An extract from Little Gods by Meng Jin, published by Pushkin Press on Feb 25, 2021
In those days I found myself thinking often of the first time I had seen Su Lan, when she moved into the neighborhood a little less than a year before. She and her husband were strange newcomers—two intellectuals from the provinces, newlywed, young and fashionable—the longtang didn’t see many like them. In that first year, before what happened, they were spoken of with admiration and envy. Even I had felt that things were changing, that the course of possibilities was turning from one road to another.
She had come first, a few days before she brought her husband. I watched her arrive in the morning, walking down the lane in a pale yellow dress and red high heeled shoes, carrying a bucket of what turned out to be white paint. I was surprised when the stranger walked all the way to the end of the lane, and more so when footfalls made the back stairs creak. For many months the room next door had been vacant. I had spent the years after my husband’s death cultivating loneliness; I liked to think I was the one who had driven prospective tenants away.
She was there to paint the room white. Not just the walls but the ceiling and the floor—she kept painting until she stood in a white box. If you squinted your eyes, the edges disappeared and the space looked like an empty plane expanding in every direction. I had never seen anything like it.
There was something alarming about her. Even before she began throwing paint on the floor, her presence unsettled me, though I couldn’t say exactly how or why. She had this way of looking at things, an expression if you could call it that, with such focus and intensity you would think she was trying to bore a hole through with her eyes. She painted in ferocious but controlled movements. Barefoot, skirt tied above her knees, she pressed layer after layer of white paint onto the walls as if aiming to annihilate every trace of what had been there before.
When she finished, she stood in the middle of the room holding the empty bucket, breathing heavily. The paint, still wet, gleamed. Later, when I went in and out of the white room, I would feel how even though the paint made the space look larger than it was, there was something oppressive about it, as if all the air had been squeezed out. But right then, containing just your mother, who stood there examining her handiwork, blinking with surprise and relief, the room looked brand new. So did she. She walked out, cheeks red, eyes fresh, like she had been born in this field of blankness. Here I am, she seemed to say, starting my new life.
She gathered her things and locked the door. When she turned and saw me watching, she gave me a long look, her expression startled but not unkind, and mumbled something before picking up her red shoes and turning to go. I think she said, You look like someone I’ve always known.
Her feet were caked in a layer of dried paint. I watched their white soles pad down the stairs.
It wasn’t until a few days later, when she returned with her husband and other belongings, that I learned her name.
This is Su Lan, her husband said, she forgets to introduce herself.
If her husband noticed the recent paint job, he didn’t say anything. He opened the door, looked around, and said, Very nice! He ran his hand down Su Lan’s hair. Do you like it? he asked her. She kissed him on the shoulder. They looked very much like a young couple in love. As far as I could tell, he believed she was seeing the place for the first time.
I nearly believed it too. She behaved so differently from the other time I’d seen her (now talkative, now effusive, the sullen intensity now dissipated into charm), that I wondered if she was the same person, wondered even if I had somehow imagined the events of the previous week. Had the room always been white?