by Lu Xun, translated from the Chinese into English by Matt Turner
I dreamt I was dead on the road.
Where I was, how I arrived there, how I died, I understood none of it. In short, by the time I knew I was dead, I was lying there, dead.
I heard magpies cry, and then a black crow. The air was brisk, with the flavor of dirt. It must have been about dawn. I wanted to open my eyes, but they wouldn’t move a bit. It was like they weren’t my eyes at all. I tried to lift a hand, the same thing.
Terror shot through my heart like an arrow. When alive, I once imagined, as a joke, that even if a man died and his motor movement was exhausted, he could still perceive—a state more fearful than death itself. Who could know that what I imagined then would come to be, and that I myself would confirm what I once imagined.
I heard footsteps on the road. A wheelbarrow pushed past my head. Probably a heavy load. Its sound made me sick, set my teeth on edge. I saw everything in crimson—the sun must have risen. So, I was facing east. But none of that matters. The sounds of voices—the spectators. They kicked up the earth, it flew into my nostrils and I wanted to sneeze. I was unable to, though I really wanted to.
One after another the footsteps kept coming, and all stopped by my side. Then there were more low voices: a lot of people had come. I suddenly wanted to hear their commentary—but at the same time, I thought, when I was alive I’d say critics were beneath contempt. Though that was probably insincere: having just died, this flaw lay exposed in me. Anyway, I listened. But I couldn’t come to a conclusion. Not much more than this:
I loved it, because I never heard a familiar voice. Otherwise, it might have made them sad, or maybe it could have made them happy, or maybe it would have given them material for conversation after dinner, wasting their precious free time; this all made me feel very sorry. No one had seen me, so no one could be affected. Okay. I really do treat everyone fairly!
But then there was an ant or something on my back, crawling, itching. I couldn’t move even a little, and I couldn’t get rid of it! Normally, if I turned over I’d be able to knock it off, and then my thigh had one crawling on it! What are you all doing? Bugs!
Things went from bad to worse: a buzz, and a fly paused on my cheek- bone, took a few steps, then flew and landed again. It mouthed and licked the tip of my nose. I thought, annoyed: I’m not an important person, you don’t need to look to me for commentary…. But I was unable to speak. He scurried from my nose on down, using his cold tongue to taste my lips. I don’t know—was this was an expression of love? Then many more landed on my eyebrows, taking steps, my eyebrows shaking. Tired of this, unable to endure it. Unable to any longer.
There was a gust of wind, and from above a piece of something covered me. And together they flew off, saying as they left:
I nearly passed out from anger.
Suddenly I came to. Wood was breaking on, and shaking, the ground, and I could feel strands of reed matting on my forehead. Then the reed mat was lifted, and I felt burning sunlight. I heard someone ask—
“Why should he die here?…”
The sounds were near me, he was bending over me. But where should a man die? I used to think that although no man truly has the privilege to live how he pleases, he could at least die in the way he wanted. Now I know this isn’t so—it’s so very hard to suit the needs of the public! It’s too bad I didn’t have paper and pen, but if I had I wouldn’t have written; and even if I could write I’d have nowhere to publish it. It’s best to let it go.
Men came and carried me, but I don’t know who. Based on the sound of blades being drawn, there were police there, at my “where I shouldn’t die.” I was turned around and around several times, felt like I was raised up and then set down, the cover was covered, the nails nailed. But, weirdly, there were only two nails. It’s hard to say whether or not the coffins here only use two nails.
I thought: Knock on six walls, I’m nailed in. All is over now, oh, I’m dead and gone!
I thought: “It’s stuffy!”
But, compared to before, I was much calmer. I still didn’t know if I was buried or not. The back of my hand could feel the strands of the reed matting, and the shroud didn’t seem bad at all. Only I didn’t know who paid for it—what a pity, and how I loathe those fuckers who stuck me in here! Under my back a corner of my shirt had bunched up, and since no one had straightened it for me, I was now uncomfortable. Do you all think the dead don’t think, so you can be careless in how you do things? Ha!
My body’s dead weight made lying on my shirt uncomfortable. That said, I could get used to it—or just rot. It shouldn’t be much trouble. Now I should do as the quiet do: meditate.
“Hello? Are you dead?”
A familiar sound. When I opened my eyes it was the purchasing clerk from Boguzhai Bookstore. We hadn’t met for probably twenty years; he still looked the same. I looked at the six sides of my coffin, they were really crude: unsanded and, simply put, stark.
“It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter,” he said, unwrapping a dark blue bundle. “This is a Ming edition of the Gongyang Commentary, it’s a Jiajing- era blackthread edition. Here, it’s for you. Keep it. This is…”
“You!” I looked into his eyes with amazement and said: “Is it possible you’re that stupid? Look at my condition—do you think I want to see Ming editions?”
“Take a look, it’s not a big deal.”
I closed my eyes because I was tired of what was in front of me. I stopped. No sounds. He had surely gone. But then it felt like an ant was on my neck, climbing up, up, up to my face, circling my eye socket.
Never in man’s imagination does man change after death. Although some sort of force smashed what peace was in my heart, many dreams also unfolded before my eyes. Some friends wished me happy, some enemies wished me ruin. I never achieved happiness or ruin in any way during my life, and was unable to align with either side’s expectations. Now that I’ve died like a shadow, the enemy still doesn’t know—I’m unwilling to give them even the slightest pleasure.
I want to cry tears of satisfaction. These will be my first tears after death.
But in the end, no tears fall. A flash appears before my eyes, and I sit up.
July 12, 1925
Matt Turner is the author of the full poetry collections Slab Pases (BlazeVox, 2022), Wave 9: Collages (Flying Islands, 2020) and Not Moving (Broken Sleep, 2019), in addition to the prose chapbooks City/Anti-City (Vitamin, 2022) and Be Your Dog (Economy, 2022). He is co-translator, with Weng Haiying, of work by Yan Jun, Ou Ning, Hu Jiujiu and others. He lives in New York City, where he works as a translator and copy editor.