The provincial sunshine was actually not much different from the sunshine in the capital. In the early spring the sunshine in both the province and the capital was precious. At this point in the season, the heating in the office buildings, apartments, and private homes was already off. During the day, the temperature inside was much colder than the temperature outside. Tiao's bones and muscles often felt sore at this time of year. When she walked on the street, her thigh muscle would suddenly ache. The little toe on her left foot (or her right foot), inside those delicate little knuckles, delivered zigzagging pinpricks of pain. The pain was uncomfortable, but it was the kind of discomfort that makes you feel good, a kind of minor pain, coy, a half-drunk moan bathed in sunlight. Overhead, the roadside poplars had turned green. Still new, the green coiled around the waists of the light-colored buildings like mist. The city revealed its softness then, and also its unease.
Sitting in the provincial taxi, Tiao rolled down the window and stuck out her head, as if to test the temperature outside, or to invite all the sun in the sky to shine on that short-cropped head of hers. The way she stuck out her head looked a bit wild, or would even seem crude if she overdid it. But Tiao never overdid it; from a young age she was naturally good at striking poses. So the way she stuck out her head then combined a little wildness with a little elegance. The lowered window pressed at her chin, like a gleaming blade just about to slice her neck, giving her a feeling of having her head under the ax. The bloody yet satisfying scene, a bit stirring and a bit masochistic, was an indelible memory of the story of Liu Hulan, which she heard as a child. Whenever she thought about how the Nationalist bandits decapitated the fifteen-year-old Liu Hulan with an ax, she couldn't stop gulpingwith an indescribable fear and an unnameable pleasure. At that moment she would always ask herself: Why is the most frightening thing also the most alluring? She couldn't tell whether it was the desire to become a hero that made her imagine lying under an ax, or was it that the more she feared lying under the ax, the more she wanted to lie under the ax?
She couldn't decide.
The taxi sped along the sun-drenched avenue. The sunshine in the provinces was actually not much different from the sunshine in the capital, Tiao thought.
Yet at this moment, in the midst of the provincial capital, Fuan, a city just two hundred kilometers from Beijing, the dust and fiber in the sunshine, people's expressions and the shape of things as the sun struck them, all of it seemed a bit different from the capital for some reason. When the taxi came to a red light, Tiao started to look at the people stopped by the light. A girl wearing black platform shoes and tight-fitting black clothes had a shapely figure and pretty face, with the ends of her hair dyed blond. This reminded her of girls she'd seen in Tel Aviv, New York, and Seoul who liked to wear black. Whatever was trendy around the world was trendy here, too. Sitting splayed over her white mountain bike, the provincial girl in black anxiously raised her wrist to look at her watch as she spat. She looked at the watch and spat; she spat and then looked at her watch. Tiao supposed she must have something urgent to do and that time was important to her. But why did she spit, since she had a watch? Because she had a watch, there was no need for her to spit. Because she spat, there was no need for her to wear a watch. Because she learned the art of managing her time, she should have learned the art of controlling her spit. Because she had a watch, she shouldn't have spit. Because she spat, she shouldn't have a watch. Because she had a watch, she really shouldn't have spit. Because she had spit, she really shouldn't have a watch. Because watch . . . because spit . . . because spit . . . because watch . . . because . . . because . . . The red light had long since turned green and the girl in black had shot herself forward like an arrow, and Tiao was still going around and around with watch and spit. This obsession of hers with "if not this, it must be that" made people feel that she was going to run screaming through the street, but this sort of obsession didn't appear to be true indignation. If she'd forced herself to quietly recite the sentence "Because there is a watch there shouldn't be spit" fifteen more times, she definitely would have gotten confused and lost track of what it meant. Then her obsession was indeed not real indignation; it was sarcastic babble she hadn't much stake in. The era was one during which watches and spit coexisted, particularly in the provinces.
Excerpted from The Bathing Women by Tie Ning. Copyright © 2012 by Tie Ning. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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