Zheng Qianci (鄭千慈), whose pen name is Egoyan Zheng (伊格言）is a prominent science fiction writer and poet from Taiwan born in 1977. After dropping out of medical school, he completed his masters in Chinese Literature at Tamkang University. He’s won and been nominated for several literary prizes, including nominations for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This is an extract from his science fiction novel The Dream Devourer (《噬夢人》）, which was published in 2010. This extract was first translated for eRenlai magazine in January 2011 by Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇`).
The North coast. The beach at sunset. Although one might call it sunset, given the low latitude, even in the midst of late Autumn, night never fell early. Although the sunlight had actually already long vanished beyond the horizon; there remained the sapphire curtain of night permeated with a milky glean hanging down from the edge of the heavens.
K walked alone away from the bright lights of the fish market beside the quay and wandered along the deserted beach, enjoying the stirring chill of the sea breeze after nightfall. In the distance, above the dark coastal highway, several blimps passed by from time to time at irregular intervals, more intermittent than frequent; one had to wait quite a while to catch sight of the circular beam of the searchlights passing by.
When there were no blimps passing, the vast space in the distance on the margins of his vision was a pitch black. Nearby the neon lights of a seaside amusement park glistened, the carousel with its colorful vaulted arches shone with an orange light in the midst of the pitch black surroundings. It was on appearance a popular scenic spot, in the day time it would most likely be teeming with tourists. Now though, even the majority of those that had loitered had already dispersed. The part of the beach K was standing on was a long way off from the fairground. He couldn’t hear any of the voices or the music. Or perhaps it was because the sea wind rose up to carry away the noise. However, in his line of sight, the fine strokes of sketched light stood out amongst the vast dark background, and the flowing multitude of people and things as they followed the revolutions of the vaulted axis, appeared at that instant to be so beautiful and unreal, like a ghostly gathering of the after images of light…
At that time the beach was deserted. The fluorescent blue crescent of the moon had already shown its face hesitantly in the midst of the thin cloud cover. By the light of the moon, K could see the edge of the sea amidst the darkness, wave after wave of spray licked rhythmically at the beach.
It was just then that K suddenly saw Eurydice.
And at the same moment, Eurydice caught sight of K.
There had been something occupying the darkness of an intangible space, impenetrable to the moonlight. It was like a shadowy figure surfacing from the dark realms of consciousness in a dream. K suddenly saw, only a few metres ahead, at an extremely close distance, a woman standing alone, facing the direction of the sea.
It was at this moment that the woman turned to face him. The moonlight shone on her face. K immediately recognised her. And judging from the expression on her face, the woman recognised K too.
Eurydice looked quite quiet. She had an elegant quality to her. K remembered the dark brown irises of her serious eyes, the curve in the bridge of her nose, and the glimmering sheen of her short hair back then. K remembered also the sly expression that flashed from those eyes that looked like those of a cute animal when she smiled in that sweet way she had. Like something very, very light had suddenly dropped into the pond.
To put it more clearly: after a long intervening period of time, K realized, he remembered almost every detail of her appearance and bearing from the first time he saw her…
Of course, Eurydice was quite beautiful. But her beauty wasn’t by any means of a particularly uncommon sort. K was already 35 then, and had seen his fair share of beautiful women. K couldn’t help but be perplexed: what was it that led him to remember so much about her?
However, except for this, it seemed there was nothing else. Even though the impression of those little details about Eurydice would occasionally flash across K’s mind, he wouldn’t have said that he often thought of her. K for a while even thought that Eurydice must have had some sort of conspicuous, innate particularity about her, and so he unconsciously gave rein to the efficiency and memory power of an intelligence agent.
Under the pale blue light of the moon, they waved at each other. Then they immediately started to laugh. They probably laughed because of the stunned look on each of their faces at first.
“Why is the Agency Director in a place like this? … Are you here on vacation, Sir?” Eurydice asked.
“Eh… yeah, I’m here on vacation… you don’t need to call me Sir.” K laughed and said: “The scenery is beautiful here. What about you? On vacation too?”
“I suppose you could say that.” Eurydice paused for a moment: “Eh… actually, I grew up around here. I came back to visit…”
“Really?” K raised his eyebrows, and joked, “You can just be honest; I know our unit has a case underway around here…”
“No, no,” Eurydice laughed again, “… I came here, just to come home. To come home and have a look around again…”
There was a moment, even under such a gloomy light, when K thought he saw that smile of hers. Some light matter falling noiselessly into a pond, the feeling of calm ripples. But this time the falling happened in a shadow blacker than darkness. It made Eurydice seem further away than the actual short distance between them.
“Oh, so you were actually born in Taiwan…” said K.
“Yeah…” Eurydice paused. K was aware that she wanted to say something, but she didn’t say it in the end.
“… So… so you know a few places off the tourist trail?” K considerately changed the topic of conversation.
Eurydice thought for a moment. “Yeah” She smiled again. This time it was of a brighter sort. “But, it’s hard to describe how to get there…”
“What do you mean?” K’s curiosity was piqued.
“Hmm…Just come with me. It’s quite nearby; we’ll be there in no time.” Eurydice made a gesture: “We’ll have to hope we’re lucky though. You can’t always see it…”
They started onwards along the coastline. They discussed the weather, they discussed the fish markets, piled with seafood, they discussed the moonlight, and they discussed the dreamy magnificence of the seaside amusement park, an engraved sketch of light on the dark curtain of night. Then Eurydice explained to him, along the coast to which they were headed, out on the open sea there were often fixed eddies produced perhaps due to submerged reefs on the seabed. In certain seasonal periods, because of the change in tides and ocean currents, the fixed eddies would become particularly powerful; this caused disaster for certain coastal water molluscs.
“They are descended from the Portuguese Man o’ War.” Eurydice said.
“Isn’t that the most poisonous jelly-fish?”
“Yes, it was the most toxic jellyfish of the classic era. Now it’s extinct…” Eurydice explained: “From here – if we’re lucky – we’ll be able to see a variant species of the Portuguese Man ‘o War. It’s got a very pretty, very cute name; it’s called a Blue Child.”
“A Blue Child… Is it still poisonous?”
“Yes, but its poison is a lot less powerful.” Eurydice smiled, “Just as long as you don’t fry it up and swallow it down, then it should be OK…”
K smiled too, “I’m not that much of a glutton…” K paused briefly. “But as for you, I’m not quite so sure.”
“The Blue Child could almost be described as a species unique to Taiwanese Waters…” the sound of both of their laughter spilled out into the sea breeze of the dark night. Eurydice continued to explain to K, “A unique species, that is to say, it can’t be found anywhere else in the world, only in Taiwan and Okinawa. And what’s even more unusual is that, of the whole of Taiwan, it’s only found in this area of the Northern coastal waters…A particular kind of Nitrate can be found in their bodies. Once this compound comes into contact with air it oxidizes instantly… look, over there.”
Eurydice pointed to the ground not too far ahead on their right hand side. K saw two or three flakes of fluorescent blue, roughly the size of a fingernail resting quietly on the darkened moist sand. Like a shiny shard of glass.
“I didn’t think we’d be able to see one so soon. I guess it’s our lucky day…” Eurydice said: “That’s a “fragment” of a Blue Child…when the eddy currents produced by the topography of the seabed take their lives, ripping their bodies to shreds, they then get exposed to the air, the oxidized nitrates then give out the fluorescent blue light even more strongly…”
K drew nearer and squatted, and felt the two dormant shards of blue fluorescence. Although it looked like pretty shards of broken glass, as he had anticipated it was slimy, cold and slippery. It was possible with some of them to make out whether the piece belonged to the medusa or the tentacles. Their brilliance was much brighter than that of the glow-worm, which had already been extinct for 100 years. K immediately perceived that his fingers were tainted with luminous blue flakes of powder.
(Luminous Blue from oxidization? This meant that there was some degree of combustion involved, K thought to himself………That is to say, it seemed to be the kind of Mollusc that, when faced with inevitable disintegration, will spontaneously and quietly combust.)
“How does it feel?,” Eurydice asked him: “Cold and gooey?”
“Yeah, yeah…” K dipped the tips of his fingers into the tidal pool by his feet, to wash the luminous blue powder off with sea water: “How strange and how beautiful…” K raised his head, and thanked her ceremoniously: “Thanks for bringing me to see these…”
“You might want to wait before you thank me,” Eurydice laughed heartily. The emerald green pool was now completely luminous, the ripples of a spring afternoon. Her eyes narrowed into two curved arcs: “Maybe there will be some more up ahead…”.
They continued to walk onward. As predicted, as they walked further along the road they saw more and more fragments of fluorescent blue. Evidently they had been carried along on to the bank with the rhythmic surge of the tidal waters. The moon was bright, K could vaguely make out the line between the wet and dry sand on the shore. And surrounding this line, the distribution of the blue luminous fragments looked as if fluorescent petals had been scattered along the road.
However, not long after, the fragments became more and more concentrated. They formed a vague imprint on the sand parallel to that of the waves. It looked like some sort of track left by something that had moved along the beach.
By the light of the moon, they walked around the sand banks and came to a small bay. Nearby a few tidal pools of different sizes lay still. On the beach giant planks of driftwood lay half buried in the sand, standing erect they threw colossal shadows on to the sand. Like the fractured skeleton of some prehistoric Behemoth.
The tide was still lapping rhythmically at the shore giving out an empty, ethereal echo. As far as the eye could see, the sea in the bay was already alight with a plane of the luminous blue light of jellyfish. Some of the fragments of the Blue Child jellyfish bodies were floating on the water, others rose and fell with wave after wave, and there were others still that had sunk to the bottom of the shallow and clear waters of the tidal pools, like the dizzying light given off by the constellations, silent and brilliant in the night sky. He didn’t know why, but a fantasy flashed into K’s mind that he’d never seen before: a massive Blue Child jellyfish darting about in the dark depths of the sea, the darkest depths. Except for the lone Blue Child, there was no other traces of existence. The Blue Child moved silently about. It’s body was like a throbbing, transparent heart. It’s tentacles spread eerily across the water, like Medusa’s Ophidian hair…
At that moment, perhaps because of cloud coverage, the moon wasn’t shining as brightly. Their parallel shadows merged into the massive shadow cast by the gigantic driftwood bones. K saw the mist streaming across the surface of the moon. The wind off the sea got stronger. Like a huge echo in a sealed off cavern, the mass of the wind filling the aural cavity, relentlessly assaulting the ear membrane.
K suddenly realized that this was actually a deathly banquet. The resplendent show of death’s skeleton. In regard to jellyfish, it is only in the instant of their sudden death, after their bodies are torn to pieces by the eddies, that one can see this kind of sight.
“The last time I saw the Blue Child,” Eurydice broke the silence, “was four or five years ago. It’s been ages…”
“…so, you haven’t come back home for that long?”
“Yeah…” Eurydice paused again, then changed the topic of conversation,
“I really liked a classic era Chinese poet. When I came back to this scene, it made me think of a few of his poems…”
“What kind of poetry?” K asked.
“Are you testing me on it?” Eurydice laughed.
“… have a go!,” K laughed along with her, “you can’t just say something halfway, then leave me in suspense… Tell me what kind of poetry it is”
“It’s Gu Cheng’s poetry. I don’t think I can remember the whole thing…,” Eurydice tilted her head in thought, “OK, I’ll give it a try…”
Eurydice paused for a moment, then started to recite softly,
“…Behind the eternal canopy of the heavens
There is a pair of doves
They sleep, wings akimbo
The just forgotten kiss
Warms the home of the West wind…”
“…It starts, it starts to get cold
A floating handkerchief
Stopped, and floats afar once again
On the brown banks of the Samoan shore
The bride walks towards the ocean…”
“There is one other poem…” Eurydice smiled, her face imperceptibly flushed.
“…There is iron on the door, on the sea
There is rusty rain…
“Some people sleep on a bed
Some people float on the sea
Some people sink to the sea floor
Comets are a kind of dish
The moon is a silver cup
Ever floating, decorated with that slice
Of beautiful lemon, beautiful…,” She paused for an instant before continuing,
“Don’t speak, I don’t know
I don’t know myself…”
Eurydice’s voice was focused and calm. In spite of the strong wind, her voice was unaffected by anything, like a fine, tensile fibre, cutting cleanly through the wind, and cutting through the vast layers of darkness that the wind penetrated.
It was just then that K felt keenly that something strange had happened to his body. As if some shapeless, colourless something, had invaded his chest cavity with a heaviness and fullness. That hueless something seemed to be a living body, the qualities of which seemed to seep in a circular manner with Eurydice’s calm voice into the space outside the chest cavity. Like a flaw in his psyche, or a rupture. K felt his heartbeat and his breathing start to quicken, however they didn’t become any shallower, but became warmer, heavier and deeper…
He felt strangely out of sorts. The feeling was so strange, that he wasn’t sure if it was apt to to use the phrase “out of sorts” to describe it…
Because in that instant, K was in a happy frame of mind. K saw the moonlight shining on Eurydice’s profile. She inclined her head to glance at K, and then as if abashed, she moved her gaze away. In such a dim light, it was hard to make out her face; however in the darkness, K thought he could see the ripples of gentle laughter. It was like the subtle beauty of insects with translucent wings bumbling along at a hair’s breadth from the mirror-like stillness of the surface of an old pond on a windless afternoon in Spring. Their minuscule bumbling and sloping seemed also like dust or light fluff, floating along in circles around the centre of the pond…
Thinking back on this moment, it was the start of their romance. On the way back, they followed the steadily dimmer fluorescent blue light on the ground, away from the moon, the cliffs of the sand dunes, and the shadow thrown by the off-white driftwood bones. The “Blue Children” without their luminosity, looked more like old dirty pieces of broken glass. They were both more subdued than they had been on the way…
In retrospect, that they were subdued was, of course, inevitable. K had been quite perplexed by his own reaction at the time. On their way back, K felt the hueless presence that had seemed to seep into his chest cavity gradually leave him. However, in the moment that he was rid of the warm feeling of heaviness and fullness, he felt somewhat cold. A coldness gently extending from the top of his head, to the pit of his stomach, around his waist, his arms and the palms of his hands. The cold sea breeze which hadn’t bothered him at first, now penetrated the darkness to stir every hair and pore on his body to tremble…
(It couldn’t have been more different from the second day they met. K still to this day remembers vividly the second day, how under the bright sun of the northern coast of Taiwan sand made up of crushed shells had clung to Eurydice’s pale skin…)
(…With a flawless sky of pure blue. Without a thread of cloud. It was strange. It wasn’t hot. Just bright. What K at first glance saw as a grain of rice-white sand, on closer inspection was not completely white, but was made up of a variety of different colours and textures. When the shell sand had formed a thin translucent layer on Eurydice’s skin, the sun’s rays, by way of the sand’s texture, were diffracted at a certain angle. And that diffracted light at certain moments, would coat the entire scene in bright whiteness. In that moment, it brought a snow-blindness that lasted for a short while, but soon afterwards, it dissipated in what felt like a wave…)
However, K was as relaxed and cheerful as before. The silence between he and Eurydice wasn’t that awkward and tense kind of silence, but rather like a feeling that something which had been stretched taut had been slackened.
This was also part of what troubled K. Or rather what troubled him most keenly…
In the dark night, under the moonlight, they walked back towards the closing fish market and the fairground. The fine grains of sand under their feet gave off a soft, tender sound. The bright lights of the fish market had all gone dark; in the distance, there remained the faint flickering of a few small lights.The fairground was now in complete darkness, only the neon sign at the entrance was still reluctant to depart, the eyes of light blinking noiselessly to the rhythm of their flicker settings.
Crouching like a tame, shapeless beast.
Read the Chinese original here (Remember to change the language option to Chinese)