About The Book
I earn my living from a shop that actually has two rooms: an upstairs and downstairs. The first floor sells burial clothes, and the second floor acts as a small mausoleum. Selling burial clothes uses specific language, it has many taboos, and it requires lots of professional knowledge. The boss dislikes the fact that I am new at this profession and I do not speak smoothly enough. She lets me learn by doing. I am mainly responsible for guest reception at the mausoleum.
Usually, I cautiously and noiselessly lead customers up the narrow staircase. The mausoleum is small, but can still house thirty or forty boxes without feeling too crowded. While small, the room is well-organized, secure, and extremely quiet. Our guests come from unknown places, they do not know each other, but they still live together peacefully. Each guest dwells inside a black box. Some boxes have names I am unfamiliar with carved on them, and some don’t have any marks. Each box has two layers. The first is filled with cremation ashes and the second is where the person’s soul is placed – if the person’s soul wants to rest, that is.
One day, a special guest came.
“Young man, you must take me to the second floor so I can search for my son.” The old lady spoke directly and I understood her meaning.
“Ma’am, what was your son’s name?” I asked in a consoling tone.
“My son is named Que Xiao’an. Do you know him?” She asked me while looking over some of our boxes.
I told her I would help her find him, but I did not recognize the name. I looked over our registry and was unable to find the name “Que Xiao’an”.
I said to her that her son had already gone home.
“No,” the old lady responded flatly, “his soul is still in your store. I want you to help encourage Xiao’an to return home, he knows where it is – the grain storage room.” Suddenly, the old woman began to beg me, “Is there some reason the dead would wish to remain in the city? It is a garish, foul, pestilential place. Bad people outnumber good people. Housing prices higher than the sky…”
I told the old lady that maybe Xiao’an is not here and that she should look around. If his soul is still here then we should be able to find it.
“You take me with you.” The old lady begged as thick tears welled up in her eyes.
But I had to work. Where would I go to search for a drifting, wandering soul that, to be honest, may not even exist?
“You should help the old lady.” The boss came downstairs and then to me said, “It is not easy for an old woman to come to the city, you should walk with her.”
I carried the old lady down the staircase, pointed at a photograph and said to her, “We should go to the Fortune Plaza, which is where Xiao’an took this picture.”
We took the number 19 bus. The bus was filled with people, and one person gave his seat to the old lady. Immediately the people next to the old lady got up, moved away, and covered their noses.
Finally we arrived at the Fortune Plaza. I carried the old lady off the bus. She easily found the spot where Xiao’an had taken the picture. In the picture Xiao’an laughed radiantly and confidently, as though the gold yuanbao behind him were in fact real, belonged to him, and that he could do with it whatever he pleased. The old lady stood there motionless, the wind blowing her hair into a mess. I rushed over to a small store to buy her water and a snack. When I returned I found a lot of people had surrounded her because she was using her cane to viciously strike the yuanbao. Eventually, the cane cracked in half, however the balloon yuanbao was still half full of air.
“Xiao’an come home! Xiao’an come home!” The old lady shouted and continued to hit the yuanbao.
Some people urged her to stop, but she did not hear them and continued to bash and yell.
I picked up the old lady and told her, “Xiao’an is not here, we should leave.”
The old lady had a piece of paper in her hand with the address: “Workers’ Temporary Shed No. 3, Times Building, Democracy Road”. The old lady said when Xiao’an was alive he lived here and used this address to send her money. The old lady then asked me, “Where is the Times Building?” I pointed ahead of us and the old lady dragged me towards the Workers’ Cultural Palace. Once we reached the Workers’ Cultural Palace we made a right turn and arrived at the Times Building. I took the paper, turned to the back and found a phone number. The old lady told me the number belonged to Xiao’an’s cousin. “He also lives in the city, but we have not spoken in a long time. He is a swindler. He tricked Xiao’an to come to the city, but once Xiao’an came his cousin took no responsibility to bring him back home.” I quickly dialed the number and the cousin answered. I told him that Xiao’an’s mother had come to the city to search for her son. The cousin paused for a moment, and then said he would be right there.
About ten minutes later a thin, black haired, dust-covered young man arrived. I quickly rushed to greet him, eager to pass the old woman off to him.
“Are you Xiao’an’s cousin?” I asked.
“No. I am Xiao’an.” The young man calmly answered.
“You can’t be…” I said.
“I am not dead. At the Central Plaza I help construct a big building – it will be even larger than the Times Building!” The young man beamed.
Xiao’an then apologetically said to me, “Brother, I am sorry to cause you so much hassle.”
I replied: “It’s nothing, your mother just gave me a lesson about souls.” I gave him the money his mother had given me and turned to leave.
Que Xiao’an took the old lady’s hand so they could leave but the woman obstinately refused. A crowd urged the lady to move but she rebuked them. She reproached that this was her son, and these were high rise buildings, so sooner or later he would surely die. In the face of a recalcitrant mother, and the embarrassment and shame she brought to him, Xiao’an felt angry, so he violently and forcefully dragged his mother away.
“You sinful creature, let me go, you have no soul!” The old lady yelled out, cruelly and verbally abusing her son.
At this point the crowd and security guards were advising Xiao’an not to drag his mother, but he did not listen. He switched arms and firmly dragged her away.
“Help me! I’m dying, my soul wants to be free!” The old lady shouted until she was hoarse. It created a most tragic sound that coursed through the warm, heavy afternoon air.
About half a year later.
“Is spot number 9 still available?” The same old lady hobbled inside to ask.
“It is.” I responded. I had just cleaned that spot. Almost every day I would wipe all of the boxes and spots because cleanliness shows reverence.
The old lady had difficulty lifting the box up to spot 9 because of her shaky hands. She meticulously set it down and when she thought it was stable slowly pulled her hands away.
“Who is it?” I asked, my heart sinking.
“Que Xiao’an.” Sorrow had already left her face, or perhaps wrinkles and dirt already covered her face so thoroughly that she was not able to wear a proper mournful expression. “He fell to his death, his body and bones smashed into pieces. He did not want to return home – in life and death he stayed in the city. Let him stay in the city, I cannot take his soul back home anyway.”
I was skeptical. From the old lady’s expression I could not tell if she was serious or not.
“Please reserve spot number 10 for me. In a few days I will come back to accompany Xiao’an. Finally, mother and son can spend everyday together, provided he stays by my side – that will be the safest place.” The old lady took money out of her pocket, it was old and dirty, all different denominations, and haphazardly mixed in with ghost money. “This is the money Xiao’an sent me. Usually I am reluctant to use it because I know one of these days it will come in handy. Let me tell you a secret. Xiao’an is finally settling down in the city; he is going to get married, have children, and bring glory to his ancestors… This all requires money. So young man, I want to give you this money.”
The old lady insisted I take her money, but I refused three times. Suddenly, the old lady scattered the money in the air and fumed, “People stay here. Money can stay here, too!”
The money flew around the room. I wanted to wait for it all to fall so I could collect it and give it back to the old lady, but she had already turned and went down the stairs. I worried she would trip and fall, I offered to help, but she refused. She sat on the floor, directed her legs forward, and used her hips to move step-by-step, slowly but surely making her way down.
The old lady with her crutches made it through the funeral clothes room. Outside she continued west. She was overwhelmed by the people coming and going, but from the white balloon fluttering in the wind on the end of her cane he could tell where she was. It was only when she turned at the corner was the balloon no longer visible.
It was a normal afternoon. A balloon disappeared into the air.