Short story: Boy in the twilight by Yu Hua

Short fiction from one of China’s most celebrated writers
June 18, 2014

Hua's novels, stories and essays have been translated into more than 20 languages. His novel, Brothers, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and awarded France’s Prix Courrier International. Yu’s latest book is Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China, from which the story below comes. Unlike the wild satire of Brothers, Boy in the Twilight is a more intimate, realist work, focusing on the mundane and often brutal realities of life in modern China.

“It was in 1995 that I wrote this story of a fruit vendor named Sun Fu and a hungry boy who crosses his path,” says Yu. “Two wretched fates meet by the side of the road and one tragedy torments another. Why? Chinese society was entering a new phase then, as people became locked in a ruthless struggle for survival.”

It was the middle of an autumn day. Sun Fu sat beside a fruit stand, his eyes squinting in the bright sunshine. He leaned forward, hands on his knees, and his grizzled hair seemed gray in the sunlight, gray like the road that lay before him, a wide road that extended from the far distance and then stretched off in the other direction. He had occupied this spot for three years now, selling fruit near where the long-haul buses stopped. When a car drove by, it shrouded him in the dust stirred by its passage, plunging him into darkness, and it was a moment before he and his fruit re-emerged, as though unveiled by a new dawn.

After the cloud of dust had passed, he saw an urchin in dirty clothes in front of the stall, watching him with dark, gleaming eyes. As he returned the boy’s gaze, the boy put a hand on the fruit, a hand with long black fingernails. When he saw the nails brush against a shiny red apple, Sun Fu raised his hand to wave him away, the way he would swat away a fly. “Clear off,” he said.

The boy withdrew his grubby hand and swayed a little as he shuffled off, his arms hanging slack at his sides. On such a skinny body his head looked oversized.

Others were now approaching the stand, and Sun Fu turned to look. They stopped on the other side of the stall and threw him a glance. “How much are the apples?” they asked. “How much for a pound of bananas?”

Sun Fu stood up, weighed apples and bananas on his steelyard, and took their money. Then he sat down and put his hands on his knees. The boy had come back. This time he was not standing directly in front, but off to one side, his glowing eyes fixed on the apples and bananas, as Sun Fu watched him with equal attention. After gazing at the fruit for a while, the boy looked up at Sun Fu. “I’m hungry,” he said.

Sun Fu was silent. “I’m hungry,” the boy repeated, a note of urgency creeping into his voice.

Sun Fu scowled. “Clear off.”

The boy’s body seemed to give a shiver. “Clear off,” Sun Fu said again, more loudly.

The boy gave a start. His body swayed hesitantly before his legs began to move. Sun Fu took his eyes off the boy and switched his attention to the highway. A long-haul bus had come to a halt on the other side of the road, and the people inside stood up. Through the bus windows, he could see a column of shoulders crowding toward the doors; a moment later, passengers poured from both ends of the bus. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Sun Fu saw the boy dashing off as fast as his legs could carry him. He wondered why, and then he saw the boy’s flailing hand: it was clutching something, something round. Now he recognised what it was. He leapt to his feet and set off in chase. “Stop thief!” he shouted, “Stop that thief there…”

It was afternoon now. Dust flew as the boy fled along the highway. He heard shouting behind him, and looked round to see Sun Fu in hot pursuit. He floundered on desperately, gasping for breath, and when his legs began to go soft he knew he had no more reserves of energy. Looking back a second time, he saw Sun Fu still on his tail, yelling and waving his arms furiously. All hope gone, the boy came to a stop and turned around, panting heavily. He watched until Sun Fu was almost on top of him and then raised the apple to his mouth and took a big bite out of it.

Sun Fu swung his arm and struck the boy, knocking the apple out of his hand and connecting so firmly with the boy’s chin that he collapsed on the ground. He shielded his head with his hands, all the time chewing vigorously. Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet. The boy’s throat was so constricted by the tight collar that it was impossible for him to chew; his eyes began to goggle and his cheeks swelled, some apple still inside. Gripping the collar with one hand, Sun Fu squeezed the boy’s neck with the other. “Spit it out! Spit it out!” he yelled.

A crowd was gathering. “He’s still trying to eat it!” Sun Fu told them. “He stole my apple and took a bite out of it, and now he’s trying to swallow it!”

Sun Fu slapped him hard on the face. “Come on, spit it out.”

But the boy simply clenched his mouth all the more firmly. Sun Fu put a hand on his throat and started throttling him once more. “Spit it out!” he cried.

As the boy’s mouth opened, Sun Fu could see chewed-up bits of apple inside. He tightened his vice-like grip on the boy’s throat, until his eyes began to bulge. “Sun Fu,” somebody said, “look, his eyeballs are practically popping out of his head. You’re going to strangle him.”

“Serves him right,” Sun Fu said. “It serves him right if he’s strangled.”

Finally, he loosened his hold. “If there’s one thing I hate,” he said, pointing at the sky, “it’s a thief.....Spit it out!”

The boy began to spit out the apple piece by piece. It was a bit like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube, the way he spat bits onto his shirt front. After he closed his mouth, Sun Fu levered it open again with his hand, and bent down to look inside. “You haven’t spit it all out,” he said. “There’s still some left.”

The boy spat again—practically all saliva this time, but with a few crumbs of apple here and there. The boy spat and spat, until in the end there was just a dry noise, no saliva any more. “That’ll do,” Sun Fu said.

He saw many familiar faces among the people who had gathered to watch. “In the old days we never locked our doors, did we?” he said. “There wasn’t a family in the whole town that locked its doors, was there?”

He saw people nodding. “Now, after locking the door once, you have to use a second lock as well,” he continued. “Why? It’s because of thieves like this. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a thief.”

Sun Fu looked at the grimy-faced boy, who watched spellbound, as though fascinated by what he was saying. The boy’s expression stirred an excitement in him. “If we follow the old ways,” he said, “we ought to break one of his hands, break the hand that did the stealing....”

Sun Fu looked down at the boy. “Which hand was it?” he shouted.

The boy shivered and hastily put his right hand behind his back. Sun Fu grabbed the hand and showed it to everybody. “It was this hand. Otherwise, why would he try to hide it so quickly?”

“It wasn’t that hand!” the boy cried.

“Then it was this hand.” Sun Fu grabbed the boy’s left hand.

“No, it wasn’t!”

As he said this, the boy tried to pull his hand away. Sun Fu gave him a slap on the face that made him teeter. After a second slap, the boy stood still. Sun Fu grabbed him by the hair, jerking his head up. “Which hand was it?” he yelled, staring into his face.

The boy’s eyes widened as he looked at Sun Fu, and after a moment he stretched out his right hand. Sun Fu took hold of the boy’s wrist, and with his other hand gripped the middle finger of the boy’s hand. “If we follow the old ways,” he said to the bystanders, “we should break this hand. We can’t do that any more. Now we emphasise education. How do we educate?”

Sun Fu looked at the boy. “This is how we educate.”

He pressed down hard with both hands. There was a sudden crack as he broke the boy’s middle finger. The boy screamed with a cry as sharp as a knife. Looking down, he saw the broken digit flopping against the back of his hand and slumped to the ground in shock.

“That’s the way to deal with thieves,” Sun Fu said. “If you don’t break one of their arms, at the very least you need to break a finger.”

Saying this, Sun Fu leaned down and hauled the boy to his feet. He noticed the boy’s eyes were clamped shut with pain. “Open your eyes!” he yelled. “Come on, open them.”

The boy opened his eyes, but he was still in agony and his mouth was twisted into a strange shape. Sun Fu kicked him in the legs. “Move it!”

Sun Fu grabbed him by the collar and shoved him in front of the fruit stand. He rummaged around in a carton for some rope and tied him to the stall. “Shout,” he said to the boy, when he saw people watching. “Shout, ‘I’m a thief!’”

The boy looked at Sun Fu. When he failed to comply, Sun Fu seized his left hand and took a tight grip on the left middle finger. “I’m a thief!” the boy cried.

“That’s not loud enough,” Sun Fu said. “Louder.”

The boy looked at Sun Fu, then thrust his head forward and yelled with all his might, “I’m a thief!”

Sun Fu saw how the blood vessels on the boy’s neck protruded. He nodded. “That’s good,” he said. “That’s the way you need to shout.”

All afternoon the autumn sun bathed the boy in light. His two hands were tied behind his back and the rope was coiled around his neck, so it was impossible for him to lower his head. He had no choice but to stand there stiffly, his eyes on the highway. Beside him lay the fruit that he had coveted, but with his neck fixed in place he could not even give it a glance. Whenever someone walked by—any passer-by at all—at Sun Fu’s insistence he would shout, “I’m a thief!”

Sun Fu sat behind the fruit stand on his stool, watching the boy contentedly. He was no longer so indignant about losing an apple and had begun to feel pleased with a job well done, because he had captured and punished the apple-thief, and the punishment was still not over. He made sure the boy yelled at the top of his voice every time somebody walked by. He had noticed the boy’s shouts were drawing a constant flow of people to his fruit stand.

Many looked with curiosity at the yelling boy. They found it strange that a trussed-up captive would cry “I’m a thief” so vigorously. Sun Fu filled them in on the story, tirelessly explaining how the boy had stolen an apple, how he’d been caught, and how he’d been punished. “It’s for his own good,” Sun Fu would add.

And he’d make clear the thinking behind this. “I want him to understand he must never steal again.”

Then Sun Fu would turn to the boy. “Are you going to do any more stealing?” he barked.

The boy shook his head vehemently. Because his neck was clamped so tight, he shook his head only slightly, but very quickly.

“Did you see that?” Sun Fu said triumphantly.

All afternoon long, the boy shouted and yelled. His lips dried and cracked in the sun, and his voice grew hoarse. By dusk, the boy was unable to come out with a full-blown shout and could only make a scraping noise, but still he went on crying, “I’m a thief.”

The passersby could no longer make out what it was he was shouting. “He’s shouting ‘I’m a thief,’” Sun Fu said.

After that, Sun Fu untied the rope. It was almost dark now. Sun Fu transferred the fruit to his flatbed cart, and when everything was in order he untied his prisoner. Just as Sun Fu was placing the coiled rope on top of the cart, he heard a dull thump behind him, and looked round to find the boy had crumpled to the ground. “After this,” he said, “I bet you won’t dare to steal again, will you?”

As he spoke, Sun Fu mounted the bicycle at the front of the cart and rode off down the broad highway, leaving the boy sprawled on the ground. Weakened by hunger and thirst, he had collapsed as soon as he was untied. Now he just went on lying there, his eyes slightly ajar, as though looking at the road, or as though not looking at anything at all. He lay motionless for some minutes, and then he slowly clambered to his feet and propped himself against a tree. Finally, he started shuffling down the road, toward the west.

Westward the boy headed, his puny body swaying slightly in the twilight as he made his way out of town one step at a time. Some witnessed his departure and knew he was the thief Sun Fu had caught that afternoon, but they didn’t know his name or where he had come from, and of course they had even less idea where he was going. They saw how his middle finger dangled against the back of his right hand, and watched as he trudged into the distant twilight and disappeared.

That evening, as usual, Sun Fu went to the little shop next door to buy a pint of rice wine, then cooked himself a couple of simple dishes and sat down at the square dining table. At this hour of the day, the setting sun shone in through the window and seemed to warm the room up. Sun Fu sat there in the twilight, sipping his wine.

Many years ago, he had shared the room with a pretty woman and a five-year-old boy. In those days the room was constantly buzzing with noise and activity, and there was no end of things for the three of them to talk about. Sometimes he would simply sit inside and watch as his wife lit a fire outside in the coal stove. Their son would stick to her like toffee, tugging on her jacket and asking or telling her something in his shrill little voice.

Later, one summer lunchtime, some boys ran in, shouting Sun Fu’s name. They said his son had fallen into a pond not far away. He ran like a man possessed, his wife following behind with piercing wails. Before long it was all too clear that they had lost their son forever. That night they sat together sobbing and moaning in the darkness and the stifling heat.

Later on still, they began to regain their composure, carrying on their lives as they had before, and in this way several years quickly passed. Then, one winter, an itinerant barber stopped outside their house. Sun Fu’s wife went out, sat in the chair that the barber provided, closed her eyes in the bright sunshine, and let the barber wash and cut her hair, clean her ears and massage her arms and shoulders. She had never in her life felt so relaxed as she did that day: it was as though her whole body was melting away. Afterward she stuffed her clothes into a bag and waited until the sky was dark, then set off along the route the barber had taken.

Sun Fu was alone now, his past condensed into the faded black-and-white photo that hung on the wall. It was a family portrait: himself, his wife and their son. The boy was in the middle, wearing a cotton cap several sizes too big. On the left, in braids, his wife smiled blissfully. Sun Fu was on the right, his youthful face brimming with life.