by Jialin He
No one in this world other than you should be able to read this letter. I’m using English instead of Mandarin to ensure this, so bear with me.
You always asked what I experienced before you saved my life. I gave you thousands of answers, but none satisfied you. I apologize for that. Like I’ve said before, I’m not a good liar.
But today is different. I want to tell you the truth.
The father of my currentbody is named Zhong Li. I’m his only child. Or more specifically, the body that I am in is his only child. On that day when my 21st century’s body died and woke up in this ancient one, I saw my new mother, whose face was like a red onion. She kept rubbing tears out with a rag reeking of garlic, which made her face bright red. She screamed when I opened my eyes, then I saw my new father.
Mr. Li wore a cyan-blue rumpled mandarin gown and had a long beard to his belly. His half black, half white hair was constrained by a wood hairpin. He was so thin as stood in front of me like a hemp stalk. He moved towards me in a choppy stride, followed by a servant carrying a tray. With red eyes he asked me, “How are you feeling?”
I didn’t answer at first. I was still getting used to my new body that once belonged to an ancient girl who spent most of her life sick on her bed. I squinted at him and looked around for clues of this world. He didn’t wear modern garb, nor did the body I was in. So I asked, “Which dynasty is this?”
“You’re still with fever.” He said, “Drink the soup and rest.”
He drifted away like a gust of wind. Mother took the soup from the servant. Her face still red, her hand trembling.
That was the most horrible soup I had ever had. It stunk of blood. I asked mother what soup it was, and she cried.
I spent some to figure this outfrom servants that the soup was made of my father’s blood, because it was believed that parents’ blood can heal all diseases.
I cried for long after I knew the truth, but because of my real father. That day in the modern hospitalhe kept roaring why he couldn’t transplant his kidney to me. I said never mind, maybe this is my fate, but he said no. He swore he would save me. He swore to me again, and then he started to cry.
Now, servants comforted me by saying all will be well after I marry into the Wang family. I could have anything I wanted.
I held a paper fan in my hand when I heard their words. I threw the fan onto the floor and said, “I want an air-conditioner.”
They sent for doctors again.
I am the kind of person who swims with the stream. I never fought against fate. During my previous life (let me call it previous life for now), I told my mother that I liked literature. She sighed and said, “But literature can’t make you rich.” So I learned Computer Science.
Things went pretty well, except for sometimes I was met with difficulties. I called my mum and said, “I like literature.”
In this ancient world, however, I did try to fight against fate. Before I was married, I once asked Mr. Li with greatest fear, “Is it possible that I don’t marry General Wang’s son?” (I have to admit, the word “General” is too modern to be a good translation, but my vocabulary is limited, and I don’t have access to Google.)
Mr. Li’s eyeballs bulged as he heard my request. “How could you say such disloyal and unfilial words!”
I heard General Wang’s son and I were engaged when we were still in our mothers’ bellies. Breaking such a promise is being unfaithful to friends and dishonest to the society, which is common sense in this fatuous, imperial world. Mr. Li was once a trivial low-rank official of the imperial government. He got dismissed because he was found guilty of corruption. He had a low salary. He supposedly engaged in corrupt practices because he needed money to treat “my” disease (at that time it wasn’t me, though). Being the father-in-law of General Wang’s son was his only hope to return to officialdom. So if I didn’t marry, then I truly am disloyal and unfilial.
I counted time since the day my mind time-traveled into this ancient body. I looked into a mirror once. The body was beautiful, better than how I looked in the twenty-first century. But it doesn’t matter anymore.
On the two hundred and eighty-first day since the day I arrived in this world, I married General Wang’s son. After our marriage, I learned that the only meaning of his existence was being General Wang’s son. I never had a boyfriend in my previous life. I had only been to the cinema with one guy besides my father, so I hoped to have a happy marriage with my destined husband.
If I don’t pray for a good husband, what else can I pray for? Until now, I haven’t even managed to figure out which dynasty I’m in. I once flew across the Pacific Ocean to study in America, and now I’m imprisoned under the roof of my house and have no idea what is happening outside of my window. The only possible expectation in my deadly boring life is toward my first and sole husband.
General Wang’s son was gentle to me. The day when we were married, he lifted the red veil that covered my face, kissed me and said, “You are as beautiful as the sunset.”
He likes cockfighting, horse riding, gambling. He dislikes reading, bathing, burning incense.
At night, I felt like I was making love with a rooster, a horse, a foul smelling boot. Therefore, I was nervous at every dusk.I found various excuses to dodge my responsibility. The success rate was about ten percent. I felt sick, wanted to vomit, and more than once I recalled the boy I had been to cinema with. He had a laundry detergent scent on him. Before I left to study abroad, when we said goodbye, he asked: “Can I hug you?” I said, “Ah! Better no. I’m afraid.” He asked why. “Just afraid,” I said.
I seldom talked to General Wang’s son. The fact is, I avoided talking to him. This was because I was afraid that I would curse him, or speak of a phrase that he wouldn’t understand, such as, “Do you know I was ONCE a feminist?”
The things I did most with General Wang’s son were eating and sleeping. He loved to eat anything in brine, so I made a jar of brine for him, with many special materials added and marinated for a long time. The cook promised me to only use this brine to cook for General Wang’s son.
General Wang’s son’s health went from bad to worse day-by-day. They invited many doctors, but none of them could explain his illness. I looked at them come and go and enjoyed the pleasure that I was the only one in this world that knew the secret. Those doctors didn’t have a chance to learn modern chemistry. If they did, they should know about how long-marinated brine could cause nitrite poisoning.
I felt sorry for General Wang’s son. He might deserve a bride that was as beautiful as sunset, but she couldn’t be me. I didn’t want to be beautiful. I just wanted to be myself.
I went back to Zhong Li’s home temporarily after General Wang’s son’s death. The unfortunate ending of my marriage gave a blow heavier to him than to me —he still didn’t manage to get his post back.
At home, I helped Mr. Li’s accountant with his accounting work. I didn’t use abacus; instead I doodled with thin writing brush on paper but often got the answers faster. He was surprised by my talent, which made me famous in accountanting circles. I thought maybe I could earn my own living in this world, by doing calculation.
But Zhong Li found me another marriage.
During that time, I always wanted to figure out which world I was in. I hoped my superficial knowledge of ancient Chinese history from high school could do me some favors.
At that time, I knew. It is not a real dynasty. It was only a story. Mr. Li, General Wang’s son, they are merely characters of a story. During my previous life, I have seen such kinds of novels, modern people died and “time-travelled” into the world of a novel like when Alice fell down to the rabbit hole. I thought this was exactly what I had experienced.
So I feared nothing and decided to destroy it to start over.
I stole a barrel of oil, and I started a fire, which was so inconvenient without a lighter. Mr. Li screamed like a chicken being grabbed by its neck. My poor mother, on the other hand, didn’t make any noise. I felt thankful for it. I hope the smoke filled her before she was touched by the fire.
I still have that stink of the blood of that soup in my mouth. It will be there forever.
Somebody suspected that I killed my parents and took me to the local authority. This is ridiculous. How would I burn my real parents to death? My parents don’t even live with me. They are both professors in a university. They are open-minded, reasonable and humorous. I have never had conflict with them (not even about my major, because I learned to like computer science in the end).
I would never, never hurt my parents.
They didn’t believe me. Why wasn’t there a polygraph in this world? If there was one, they would find out that I really wasn’t lying.
I’m not a good liar.
They took me to prison. Within two days, I had a fever and weird things grew on my body. I tried not to look at them. Prison is such a treasury of knowledge; every doctor should get samples there. Thousands of vaccines could have been made through those samples if they worked hard enough.
My health got worse. At one point, I was really going to die. My whole body ached and I was half-awake, cursing everyone in English.
The guard who delivered meals to me asked, “What are you saying?”
I said, “Fuck you!” in English with a feeble voice.
Dear Moonlight, you know what happened next. My dirty words reached your governmental ears, which finally saved my life. I couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams, that there was someone in this world whose mind also belonged to the twenty-first century.
Dear Moonlight, sometimes I envied you. While I was making every effort to escape the fate of marrying someone I didn’t love, you were admired by your colleagues in the imperial government for your knowledge. While I was thrown to prison after all my efforts, you freed me without any difficulty.
Despite all these crazy turns, my dear, please do believe, that I love you. You are my only standby in this world. You are the only reason why I am breathing in this world. Do you still remember the happy times we had after our marriage? I taught you Python, Java, and Matlab, and you made jokes about Lu Xun, Hemingway, and Dostoyevsky.
You are the only one who understands me in this world. Who else could I love if I don’t love you?
Dear Moonlight, your soul and mind are so agreeable with each other, just like how we looked down upon each other’s school.
“Yo, Peking University is no big deal. Are you from Beijing?”
“No wonder. I heard it’s easy to go to Peking University if you’re from Beijing. But Beijing has terrible air, much worse than Shanghai.”
“Watch out, girl, you’re being jealous…”
I love you so much. Why can’t you stop investigating my past?
I can tell you that in my past I studied computer engineering and computer science. I wrote novels in my leisure time. In my past, I have only been to the cinema with one male. These are my past memories. I have no other past.
I didn’t kill my ex. I don’t have an ex. I don’t even have a boyfriend.
I didn’t kill my parents.
I’ve never killed anybody.
I would not even kill a chicken.
Why don’t you believe me? Those stupid ancient people, they can suspect me. But how dare you? Dear Moonlight, how dare you not believe in me?
One day you walked into my room and said you’d found a way to take us back home. I looked at the pill in your hand and said “please don’t be kidding.” You said it was true. The one who gave you this pill said he had seen iron box with four wheels.
Isn’t that a car?
I knew it wouldn’t be true. I died in the twenty-first century. There’s no pill that can make me come back to life again. But I didn’t want to disappoint you, even though the laughter on your face didn’t seem sincere to me.
I guess, this pill is a toxin, maybe white arsenic. This is a test you made for me, since going back is such a lure for me, and since there is only one pill, we can’t share it.
You were testing my loyalty. You were testing my love.
Dear Moonlight, how dare you, how dare you test my love for you?
I love you so much, although you are getting ruder and more selfish, like those ancient people. You are going out more often with those stinky men and coming back stinking of prostitutes. I forgive you, every time. I pretend not to notice. Because it’s your soul that I love. It’s your soul that belongs to thousands of years away, like mine.
But you keep disappointing me.
Dear Moonlight, are you still you now?
Do you still remember Dostoyevsky?
Where is your dignity?
Did you throw it away between the legs of your whores?
You have tasted the beauty of patriarchal society and so forgot your outdated wife, did you?
You are so ugly when you are drunk.
How dare you call me “a killer”?
I’ve told you, I never kill.
Today is our anniversary. I’m going to take the pill you gave me. I hope despite all the lies you’ve told me recently that this one is sincere. I would also be happy if it’s poison, though. Like I’ve told you, you are the only reason I am breathing in this world. Without you, there is no reason for me to stay. But that modern mind of yours has been gone for too long, and I’m tired of standing around with a stinking ancient body.
I once told you the truth. This world is just a story, and all the people outside are characters. Their blood is cold, so you don’t need to feel guilty when you kill them. Today I realize, though, that your blood it is also cold. I saw it. The knife showed me.
You are no different.
Dear Moonlight, my sun’s long gone, and you were the only light. Now that you are dead, and your blood dirtied my hand. My world lingers in a forever night, but that’s the only time I can tell you the truth.
After all, I’m not a good liar.
Jialin He is a junior student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and is currently studying her second major at the University of Michigan. As a Computer Science major and a creative writing lover, she writes code during the day and composes a novel during the night.