must Not Be Forgotten” . . .  Cremate them with me.’

I carried out her last instruction regarding the works of Chekov, but couldn’t bring myself to destroy her diary.  I thought, if it could be published, it would surely prove the most moving thing she had written.  But naturally publication was out of the question.

At first I imagined the entries were raw material she had jotted down.  They read neither like stories, essays, a diary or letters.  But after reading the whole I formed a hazy impression, helped out by my imperfect memory.  Thinking it over, I finally realized that this was no lifeless manuscript I was holding, but an anguished, loving heart.  For over twenty years one man had occupied her heart, but he was not for her.  She used these diaries as a substitute for him, a means of pouring out her feelings to him day after day, year after year.

No wonder she had never considered any eligible proposals, had turned a deaf ear to idle talk whether well-meant or malicious.  Her heart was already full, to the exclusion of anybody else.  ‘No lake can compare with the ocean, no cloud with those on Mount Wu.’  Remembering those lines I often reflected sadly that few people in real life could love like this.  No one would love me like this.

I learned that toward the end of the thirties, when this man was doing underground work for the Party in Shanghai, and old worker had given his life to cover him, leaving behind a helpless wife and daughter.  Out of a sense of duty, of gratitude to the dead and deep class feeling, he had unhesitatingly married the daughter.  When he saw the endless troubles of couples who had married for ‘love’, he may have thought, ‘Thank Heaven, though I didn’t marry for love, we get on well, able to help each other.’  For years, as man and wife they lived through hard times.

He must have been my mother’s colleague.  Had I ever met him?  He couldn’t have visited our home.  Who was he?

In the spring of 1962, Mother took me to a concert.  We went on foot, the theatre being quite near.  On the way a black limousine pulled up silently by the pavement.  Out stepped an elderly man with white hair in a black serge tunic-suit.  What a striking shock of white hair!  Strict, scrupulous, distinguished, transparently honest – that was my impression of him.  The cold glint of his flashing eyes reminded me of lightning or swordplay.  Only ardent love for a woman really deserving his love could fill cold eyes like those with tenderness.

He walked up to Mother and said, ‘How are you, Comrade Zhong Yu?  It’s been a long time.’

‘How are you!’  Mother’s hand holding mine suddenly turned icy cold and trembled a little.

They stood face to face without looking at each other, each appearing upset, even stern.  Mother fixed her eyes on the trees by the roadside, not yet in leaf.  He looked at me.  ‘Such a big girl already.  Good, fine – you take after your mother.’

Instead of shaking hands with Mother he shook hands with me.  His hand was as icy as hers and trembling a little.  As if transmitting an electric current, I felt a sudden shock.  Snatching my hand away I cried, ‘There’s nothing good about that!”

‘Why not?’ he asked with the surprised expression grown-ups always have when children speak out frankly.

I glanced at Mother’s face.  I did take after her, to my disappointment.  ‘Because she’s not beautiful.’

He laughed, then said teasingly.  ‘Too bad that there should be a child who doesn’t find her own mother beautiful.  Do you remember in ’53, when your mother was transferred to Beijing, she came to our ministry to report for duty?  She left you outside on the veranda, but like a monkey you climbed all the stairs, peeped through the cracks in doors, and caught your finger in the door of my office.  You sobbed so bitterly that I carried you off to find her.’

‘I don’t remember that.’  I was annoyed at his harking back to a time when I was still in open-seat pants.

‘Ah, we old people have better memories.’  He turned abruptly and remarked to Mother, ‘I’ve read that last story of yours.  Frankly speaking, there’s something not quite right about it.  You shouldn’t have condemned the heroine . . .  There’s nothing wrong with falling in love, as long as you don’t spoil someone else’s life . . .  In fact, the hero might have loved her too.  Only for the sake of a third person’s happiness, they had to renounce their love . . .’

A policeman came over to where the car was parked and ordered the driver to move on.  When the driver made some excuse, the old man looked around.  After a hasty ‘Goodbye’ he strode back to the car and told the policeman, ‘Sorry.  It’s not his fault, it’s mine . . .’

I found it amusing watching this old cadre listening respectfully to the policeman’s strictures.  When I turned to Mother with a mischievous smile, she looked as upset as a first-form primary schoolchild standing forlornly in front of the stern headmistress.  Anyone would have thought she was the one being lectured by the policeman.  The car drove off, leaving a puff of smoke.  Very soon even this smoke vanished with the wind, as if nothing at all had happened.  But the incident stuck in my mind.

Analyzing it now, I realize he must have been the man whose strength of character won Mother’s heart.  That strength came from his firm political convictions, his narrow escapes from death in the revolution, his active brain, his drive at wok, his well-cultivated mind.  Besides, strange to say, he and Mother both like the oboe.  Yes, she must have worshipped him.  She once told me that unless she worshipped a man, she couldn’t love him even for one day.

But I could not tell whether he loved her or not.  If not, why was there this entry in her diary?

‘This is far too fine a present.  But how did you know that Chekov’s my favourite writer?’

‘You said so.’

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘I remember.  I heard you mention it when you were chatting with someone.’

So he was the one who had given her the Selected Stories of Checkov.  For her that was tantamount to a love letter.  Maybe this man, who didn’t believe in love, realized by the time his hair was white that in his heart was something which could be called love.  By the time he no longer had the right to love, he made the tragic discovery of his love for which he would have given his life.  Or did it go deeper even than that?

This is all I remember about him.

How wretched Mother must have been, deprived of the man to whom she was devoted!  To catch a glimpse of his car or the back of his head through its rear window, she carefully figured out which roads he would take to work and back.  Whenever he made a speech, she sat at the back of the hall watching his face rendered hazy by cigarette smoke and poor lighting.  Her eyes would brim with tears, but she swallowed them back.  If a fit of coughing made him break off, she wondered anxiously why no one persuaded him to give up smoking.  She was afraid he would get bronchitis again.  Why was he so near yet so far?

He, to catch a glimpse of her, looked out of the car window every day straining his eyes to watch the streams of cyclists, afraid that she might have an accident.  On the rare evenings on which he had no meetings, he would walk by a roundabout way to our neighbourbood, to pass our compound gate.  However busy, he would always make time to look in papers and journals for her work.  His duty had always been clear to him, even in the most difficult times.  But now confronted by this love he became a weakling, quite helpless.  At his age it was laughable.  Why should life play this trick on him?

Yet when they happened to meet at work, each tried to avoid the other, hurrying off with a nod.  Even so, this would make Mother blind and deaf to everything around her.  If she met a colleague named Wang she would call him Guo and mutter something intelligible.

It was a cruel ordeal for her.  She wrote:

 

We agreed to forget each other.  But I deceived you.  I have never forgotten.  I don’t think you’ve forgotten either.  We’re just deceiving each other, hiding our misery.  I haven’t deceived you deliberately, though; I did my best to carry out our agreement.  I often stay far away from Beijing, hoping time and distance will help me to forget you.  But when I return, as the train pulls into the station, my head reels.  I stand on the platform looking round intently, as if someone were waiting for me.  Of course there is no one.  I realize then that I have forgotten nothing.  Everything is unchanged.  My love is like a tree the roots of which strike deeper year after year – I have no way to uproot it.

At the end of every day, I feel as if I’ve forgotten something important.  I may wake with a start from my dreams wondering what has happened.  But nothing has happened.  Nothing.  Then it comes home to me that you are missing!  So everything seems lacking, incomplete, and there is nothing to fill up the blank.  We are nearing the end of our lives, why should we be carried away by emotion like children?  Why should life submit people to such ordeals, then unfold before you your lifelong dream?  Because I started off blindly I took the wrong turning, and now there are insuperable obstacles between me and my dream.

 

Yes, Mother never let me go to the station to meet her when she came back from a trip, preferring to stand alone on the platform and imagine that he had met her.  Poor mother with her graying hair was as infatuated as a girl.

Not much space in the diary was devoted to their romance.  Most entries dealt with trivia:  why one of her articles had not come off; her fear that she had no real talent; the excellent play she missed by mistaking the time on the ticket; the drenching she got by going out for a stroll without her umbrella.  In spirit they were together day and night, like a devoted married couple.  In fact, they spent no more than twenty-four hours together in all.  Yet in that time they experienced deeper happiness than some people in a whole lifetime.  Shakespeare makes Juliet say, ‘I cannot sum up half my sum of wealth.’  And probably that is how Mother felt.

He must have been killed in the Cultural Revolution.  Perhaps because of the conditions then, that section of the diary is ambiguous and obscure.  Mother had been so fiercely attacked for her writing, it amazed me that she went on keeping a diary.  From some veiled allusions I gathered that he had questioned the theories advanced by that ‘theoretician’ then at the height of favour, and had told someone, ‘This is sheer Rightist talk.’  It was clear from the tear-stained pages of Mother’s diary that he had been harshly denounced; but the steadfast old man never knuckled under to the authorities.  His last words were, ‘When I go to meet Marx, I shall go on fighting my case!’

That must have been in the winter of 1969, because that was when Mother’s hair turned white overnight, though she was not yet fifty.  And she put on a black arm-band.  Her position then was extremely difficult.  She was criticized for wearing this old-style mourning, and ordered to say for whom she was in mourning.

‘For whom are you wearing that, Mother?’ I asked anxiously

‘For my lover.’  Not to frighten me she explained, ‘Someone you never knew.’

‘Shall I put one on too?’  She patted my cheeks, as she had when I was a child.  It was years since she had shown me such affection.  I often felt that as she aged, especially during these last years of persecution, all tenderness had left her, or was concealed in her heart, so that she seemed like a man.

She smiled sadly and said, ‘No, you needn’t wear one.’  Her eyes were as dry as if she had no more tears to shed.  I longed to comfort her or do something to please her.  But she said, ‘Off you go.’

I felt an inexplicable dread, as if dear Mother had already half left me.  I blurted out, ‘Mother!’

Quick to sense my desolation, she said gently, ‘Don’t be afraid.  Off you go.  Leave me alone for a little.’

I was right.  She wrote:

 

You have gone.  Half my soul seems to have taken flight with you

I had no means of knowing what had become of you, much less of seeing you for the last time.  I had no right to ask either, not being your wife or friend . . .  So we are torn apart.  If only I could have borne that inhuman treatment for you, so that you could have lived on!  You should have lived to see your name cleared and take up your work again, for the sake of those who loved you.  I knew you could not be a counter-revolutionary.  You were one of the finest men killed.  That’s why I love you – I am not afraid now to avow it.

Snow is whirling down.  Heavens, even God is such a hypocrite, he is using this whiteness to cover up your blood and the scandal of your murder.

I have never set store by my life.  But now I keep wondering whether anything I say or do would make you contract your shaggy eyebrows in a frown.  I must live a worthwhile life like you, and do some honest work for our country.  “Things can’t go on like this – those criminals will get what’s coming to them.

I used to walk alone along that small asphalt road, the only place where we once walked together, hearing my footsteps in the silent night  . . .   I always paced to and fro and lingered there, but never as wretchedly as now.  Then, though you were not beside me, I knew you were still in this world and felt that you were keeping me company.  Now I can hardly believe that you have gone.

At the end of the road I would retrace my steps, then walk along it again.  Rounding the fence I always looked back, as if you were still standing there waving goodbye.  We smiled faintly, like casual acquaintances, to conceal our undying love.  That ordinary evening in early spring a chilly wind was blowing as we walked silently away from each other.  You were wheezing a little because of your chronic bronchitis.  That upset me.  I wanted to beg you to slow down, but somehow I couldn’t.  We both walked very fast, as if some important business were waiting for us.  How we prized that single stroll we had together, but we were afraid we might lose control of ourselves and burst out with ‘I love you’ – those three words which had tormented us for years.  Probably no one else could believe that we never once even clasped hands!

 

No, Mother, I believe it.  I am the only one able to see into your locked heart.

Ah, that little asphalt road, so haunted by bitter memories.  We shouldn’t overlook the most insignificant spots on earth.  For who knows how much secret grief and joy they may hide.  No wonder that when tired of writing, she would pace slowly along that little road behind our window.  Sometimes at dawn after a sleepless night, sometimes on a moonless, windy evening.  Even in winter during howling gales which hurled sand and pebbles against the window pane  . . .  I thought this was one of her eccentricities, not knowing that she had gone to meet him in spirit.

She liked to stand by the window, too, staring at the small asphalt road.  Once I thought from her expression that one of our closest friends must be coming to call.  I hurried to the window.  It was a late autumn evening.  The cold wind was stripping dead leaves from the trees and blowing them down the small empty road.

She went on pouring out her heart to him in her diary as she had when he was alive.  Right up to the day when the pen slipped from her fingers.  Her last message was:

 

I am a materialist, yet I wish there were a Heaven.  For then, I know, I would find you there waiting for me.  I am going there to join you, to be together for eternity.  We need never be parted again or keep at a distance for fear of spoiling someone else’s life.  Wait for me, dearest, I am coming –

 

I do not know how, on her death bed, Mother could still love so ardently with all her heart.  To me it seemed not love but a form of madness, a passion stronger than death.  If undying love really exists, she reached its extreme.  She obviously died happy, because she had known true love.  She had no regrets.

Now these old people’s ashes have mingled with the elements.  But I know that no matter what form they may take, they still love each other.  Though not bound together by earthly laws or morality, though they never once clasped hands, each possessed the other completely.  Nothing could part them.  Centuries to come, if one white cloud trails another, two blades of grass grow side by side, one wave splashes another, a breeze follows another . . . believe me, that will be them.

Each time I read that diary ‘Love Must Not Be Forgotten’ I cannot hold back my tears.  I often weep bitterly, as if I myself experienced their ill-fated love.  If not a tragedy it was too laughable.  No matter how beautiful or moving I find it, I have no wish to follow suit!

Thomas Hardy wrote that ‘the call seldom produced the comer, the man to love rarely coincides with the hour for loving.’  I cannot judge them by conventional moral standards.  What I deplore is that they did not wait for a ‘missing counterpart’ to call them.  If everyone could wait, instead of rushing into marriage, how many tragedies could be averted!

When we reach communism, will there still be cases of marriage without love?  Perhaps . . . since the world is so vast, two kindred spirits may never be able to answer each other’s call.  But how tragic!  Could it be that by then we will have devised ways to escape such tragedies?  But this is all conjecture.

Maybe after all we are accountable for these tragedies.  Who knows?  Should we take the responsibility for the old ideas handed down from the past?  Because, if you choose not to marry, your behaviour is considered a direct challenge to these ideas.  You will be called neurotic, accused of having guilty secrets or having made political mistakes.  You may be regarded as an eccentric who looks down on ordinary people, not respecting age-old customs – a heretic.  In short they will trump up endless vulgar and futile charges to ruin your reputation.  Then you have to succumb to those ideas and marry regardless.  But once you put the chains of an indifferent marriage around your neck, you will suffer for it for the rest of your life.

I long to shout:  ‘Mind your own business!  Let us wait patiently for our counterparts.  Even waiting in vain is better than a loveless marriage.  To be single is not such a fearful disaster.  I believe it may be a sign of a step forward in culture, education and the quality of life.’

 

Translated by Gladys Yang

UnderEli UnderEli 41-45, M 4 Responses Oct 14, 2010

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I thank all of you for reading this excellent story, and for your comments.

I like buttseks :D

I have not forgotten indeed, thank you....

Beautiful and touching, I teared up a bit....thanks for posting!