A Strange Kind of Brain Damage by Can Xue

BOMB 61 Fall 1997
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New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


There does indeed exist a strange kind of brain damage. I have a friend who is a housewife in her thirties. When she talks with others, her left eye will not stop blinking.

One morning several years ago, this friend stopped at my door to tell me, “I’m suffering from some kind of illness. Unfortunately, nobody has noticed this. May I call this illness a form of brain damage? In my opinion, this is a special kind of affliction.”

She leaned close to me and began fervently to describe her symptoms. More exactly, she was describing her daily routine. To be honest, I heard nothing unusual or even interesting in her discourse. She was the virtuous wife of a husband who had an impressive income, and she had two sons. Her family had attained a middle-class standard of living. These were things I had already known for a long time. I was puzzled by the effort she put into detailing that which was commonly known.

“Maybe you feel that life is empty?” I tried to sound her out. At that moment, she was in the middle of her chatter about some trivia, such as shopping in the vegetable market, stopping on her way to have a pair of shoes repaired, and bargaining with the shoe repairer.

“Please don’t interrupt me!” Her eyes flashed at me angrily, and her speech rushed on like running water. At long last, after she finally brought her story to the end of her prolonged day when she crawled under her quilt to enter dreamland, she turned her head toward me and remembered my question.

“Please blink both eyes, old friend, if you think you understand my words. Perhaps you want to render some judgment about it, but you would be seriously mistaken! What did I say? Who can respond to the deeper meaning of what I say? I have a disease, not epilepsy but rather a kind of brain damage. My symptoms are invisible. Only through my tone can you sense them. This is why I have wanted to tell you all these things. I want to ask you if you understand.”

Of course I did not understand. In fact, I did not think she had any particular tone. Her narration, again, did not exceed the ordinary. If I had to name some characteristics, I could only say that her talk was a bit over-elaborated and too insipid.

“In fact I feel very nervous,” she said. “Who can explain my illness? Nobody would believe my story. But one day I did experience an attack of the illness. The cause was a scarf belonging to the woman next door. It was a very cold day, and early in the morning it started to snow. When I noticed the figure of my female neighbor, I ran to my window to watch. As I expected, she was wearing that damned green scarf again.

“I had had an argument with her the day before, criticizing her for wearing that irritating thing. She fought back ferociously, and even suspected that I was jealous. Anyway, she felt that I was not behaving normally. I felt very regretful after the argument. Closing my door, I screamed and even smashed a thermos bottle.

“I had happened to see her from the window that morning, so I ran out and jumped on her, trying clumsily to pull her scarf away. She let loose a torrent of curses, even using insulting terms like ‘whore.’ She was much stronger than I. With one swing of her arm, she threw me to the ground. Then she left me there in a rage. From that moment, I diagnosed myself as a victim of brain damage. Of course the event of the scarf itself was not important. It only triggered the attack. I’ve had the illness all the time.

“Just now I’ve described to you one day in my life. Haven’t you sensed any implications? Not at all? Oh, no, don’t think that I’m unhappy with my lifestyle. On the contrary, I’m very satisfied. I’m only a little disappointed that nobody can sense the subtle implications in my tone. People interpret my words according to their own standards.

“I’ve had only the one attack—the fight with the woman next door. Of course, nobody saw it, and that fool would never be able to figure out what was going on. She thought I was jealous of her, meaning that I wanted to have an affair with her husband or something like that. I haven’t had an attack for a long time.”

Suddenly she appeared bored. She yawned in my face and then left hastily.

It was probably the third day after my friend told me about her illness that I suddenly remembered the story as I was passing by her house and decided to visit her.

She was sitting at the desk writing something. When I entered, she only raised her head briefly and greeted me coldly. Then she continued her writing, her pen moving with lightning speed. I glanced at the notebook and discovered that she was not writing words, but some mysterious symbols. After ten minutes or so, she put down her pen and uttered a long sigh of relief.

“You think that I’m boasting?” She studied me carefully, and her glance made me very uncomfortable. “Contrary to everyone’s expectation, my being ill is true. I’m a practical person with extremely logical reasoning in life. You’re the one who deliberately mystifies the situation.” Her tone sounded pedestrian and dull.

“Why do you say so?”

“For example, you mentioned something about life being empty that day. You tried to locate the source of my illness somewhere in the external. You distorted things to justify yourself. You even pretended to be a psychologist. Isn’t that an urban, petite bourgeois frame of mind? When you came in just now, I was wondering whether I had wanted to have an affair with the husband of that stupid woman. Nobody could prove it either way. If I didn’t want the affair, what did I want? The only thing certain is that I smashed my own thermos bottle. I’ve never even met that fellow, the husband. But that’s unimportant; the important thing is that I saw the green scarf, which led to my crazy behavior. I’m the only person in this whole world who went nuts over that scarf. Okay, so it’s done, and I don’t want to mention it again.

“Haven’t you seen that I am sinking into a narrow trap? You still haven’t? My illness is something like congenital heart disease, but it’s not fatal. I feel it frequently. I’ve described to you my daily routine. Of course you didn’t understand me. Who does? I’m too tired of the confusion, so I’d better stop right now. Let me tell you something in the form of a story: There’s a certain person in a good family and living a comfortable life. However, she has one slight defect—a rare illness which is going to develop day by day. Yet it will never be fatal. Don’t misunderstand me, and definitely don’t make any inferences, because everything is contrary to common sense. That’s the end of the story. You’ll be surprised when I tell you that I’m willing to deteriorate from the illness. I would be horrified if one day I felt any sign of recovery. Every day I wait anxiously for that feeling of the onset of the severe illness. I’ve told you that I’m feeling tense. Thank God, I’m not waiting in vain.”

After she finished her talk, my friend chuckled. Pointing at the closed door behind her, she whispered to me, “Recently an old fellow has been living with us. He’s a ridiculous guy, full of ambition to chase after petty advantages. I can’t explain problems like that. Right now I’m planning how to chase him away. Can you help me with some ideas?”

I frowned. Immediately she pulled her face straight and said, “Please stop being sanctimonious! I’ve told you I’m a practical person, I might even be very vulgar, or maybe snobbish. Don’t ever have any illusions about me!”

The door suddenly swung open, and a panic-stricken old man appeared in the doorway. Of course, he was the woman’s father. He stared at us for a long time while licking his palms comically. My friend made a mad dash toward him, shoved him into the inner room with a curse, “Goddamn it!” and slammed the door. Then she opened her outstretched hands and declared with desperation, “You see, I’m having another attack.”

By chance, I met this father on my way home from work. The old man told me that she was not really as snobbish as she said. She had been treating him very well and showed a daughterly respect, except that she was hot-tempered. “But recently, a great change had occurred. She’s started telling everybody that she is ill. Is this merely some excuse?” The old man looked around nervously and added quickly, “I don’t think she is ill at all! Only those who let rats run free are mentally troubled. But she is raising two huge black cats with care. This shows how good our household is. Can you tell me why she would want to kick me out? Can you tell me?”

The old man shrank his bony body into a lump. Dandruff lay all around the collar of his worn-out jacket. He appeared very embarrassed and also deeply terrified by the unpredictable future. He was a petty clerk retired from some organization. His only daughter had received a good-quality family education. Now that his wife had passed away, and he had planned to pass his old age peacefully with his daughter and her family, this awkward situation had suddenly arisen. He was no fool, and he would fight to protect his own interests. He would not allow his own daughter to take such liberties and run wild. How could a person do as she pleased just by declaring that she had some kind of purely fictitious illness? He had lived for seventy years and had seen many seriously ill patients. But they all had to obey the law just like everyone else, and they never shrugged off their responsibilities and obligations. They went to see doctors as scheduled, took the medicines the doctors prescribed, and never made a fuss. He had never seen an illness such as his daughter’s, which didn’t need doctor or medicine. So he felt disgusted whenever his daughter mentioned her illness, but she mentioned it every day, purposefully. The old man complained to me for a long time in the cold wind, until both of us were overcome by perplexity and alarm. We kept silent about what we had in our own minds and then bid good-bye to each other.

The ending came half a year later. In a small, lonely hut next to the highway, the old man died in his bed. People did not discover the body until three days later. Since nobody could determine the cause of death, it was recorded as a natural death due to old age. Only the son-in-law and the two grandsons took part in the old man’s funeral service.

That night, my friend came to my house without invitation. She looked very tired and discouraged. She had lost all her former vitality. Shading the lamplight from her face with a palm, she smiled wickedly and spoke in a low voice:

“So that man has become the first victim. You’ve seen it. Who will be next? At midnight when the patrol passes the street, you can stick your head out of your fifth-story window and see. A soul-stirring murder is being brewed next to the fountain near the front gate of the park. A human figure will jump over the locked iron gate. The edge of a knife will shine like a flash of lightning, and he will drop to the ground with hardly a sound. The hunter will have been waiting at the predetermined place. He will raise his knife without even checking beforehand. When he slashes down, his hand doesn’t feel anything. He pauses only for slashing, and the pause is perfunctory. A wail similar to that of a dying pig will last for only half a second. A meteor will fall in the cold, pitch-dark night. The frozen surface of the water in the fountain will be broken by the heavy corpse. The illness I suffer from is homicidal mania.”

She felt frightened and asked me time and again if I had locked the door. She even ran to the door to check herself. She hid herself in my house for three days, shivering all over, until her husband came to take her away by force.

After that, nothing much changed in her. I often met her in the streets on her way to the vegetable market. Holding her basket, she appeared calm. But in her pupils, I could see a lingering trace of hesitation. She became silent. When I talked, she would listen quietly with apparent attention. Yet I knew that she did not hear anything.

One day, when I was about to leave her after saying hello, she grabbed me and uttered clearly, one word at a time, “He has been admitted to the hospital.”

“Who?”

“Who else? He! My husband! He’s finished! I used the same knife as before. You’ll know it if you go and look. The blood from the burst vessels in his brain will kill him. Who’ll be next?”

So I went to the hospital. Her husband was in a coma. The patient in the next bed told me that X rays showed his stomach to be full of extremely fine steel needles, about an inch in length. The strange thing was that there was no bleeding. The doctors planned to perform a major operation on him that afternoon.

However, this husband recovered miraculously. The next day he left the hospital, and I saw him sitting at home as if nothing had happened. “They made a mistake,” he apologized to me with a smile. “It was nothing but a flu.”

When I met her again, the first thing she mentioned was my poking my nose into her business by going to the hospital. Then she said that since I was so nosy, our friendship had to stop. She didn’t like for others to interfere in her private business. As a patient, she had the right to do something strange. She was sneering as she spoke, her facial expression very determined.

Year after year, we keep bumping into each other. But she never casts even a sidelong glance, as if I no longer exist. When I observe her in secret, I find her facial expression as calm as before, and her steps are very smooth. Indeed, in such a noisy city as ours, she doesn’t appear conspicuous at all.

Translated by Ronald R. Janssen and Jian Zhang.


From The Embroidered Shoes by Can Xue copyright © 1997 by Ronald Janssen and Jian Zhang. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company.


Can Xue (tsan shway), a pen name referring to the tenacious, dirty snow that refuses to melt, lives in Changsha, Hunan, in the People’s Republic of China. Born in 1953, she worked as an iron worker in a factory for ten years. In 1983, she began to write stories and novellas. Her first story was published in 1985, and since 1988 she has devoted all of her time to writing. Her previous books published in the United States are Dialogues in Paradise and Old Floating Cloud. She has also published extensively in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and China. The stories in The Embroidered Shoes were written between 1986 and 1994, and have just been published by Henry Holt.

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