My Poor Girlfriend

Original Chinese by Zhu Yue, 
Translated to English by Jianan Qian*

   I walked into Ward Six. The emptiness made me uneasy. My girlfriend’s bed was in the corner. She turned and smiled at me when she heard my footsteps. I drew the curtains to let in the sunlight, then took a chair and sat beside her.
    “My boss gave me a piece of White Rabbit Creamy Candy. Here.” I dug into my mesh sack, fumbled for a moment, and took out the candy. (She knitted the sack for me a year ago.)
    “No, you eat it.” She strained to prop herself up.
    “You need nourishment. You have it.”
    “Let’s each take half, or I won’t eat.”
    My girlfriend is great, though sometimes a bit stubborn. I dug into the sack, took out a pocket knife, removed the candy wrapper and cut the candy in two. (I made sure her piece was bigger, but only slightly so she didn’t notice.)
    She took the candy, put it in her mouth, and murmured, “Give me the candy wrapper.”
    I placed the wrapper in her palm. She strained to smooth it out. Had I known she wanted to keep it, I would have removed it more carefully, but then again, perhaps doing so would have denied her that bit of pleasure.
    “And our earthworms, how are they?” she asked, her eyes widening. This must have been what she cared about the most.
    “What happened?”
    “I sold the earthworms.” I bore the sorrow in my heart.
    “Sold them ...” She murmured, trembling and bowing her head.
    After a while, she asked, “How much did they sell for?”
    “Two fen, but—”  
    “But what?”
    “—chengguan officers confiscated the money.”
    She collapsed in her bed. Just when I thought she had died, I heard her sigh.
    “Our earthworms are gone. So is the money. What do we do now?”
    She turned away. I took out a plastic comb from my sack and began combing the back of her head. She had twenty-three strands of hair left. (This comb was the only thing my girlfriend had inherited from her mother, who died a long time ago.)
    She was still trembling, whether from pain, sadness or cold, I didn’t know. I held her shoulder and gently turned her body around. Her skin had become transparent; I could see the blood pumping in her veins. The surgeon had removed all ten of her fingers and transplanted wheat noodles in their place. I placed the noodles in my palm and massaged them to calm her down. I couldn’t hold back my tears.
    “Don’t cry. At least we still have our moths.”
    I couldn’t bear to tell her that our moths had flown away as well, and so I cried even more.
    Carefully withdrawing her noodles from my hand, she caressed my forehead with them. I held her face — swollen to twice its size — to kiss her lips, but she refused. (Her lips had also been removed, actually. The surgeon had implanted dentures that previously belonged to the old man in the opposite bed, who’d died of lymphoma.)
    “Don’t!” she said. “We aren’t even married.” I knew she didn’t want to disappoint me.
    “We’ll get married as soon as you leave the hospital.” I wiped a tear from my cheek.
    She started crying. Her crustacean eyes gushed with tears that splashed onto my face. I cradled her twig of a body. “Don’t be so upset,” I begged her, afraid she might twist the paper clip connecting her torso to her waist.
    She calmed down. Turning to watch the pink glow of sunset outside the window, she whispered, “Go get me a rose.”
    “I’ll do it right now. Wait for me. Don’t sleep yet.” (To “sleep” means to die.)
    I raced to the hospital courtyard and searched everywhere, but there was nothing except bricks and tiles. I left the hospital compound to try my luck along the country roads. But where were the country roads? In the end, I found only a green foxtail and, holding it, I started walking back to the hospital, thinking this might be enough to make her happy. I imagined handing her the foxtail, imagined sliding a platinum ring on her slim finger, imagined her dead by the time I returned, her body being burned to ashes like a scarecrow, imagined her grave swarming with countless earthworms. But none of this happened. I looked up — the pink glow of sunset was indeed splendid.

August 11, 2005
(Qixi Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day)

*Translator’s Note: Heartfelt thanks to Aron Aji, director of literary translation program at the University of Iowa, who showed me how to reconstruct a voice in the translation, and whom I admire very much. Without your singular and exceptional generosity, I would not have completed the work.


    我走进6号病房,里面变得空空荡荡的,这令我不安。我的女友躺在角落里的病 床上,听到我的脚步声,就翻了个身,面朝我笑了笑。我拉开窗帘,让阳光照射进 来,搬过小凳子坐下。
     “今天领导给我一块大白兔奶糖,你吃了吧。”我把手伸进塑料网兜,摸索了一会 儿,把那块大白兔奶糖取出来。(塑料网兜是她一年前手工编织的)
    她什么都好,就是太固执了。我只好又把手伸进塑料网兜,摸索了一会儿,掏 出一把小水果刀,剥开糖纸,小心地把奶糖切成两段。(我故意没有两等分,但又 相差不大,只有这样才能让她在不觉察的情况下,把稍微大一点的那一半吃下去)
    我把糖纸放在她手心里,她用尽全力将糖纸抚平。早知这样,我在剥糖纸的时 候,就会细心些了,但那可能反而会剥夺她的一项乐趣吧。
    “钱被城管队员没收了。” abcd我刚说完,她就一头倒在了病床上。我真以为她死了,但马上听到了哭泣的声 音。
    她转过脸去不看我。我把手伸进塑料网兜,摸索了一会儿,掏出一柄塑料小梳 子,从后面给她梳了梳头,她还剩下23根头发。(这柄塑料小梳子是我女友母亲唯 一的遗物,她很早以前就去世了)
    她的身体还在发抖,不知道是因为痛苦、悲伤还是寒冷。我把手放在她肩头, 轻轻将她的身子扳过来。她的皮肤是完全透明的,我可以看到里面的血液在急速地 流动。她的手指被切除了,医生给她安上了10根面条。我拉起她的面条,捏在手里 抚摩着,想让她平静下来。这时候,我忍不住流下了眼泪。
    她小心地把面条从我手里抽出来,用它们抚着我的额头。我捧起她那因浮肿而 扩大了两倍的脸,想吻她的嘴,但她拒绝了。(其实她的嘴也被切除了,医生给她 安上了一副假牙,这副假牙是过去对面床上那位老大爷的遗物,他死于淋巴癌)
    这次轮到她哭了,她那螃蟹一样的大眼睛向外喷出水来,喷在我脸上。我搂住 她枯柴般的身子,请求她不要激动,否则,连接她上下肢的曲别针会变形的。
    终于,她平静下来,扭头望着窗外粉红色的晚霞,小声说:“去给我摘朵玫瑰 吧。”
    我跑到医院的院子里,四处寻找玫瑰花,但这里除了砖头瓦砾什么都没有。 我只好走出医院,到田间小路上碰运气,可哪里有什么田间小路啊?最后,我只找 到一颗狗尾巴草,我拿着它往回走,心想这也许足够令她快慰了。我想象着把狗尾 巴草交到她手里的情景,想象把一枚铂金戒指套在她纤细的手指上,想象我回到医 院时她已经死了,她的尸体像稻草人一样被焚烧成灰烬,想象她的坟墓和无数只蚯 蚓。但什么也没有,我抬起头,粉红色的晚霞真的分外绚丽。


Zhu Yue is the Beijing-born author of three short story collections: The Blindfold Traveler, The Masters of Sleep, and The Chaos of Fiction.

Jianan Qian is the author of a short story collection, People Grow Old, But Won’t Die, and the Chinese translator of The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller. Qian is currently a second-year fiction student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.