“​​Alessandra Bautze (Iowa City, U.S.A.) [tackles] issues such as seeing and sight, individuality and motherhood, working life and coming of age, interwoven with locations such as Jinling Library or Nanjing Foreign Language School in 'Yīnuò at Jinling Library'.”


—Şafak Sarıçiçek (Heidelberg, Germany)

Yīnuò at Jinling Library

The Reading Festival at Nanjing Foreign Language School was just one day away, and Zhou Yīnuò wanted to be ready. Yīnuò knew that Mrs. Zhāngjié would be coordinating the event and so she wanted to make a good impression. After all, she had gotten excellent grades her first year of middle school and wanted to finish strong. It was never too early to start thinking about her future and she hoped that Mrs. Zhāngjié would write her an excellent recommendation letter for an American university. Hopefully Stanford. Or maybe UC Berkeley. At least, that’s what Yīnuò told her mother; in reality, it was because Mrs. Zhāngjié always had time for her, not like her own mother, who always seemed to be off somewhere doing who-knows-what.

It was Sunday. Yīnuò was home for the weekend. In her pink and purple bedroom, decorated the same way it had been since elementary school, she stared at the clock, watching the minutes tick away. A feeling of dread sunk into her with every passing moment. She couldn’t focus. She padded into the kitchen on sock feet, passing the packs of instant noodles that had been left for her on a kitchen table crowded with unpaid bills, grabbed her bookbag, slipped on her shoes, and left her apartment, if you could even call it that. She was rarely here, ever since she became a boarding student at NFLS at the start of the year.

She headed in the direction of Jinling Library. There she knew she would find everything she needed. She walked along a path lined with cherry blossom trees, passing mothers with their children, hands clasped tight together. When she saw the magnificent glass building that was Jinling Library—every time she saw it—she always quickened her pace, as if the building would fade away if she didn’t reach it as quickly as possible.

Yīnuò settled into her usual corner at Jinling Library to finish her project. For the Reading Festival, each student had to present a book report on a foreign language short story or novel and distribute handmade bookmarks to classmates. Putting the finishing touches on her handmade bookmarks (which she had made in the shape of cassette tapes), she saw them: the blind boy and his mother.

She had seen them before. The blind boy would always have his hand on his mother’s elbow and his mother would lead him, one step ahead, to the Audio Library for the Visually Impaired. Surrounded by soundproof glass walls, the mother would sit with the blind boy while he read, headphones on, as if soaking in the silence surrounding her. Mother and child—separated by a seemingly insurmountable barrier, like the City Wall, each brick inscribed with the name of a laborer, those chiseled characters his only legacy.

 

With her own mother, she often felt the same way—like there was a wall around the woman who was supposed to be her protector. As a child, she had always asked her mother to read her a story. But her mother always said the same thing: “I’m tired. Let’s go to bed. We can always read tomorrow.” At least this mother, the mother of the blind child, took him to read in the way he could. But she never read with him, only sat beside him in silence.

Yīnuò turned back to her project and began reviewing the first paragraph of her chosen story:

“This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.”

She had chosen Raymond Carver because Mrs. Zhāngjié had called him “the greatest American writer of his generation.” Mrs. Zhāngjié liked to wax poetic about American literature and was fond of hyperbole, so many of Yīnuò’s classmates smirked behind the teacher’s back when she said this, but not Yīnuò; she had found the story fascinating. She had read it in English, carefully marking the words that she didn’t know. There were words she really didn’t know, like spiffy or scarfed, and then there were words that she knew she knew but that didn’t seem to make any sense when put together, like seeing-eye dog or military-industrial. After she had highlighted any unfamiliar English words in the story, she then read it in its Mandarin translation before returning to the original version of the story and reading it again. In the darkness of her dorm room, long after her roommates had fallen asleep, she had whispered the words and had felt herself being pulled into the story until the very end. “It’s really something,” she found herself saying—and with that, she had felt a heaviness overcome her eyelids, a heaviness that she could not ignore. The next day she had chosen “Cathedral” for her Reading Festival project. Mrs. Zhāngjié had smiled at her and then had noted the title carefully in her logbook.

It was Mrs. Zhāngjié’s smile and careful penmanship that had convinced Yīnuò that she had made the right decision, and she was remembering the way her teacher’s eyes lit up--when the sound of a door opening caught her attention. The blind boy, led by his mother as always, was leaving the Audio Library for the Visually Impaired. She wanted to catch up with them, to introduce herself to the blind boy, to ask him if he had ever thought about getting a seeing-eye dog. But she did nothing of the sort. Instead, she gathered her bookmarks and left Jinling Library, not speaking to anyone.

 

Back at NFLS, her roommates had not yet arrived back to the dorm; it was still the weekend, after all, and unlike her, they had mothers who actually took the time to cook for them on Sundays: red bean soup with sweet rice balls, marinated bean curd, steamed buns with crab roe in a family-sized bamboo steamer.

Alone in the room she usually shared with two other girls, she pulled out her headphones, voice recording software, and the Mandarin copy of Cathedral. She flipped to the titular story and began to record herself reading it. From her window, she could see Xuanwu Lake and Purple Mountain. They were so commonplace to her that she never stopped to think about them much. Their glory was so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Now, she found herself wondering if the blind boy’s mother ever took him to hike up Purple Mountain or stop for a red bean bun at one of the tea houses along Xuanwu Lake. She didn’t know how long she sat at her desk, shrouded in the half-darkness, her voice echoing the translator’s. It didn’t matter. She needed to do this. When she was done, she burned the MP3 to two blank CDs and slipped them into her bookbag. Then she pulled out cardstock and some puffy paint she had stolen from the art teacher’s classroom.

The sound of a key in the door made her jump. One of her roommates stood in the doorframe.

“What are you doing?” the roommate said, her tone accusing.

“Nothing.” Yīnuò shoved the cardstock and puffy paint aside. She watched as her roommate flopped onto her bed.

“I’m stuffed,” the roommate said. “If I see a sweet rice ball ever again, it’ll be too soon. I might throw up.”

The next day, the Nanjing Foreign Language School was abuzz with excitement for the Reading Festival. There were high-school students and middle school students too. English was by far the most represented language, with over 300 students participating, but the other languages—French, German, and Japanese—had about 30 students each. As Yīnuò walked through the gymnasium crowded with students, she glanced at the titles of others’ chosen books: L'Étranger by Albert Camus, Der Tod in Venedig by Thomas Mann, コンビニ人間 by Sayaka Murata. The Stranger. Death in Venice. Convenience Store Woman.

She traded bookmarks with Li Bao, who had done her project on Convenience Store Woman. Bao had made photocopies of the book cover: yellow, with a pink ID badge of a woman with a blank face. This must be the convenience store woman. Written on her ID badge were the words Years of service: 18.

Where would Yīnuò be in 18 years? She would be 30 years old. Hopefully with a career and family in California. With a child who she would read to, and not just say, “Tomorrow,” like her mother always had.

As Yīnuò wandered through the Reading Festival, still thinking about her mother and the convenience store woman and others who had worked too much and ignored every other good thing in their lives, she spotted Mrs. Zhāngjié.

Mrs. Zhāngjié—with her hair secured with a beautiful comb, as it was every day—was surrounded by students, who were listening to her intently. They nodded, some excitedly, and then dispersed. Bao was among them. Yīnuò touched her arm lightly to get her attention. Bao was so startled she almost dropped her yellow and pink bookmarks.

“What’s going on? What did Mrs. Zhāngjié say?” asked Yīnuò.

“Didn’t you hear? She’s retiring.”

“What?” Not waiting for an answer, she speed-walked towards where Mrs. Zhāngjié had been, but she was nowhere to be found. How could this be? And how could she not tell Yīnuò first? After all, they had a special connection.

Through furious tears, Yīnuò bolted, not bothering to sign out, not letting anyone know where she was going. She knew there would be consequences later—she hadn’t even given her speech on Raymond Carver and his cathedral and his blind man—but she didn’t care. She never slept at home on a school night, but she couldn’t bear the idea of seeing Mrs. Zhāngjié with the other students, acting like her retirement was something to be celebrated.

She took the train across the city to Jinling Library. She burst through the doors and then quieted her footsteps as she entered the sacred space. She made her way to the glass-walled room that was the Audio Library for the Visually Impaired. There was no sign of the blind boy or his mother. No one was there at all. So she waited, curled in her usual corner, watching the sun set over the Qinhuai River. Nanjing’s mother river, many people called it. How could Nanjing—or its river—have a mother, while her mother was always gone? At least her mother let her do what she wanted. Not like the blind boy’s mother, who watched his every move like he was part of Tennessee Williams’s glass menagerie, like part of him could break at any moment if you brushed against him the wrong way.

Neither the blind boy nor his mother showed up. So when the security guard told her the library was closed and it was time to leave, she gestured for him to wait just one moment. She took the CD and left it on the table of the Audio Library for the Visually Impaired. She pulled out a note, too. Carefully, in puffy paint on heavy cardstock, making the characters as massive as she could: she had written:

大教堂

 

She thought maybe the blind boy would come by himself and would feel the strokes of the characters under his fingers. Maybe he would listen to her voice alone, without his mother over his shoulder. Just maybe.

As she left the library and made her way back to her mother’s apartment, the city looked different—darker, somehow.

She found her mother at the kitchen table. Her mother had her head on her arms but raised her head and turned to her when she entered. The front door always creaked.

“What are you doing here? Does your dorm mother know you’re here?”

“Yes.” That was a lie, of course. She didn’t care to answer the first question. So with an outstretched hand, she offered her mom the CD. “I made you something.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a story. I thought you could listen to it tonight. That we could listen to it together.”

“I’m tired. Let’s go to bed. We can always read tomorrow.” With that, Yīnuò’s mother left the table. Yīnuò was left staring at the CD, at how she had labelled it in black Sharpie: Cathedral. 大教堂。

In her childhood bedroom, with the CD in her aging stereo, Yīnuò felt herself falling asleep to the sound of her own voice echoing Raymond Carver’s. “It’s really something,” she whispered. And yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been lost in translation.