the short story project


Lately, on the night before Whit Sunday, I dreamed that I was standing before a mirror, occupying myself with my new summer suit, which my parents had had made against the approaching festival. The dress consisted, as you well know, of shoes of nice leather, with great silver buckles, fine cotton stockings, breeches of black serge, and a coat of green barracan, with gold buttons. The waistcoat, of gold-stuff, had been cut out of the one worn by my father on his wedding-day. My hair was dressed and powdered, my curls stood upon my head like little wings,—but I could not finish dressing myself; for I continually changed the articles of wearing apparel, and the first always dropped off when I was about to put on the second. While I was thus embarrassed, a handsome young man came up to me, and greeted me in the kindest manner. “Welcome,” said I, “it gives me great pleasure to see you here.”—”Do you know me then?” asked he, smiling. “Why not?” I replied, smiling in my turn. “You are Mercury, and I have often enough seen pictures of you.”—”I am, indeed,” said he, “and I have been sent to you by the gods on an important mission. Do you see these three apples?” stretching out his hand, he showed me three apples, which from their size he could scarcely hold, and which were as wonderfully beautiful as they were large. One was green, another yellow, and the third red, and they looked like precious stones, to which the shape of fruit had been given. I wished to take them, but he drew me back, saying, “You must first know, that they are not for you. You are to give them to the three handsomest young persons in the town, who will, every one according to his lot, find wives to their heart’s content. There, take them and manage the matter well,” he added, as he quitted me, and placed the apples in my open hand. They seemed to me to have become even larger than they were before. I held them against the light, and found they were quite transparent, but soon they grew taller, and at last became three pretty—very pretty little ladies, of the height of a moderate-sized doll, with dresses of the colours of the apples. In this form they glided softly up my fingers, and when I was about to make a catch at them, that I might secure one at least, they soared up far away, so that I could do nothing but look after them. There I stood quite astounded and petrified, with my hands high in the air, and still staring at my fingers, as if their was something to be seen upon them. All of a sudden I perceived upon the very tips a charming little girl, very pretty and lively, though smaller than the others. As she did not fly away, like them, but remained with me, and danced about, now on this finger, now on that, I looked at her for some time, in a state of astonishment. She pleased me so much, that I fancied I might catch her, and was just on the point of making a grasp—as I thought very cleverly—when I felt a blow on the head, that caused me to fall completely stunned, and did not awaken from the stupor it occasioned till it was time to dress and go to church.

I often recalled the images to my mind during divine service, and at my grandfather’s table where I dined. In the afternoon I went to visit some friends, both because such visits were due, and because I wished to show myself in my new clothes, with my hat under my arm and my sword by my side. Finding no one at home, and hearing that they were all gone to the gardens, I resolved to follow them, intending to pass a pleasant evening. My way led me along the town wall, and I soon came to the spot which is called the “evil wall,” and rightly enough, for there is reason to believe it is always haunted. Walking slowly along, I thought of my three goddesses, and still more of the little nymph, and often held my fingers up in the air in the hope that she would be kind enough to balance herself upon them once more. As I proceeded, occupied with these thoughts, I discerned in the wall, on my left hand, a little wicket which I did not remember to have perceived before. It appeared low, but the pointed arch was such as to afford room for the tallest man to enter. The arch and the wall on either side had been most richly carved by the mason and the sculptor, but my attention was most attracted by the door itself. The old brown wood of which it was made had been but little ornamented, but broad bands of brass were attached to it, worked both in relief and in intaglio. The foliage which was represented on this brass, and on which the most natural birds were sitting, I could not sufficiently admire. I was, however, most surprised at seeing no keyhole, no latch, no knocker, and from the absence of these I surmised that the door only opened from within. I was not mistaken, for when I went close to it, to feel the carved work, it opened inwards, and a man, whose dress was somewhat long, wide, and altogether singular, appeared before me. A venerable beard flowed about his chin, and I was, therefore, inclined to take him for a Jew. As if he had divined my thoughts he made the sign of the holy cross, thereby giving me to understand that he was a good Catholic Christian. “Young gentleman, how did you come here, and what are you doing?” said he, with friendly voice and gesture. “I am admiring the work of this door,” I replied, “for I have never seen any thing like it, except, perhaps, in small pieces, in the collection of amateurs.” “I am delighted,” said he, “that you take pleasure in such work. The door is still more beautiful on the inner side, pray walk in if you choose.” This affair made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I felt embarrassed by the strange dress of the porter, by the retired situation of the place, and a certain indescribable something in the air. I paused, therefore, under the pretext of looking longer at the outside, and at the same time cast furtive glances at the garden—for a garden it was which had just been opened to me. Immediately behind the gate I saw a space completely shaded by the closely entwined branches of some old linden trees, which had been planted at regular intervals, so that the most numerous assembly might have rested there during the most intense heat of the day. I had already set my foot on the threshold, and the old man was well able to lure me on a step further. Indeed I made no resistance, for I had always heard that a prince or sultan, in such cases, must never ask whether there is any danger. Had I not my sword by my side, and could I not soon get the better of the old man if he took a hostile position? I therefore walked in with confidence, and the porter shut the gate so softly that I could hardly hear the sound. He then showed the work on the inside, which was certainly much superior to that without, and explained it, giving indications of the greatest kindness towards me. My mind being completely set at rest I allowed myself to be led further along the shady space by the wall which circled the garden, and found much to admire. Niches, artificially adorned with shells, coral, and pieces of ore, poured from Tritons’ mouths copious streams of water into marble basins. Between them were aviaries and other pieces of lattice-work, in which there were squirrels hopping about, guinea-pigs running backwards and forwards, and, in short, all the pretty little creatures that one could desire. The birds cried and sung to us as we went along; the starlings, in particular, prated after us the most absurd stuff, one always calling out “Paris, Paris,” and the other “Narcissus, Narcissus,” as plain as any schoolboy. The old man seemed to look at me more seriously whenever the birds uttered this, but I pretended not to mind it, and indeed had no time to attend to him, for I could clearly perceive that we were walking round and that this shady place was in fact a large circle, which inclosed another of far more importance. We had again come to the little door, and it seemed to me as if the old man wished to dismiss me; but my eyes remained fixed on a golden railing which seemed to inclose the middle of this wonderful garden, and which in my walk I had found an opportunity of observing sufficiently, although the old man always contrived to keep me close to the wall, and, therefore, pretty far from the centre. As he was going up to the gate I said to him, with a bow: “You have been so exceedingly civil to me that I can venture to make another request before I leave you. May I not look closer at that golden railing, which seems to encircle the inner part of the garden?” “Certainly,” said he, “but then you must submit to certain conditions.” “In what do they consist?” I asked, quickly. “You must leave your hat and sword here, and must not quit my hand as I accompany you.” “To that I consent readily enough,” said I, and I laid my hat and sword on the first stone bench that came in my way. Upon this he at once seized my left hand in his right, held it fast, and, with some degree of force, led me straight on. When we came to the railing, my surprise was increased to overwhelming astonishment; any thing like it I had never seen. On a high socle of marble countless spears and partisans stood in a row, and were joined together by their upper ends, which were singularly ornamented. Peeping through the interstices I saw behind this railing a piece of water which flowed gently along, with marble on each side of it, and in the clear depths of which a great number of gold and silver fish might be discovered, which now slowly, now swiftly, now singly, now in shoals, were swimming to and fro. I wished much to see the other side of the canal that I might learn how the interior part of the garden was fashioned; but, to my great annoyance, on the other side of the water stood a similar railing, which was so skilfully arranged that, opposite to every space on the side where I stood was placed a spear or a partisan on the other, and thus, with the additional impediment of the other ornaments, it was impossible for one to look through, whatever position one took. Besides, the old man, who kept a fast hold of me, hindered me from moving freely. My curiosity—after all that I had seen—increased more and more, and I plucked up courage to ask the old man whether it was not possible to cross over. “Why not?” said he, “only you must conform to new conditions.” When I asked him what these were, he told me that I must change my dress. I readily consented; he led me back towards the outer wall and into a neat little room, against the walls of which hung dresses of several kinds which seemed to approach the oriental style of costume. I changed my dress quickly, and he put my powdered locks into a many-coloured net, after finally dusting out the powder, to my great horror. Standing before a large mirror I thought I looked prettily enough in my disguise, and liked myself better than in my stiff Sunday clothes. I made gestures and leaps, in imitation of the dancers I had seen on the stage erected at the fair, and while I was doing this I perceived, by chance, the reflection in the glass of a niche that stood behind me. Against its white ground hung three green cords, each twined in a manner which was not very clear to me in the distance. I therefore turned round somewhat hastily and asked the old man about the niche and these cords also. Civilly enough he took one down and showed it to me. It was a cord of green silk of moderate thickness, the ends of which, fastened together by a piece of green leather, cut through in two places, gave it the appearance of being an instrument for no very agreeable purpose. The affair seemed to me somewhat equivocal, and I asked the old man for an explanation. He answered, very quietly and mildly, that the cord was intended for those who abused the confidence which was here readily placed in them. He hung the cord in its place again, and asked me to follow him at once. This time he did not take hold of me, but I walked freely by his side.

My greatest curiosity now was to know where the door could be to pass through the railing, and where the bridge could be to cross the canal, for I had been able to discern nothing of the sort hitherto. I therefore looked at the golden rails very closely, as we hastened close up to them,—when all of a sudden my sight failed me; for the spears, pikes, halberds, and partisans, began quite unexpectedly to rattle and to shake, and this curious movement ended with the points of all being inclined towards each other, just as if two ancient armies, armed with pikes, were preparing for the attack. The confusion before my eyes, the clatter in my ears, was almost insupportable; but the sight became infinitely astonishing, when the spears, laying themselves quite down, covered the whole circle of the canal, and formed the noblest bridge that one can imagine, while the most variegated garden was revealed to my view. It was divided into beds, which wound about one another, and, seen at once, formed a labyrinth of an ornament. All of these were encompassed by a green border, formed of a short woolly-looking plant, which I had never seen; all were adorned with flowers, every division being of a different colour, and as these likewise grew short, the ground plan was easily traced. This beautiful sight, which I enjoyed in the full sunshine, completely riveted my eyes; but I scarcely knew where I could set my foot, for the winding paths were neatly covered with a blue sand, which seemed to form upon earth a darker sky, or a sky in the water. Therefore, with my eyes fixed upon the ground, I went on for some time by the side of my conductor, until I at length perceived, that in the midst of the circle of beds and flowers, stood another large circle of cypresses, or trees of the poplar kind, through which it was impossible to see, as the lowest boughs seemed to be shooting up from the earth. My conductor, without forcing me straight into the nearest way, nevertheless led me immediately towards that centre; and how was I surprised, when entering the circle of the tall trees, I saw before me the portico of a magnificent summer-house, which seemed to have similar openings and entrances on every side! A heavenly music, which issued from the building, charmed me even more than this perfect specimen of architecture. Now I thought I heard a lute, now a harp, now a guitar, and now a tinkling sound, which was not like that of any of the three instruments. The door which we approached opened at a light touch from the old man, and my amazement was great, when the female porter, who came out, appeared exactly like the little maiden who had danced upon my fingers in my dream. She greeted me as if we were old acquaintances, and asked me to walk in. The old man remained behind, and I went with her along a short passage, which was arched over and beautifully ornamented, till I came to the central hall; the majestic and cathedral-seeming height of which arrested my sight and surprised me, immediately on my entrance. However, my eye could not long remain fixed upwards, as it was soon lured down by a most charming spectacle. On the carpet, immediately beneath the centre of the cupola, sat three ladies, each one forming the corner of a triangle, and each dressed in a different colour. One was in red, another in yellow, the third in green. Their seats were gilded, and the carpet was a perfect bed of flowers. In their arms lay the three instruments, the sounds of which I had distinguished from without, for they had left off playing, being disturbed by my entrance. “Welcome!” said the middle one, who sat with her face towards the door, was dressed in red, and had the harp. “Sit down by Alerte, and listen, if you are fond of music.” I now saw, for the first time, that a tolerably long bench, placed across, with a mandoline upon it, lay before me. The pretty little girl took up the mandoline, seated herself, and drew me to her side. Now I looked at the second lady, who was on my right. She wore the yellow dress, and had a guitar in her hand; and if the harp-player was imposing in her form, grand in her features, and majestic in her deportment, the guitar-player was distinguished by every grace and cheerfulness. She was a slender blonde, while the other was adorned with hair of a dark brown. The variety and accordance of their music did not prevent me from observing the third beauty in the green dress, the tones of whose lute were to me somewhat touching, and at the same time remarkably striking. She it was who seemed to take the greatest notice of me, and to direct her playing towards me. At the same time, I could not tell what to make of her, for she was now tender, now odd, now frank, now capricious, as she altered her gestures and the style of her playing. Sometimes she seemed anxious to move me, and sometimes anxious to tease me. No matter, however, what she did, she gained no advantage over me, for I was quite taken up by my little neighbour, to whom I sat close; and when I perceived plainly enough that the three ladies were the sylphides of my dream, and recognised the colours of the apples, I well understood that I had no reason to secure them. The pretty little creature I would much sooner have seized, had not the box on the ear which she gave me in my dream remained still fresh in my memory. Hitherto she had kept quiet with her mandoline; but when her mistresses had ceased, they ordered her to treat us with a few lively airs. Scarcely had she struck off some dancing melodies in a very exciting style, than she jumped up, and I did the same. She played and danced; I was forced to follow her steps, and we went through a kind of little ballet, at which the ladies seemed to be well pleased, for no sooner had we finished it, than they ordered the little girl to refresh me with something nice before supper. In truth, I had forgotten that there was any thing else in the world beyond this Paradise. Alerte led me back into the passage by which I had entered. On one side, she had two well-furnished apartments, in one of which—the one in which she lived—she served before me oranges, figs, peaches, and grapes, and I tasted the fruits both of foreign lands and of early months, with great appetite. Confectionary was in abundance, and she filled a goblet of polished crystal with sparkling wine; but I had no need of drinking, as I sufficiently refreshed myself with the fruits. “Now we will play,” said she, and took me into the other room. This had the appearance of a Christmas fair, except that such fine, precious things are never to be seen in a booth. There were all sorts of dolls, and dolls’ clothes, and utensils; little kitchens, parlours, and shops; besides single toys in abundance. She led me all round to the glass cases, in which these precious articles were preserved. The first case she soon closed again, saying: “There is nothing for you, I am sure, there,” added she, “we can find building materials, walls, and towers, houses, palaces, and churches to put together a large town. That, however, would be no amusement for me, so we will take something else, that may be equally amusing for both of us.” She then brought out some boxes, in which I saw some little soldiers placed in layers one over the other, and with respect to which I was forced to confess that I had never seen any thing so pretty in my life. She did not leave me time to look closer into particulars, but took one of the boxes under her arm, while I caught up the other. “We will go to the golden bridge,” said she, “for that’s the best place to play at soldiers. The spears point out the direction in which the armies should be placed.” We had now reached the shaking, golden bridge, and I could hear the water ripple, and the fish splash beneath me, as I knelt down to set up my rows of soldiers, which, as I now saw, were all on horseback. She gloried in being the queen of the Amazons, as the leader of her host; while I, on the other hand, found Achilles, and a very fine set of Greek cavalry. The armies stood face to face, and nothing prettier can be conceived. They were not flat leaden horsemen like ours, but man and horse were round and full-bodied, and very finely worked. It was difficult to see how they were able to balance themselves, for they kept up without having a stand.

We had both surveyed our armies with great complacency, when she announced the attack. Besides the soldiers, we had found artillery in our chests—namely, boxes filled with little balls of polished agate. With these we were to shoot at each other’s forces from a certain distance, on the express condition, however, that we were not to throw with greater force than was required to upset the figures, as they were on no account to be injured. The cannonading began from each side, and, at first, to the great delight of both of us. But when my adversary remarked that I took a better aim than she, and that I might end by winning the game, which depended on having the greatest number of men upright, she stepped closer, and her girlish manner of throwing proved successful. A number of my best troops were laid low, and the more I protested, with the greater zeal did she go on throwing. At last I became vexed, and told her that I would do the same. Accordingly, I not only came closer, but in my passion, I threw much harder, so that, in a short time, a couple of her little female centaurs were broken to pieces. Her zeal prevented her from noticing this at once, but I stood petrified with astonishment when the broken figures joined themselves together again, and the Amazon and her horse again became entire; nay, became perfectly alive at the same time, for they galloped from the bridge up to the linden-trees, and after running backwards and forwards, were lost—how I cannot tell—in the direction of the wall. My fair adversary had scarcely perceived this, than she sobbed aloud, and exclaimed that I had caused her an irreparable loss, which was far greater than words could express. I, who had grown enraged, was pleased at doing her an injury, and with blind fury, threw the few agate-balls I still had, among her forces. Unfortunately, I struck the queen, who had been excepted, as long as our game had proceeded in the regular way. She flew to pieces, and her nearest adjutants were shattered at the same time. Soon, however, they joined themselves together again, took their flight like the first, galloped merrily under the lindens, and were lost near the wall.

My adversary reproached and scolded me, but I, having once begun the work of destruction, stooped down to pick up some of the agate balls, which were rolling about the golden spears. My savage wish was to destroy her whole army; while she did not remain inactive, but darting at me gave me a box on the ear, that set my very head ringing. I, who had always heard that a hearty kiss is the proper return for a blow given by a girl, caught her by her ears and kissed her several times. At this she uttered such a piercing cry that I was absolutely terrified. I let her go, and it was fortunate that I did so, for at that moment I did not know what befel me. The ground beneath me began to shake and rattle, the rails, as I now observed, put themselves in motion, but I had no time for consideration, nor was I sufficient master of my feet to fly. Every moment I was afraid of being impaled, for the lances and partisans which began to stand upright, tore my clothes. Suffice it to say,—I do not know how it was,—that my sight and hearing failed me, and that I recovered from my terror and the stupor into which I had been thrown, at the foot of a linden tree, against which the railing, while raising itself, had thrown me. My malice returned with my senses, and increased still more, when from the other side I heard the jeers and laughter of my adversary, who had probably come to the ground somewhat more softly than myself. I therefore got up, and as saw scattered around me, my own little army with its leaden Achilles, which the rising rails had thrown off together with myself, I began by catching hold of the hero, and dashing him against a tree. His resuscitation and flight gave me double pleasure, for the prettiest sight in the world was associated with all the delight of gratified malice, and I was on the point of sending the rest of the Greeks after him, when all of a sudden water came hissing from every side, from the stones and walls, from the ground and branches; and wherever I turned it pelted me furiously. My light dress was soon completely wet through, and as it had been already torn, I lost no time in flinging it off altogether. My slippers I threw aside, and then one covering after the other, finding it very pleasant in the sultry day to take such a shower-bath. Stark naked, I walked gravely along between the welcome waters, and I thought I might thus go on pleasantly for some time. My rage had cooled, and I now desired nothing more than a reconciliation with my little adversary. All of a sudden the water stopped, and I now stood completely wet on ground that was soaked through. The presence of the old man, who unexpectedly came before me, was any thing but welcome. I should have wished, if not to hide myself, at any rate to put on some covering. Shame, cold, and an endeavour to cover myself in some measure, made me cut a very miserable figure, and the old man lost no time in loading me with the bitterest reproaches. “What hinders me,” he cried, “from taking one of the green cords, and fitting it to your back at any rate, if not to your neck!” This threat I took very ill. “Hark ye,” said I, “you had better take care of such words, or even such thoughts, or you and your mistresses will be lost!” “Who are you?” said he, in a tone of defiance, “that dare to talk in this way?” “A favourite of the gods,” I replied, “on whom it depends whether those ladies will find good husbands and live happily, or pine and grow old in their magic cloister.” The old man retreated some steps. “Who revealed that to you?” he asked with doubt and astonishment. “Three apples,” said I, “three jewels.” “And what reward do you desire?” he exclaimed. “Above all things,” I replied, “the little creature who brought me into this cursed condition.” The old man threw himself at my feet, without heeding the dampness and muddiness of the ground. He then arose, not in the least wetted, took me kindly by the hand, led me into the room, where I had been before, dressed me again quickly, and I soon found myself with my hair curled and my Sunday clothes on, as at first. The porter did not utter another word, but before he allowed me to cross the threshold, he detained me, and showed to me certain objects that were near the wall, and on the other side of the way, while at the same time he pointed to the door backwards. I understood him well. He wished me to impress the objects on my mind, that I might more readily find the door again, which unexpectedly closed behind me. I observed already what was opposite to me. The boughs of seven old nut-trees projected over a high wall, and partly covered the moulding with which it terminated. The branches reached to a stone tablet, the decorated border of which I could easily recognise, but the inscription on which I could not read. It rested on the jutting stone of a niche, in which a fountain artificially constructed, was throwing water from cup to cup into a large basin, which formed a kind of little pond, and was lost in the ground. Fountain, inscription, nut-trees, all stood, one directly over the other, and I could have painted it as I saw it.

It may be easily conceived how I passed the evening, and many a day afterwards, and how often I repeated these adventures, which I could hardly believe myself. As soon as I could, I went again to the “evil wall,” that I might at least refresh my memory by the sight of the objects, and look at the beautiful door. To my great astonishment all was changed. Nut-trees were, indeed, hanging over the wall, but they were not close together. A tablet was inserted, but it stood at some distance to the right of the trees, was without carving, and had a legible inscription. A niche with a fountain stood far to the left, and was not to be compared to the one I had before seen. Of the door not a trace was to be found, and I was, therefore, almost compelled to believe that my second adventure was a dream, as well as my first. My only consolation is, that the three objects always seem to change their situation, for, after repeated visits to the spot, I think I have observed, that the nut-trees are running towards each other, and that the tablet and fountain are approaching. Probably, when all has come together again, the door will once more be visible, and I will do all I can to fit on a sequel to the adventure. Whether I shall be able to tell what befalls me in future, or whether it will be expressly forbidden me, I cannot say.


He turned his computer off and on again six times, took his first shower of the week, and went downstairs for some cold noodles and a packet of cigarettes. Only then did he dare believe what he saw in front of him: a girl, finally a girl had made the first move and sent him a message on the dating website. What a delightful surprise—though perhaps more surprising than delightful.

His appearance wasn’t designed to attract the opposite sex. It had always been this way, and no one was more aware of this fact than he. The world expects less of men than women in this department—ladies being ruthlessly divided into ‘marriage material’ and spinsters—but like most of his gender, he’d die of embarrassment if he had to admit how disappointed he was with his looks. Yet each time a woman pushed aside the cinema tickets he was offering, or he noticed a waitress looking askance at him, or he simply caught sight of himself in a subway train’s window, he’d hear a small but forceful voice: If you could look like Keanu Reeves, who would choose to be Mr. Bean instead?

This unfortunate situation inevitably shaped his personality—he lived a life of withdrawal, cocooning himself away. During high school biology classes, when he learnt about Mendel planting beans and discovering genetics, he recognised himself in a flash of insight: he was the composite of his grandfather’s freakishly tiny mouth, his grandmother’s pointy ears, his other grandfather’s naturally curly hair and laziness, his other grandmother’s tendency to plumpness, his father’s drunkard’s nose and slow reflexes, his mother’s height—she was shorter than most primary school students—and droopy eyes, his uncle’s mole (he was particularly annoyed about this—whoever heard of a mole being hereditary?) and vast quantities of acne, not to mention the petty bourgeois taint they all shared.

Realising he was basically the combination of every single one of his family’s defects, which seemed more ridiculous than tragic, he decided to stop resisting his fate. When they got to Darwin’s theory of evolution, he grew even more anxious, and decided that the only way to avoid falling foul of natural selection was to keep an extremely low profile, the way parents name their children ‘Dog’ or ‘Cow’ so as not to attract the attention of evil spirits.

And so, with the stubbornness of a dog or cow, he continued to exist. Aged thirty-one, he lived alone, an overweight fast-food server with extraordinarily curly hair, ludicrously bad luck, acne scars (though at least he’d stopped sprouting pimples), immaturity caused by lack of social interaction, and personal hygiene so bad the restaurant manager had to frequently speak to him about it—but nothing could hurt him anymore. When he encountered a beautiful female customer, his hands would shake (when word of this got out, many of the ladies who worked nearby flocked to the restaurant to test if they were attractive enough to provoke a tremor). Each night his dreams centred on turning into a completely different person. He entered his details into a dating site, but waited three hundred and five days before receiving his first message.

The girl said she wasn’t writing to him for any particular reason. Something about his self-introduction (which was actually only a hundred words long) made her feel they’d get along. He trembled as he read this, then spent three hours composing a reply, deleting as much as he wrote. From here on, they began a rapid exchange of messages.

Each morning, he’d wake to find an e-mail from her—neither long nor short, perhaps five hundred words, mostly responding to his queries from the night before and adding to whatever they’d been talking about, plus displaying an appropriate level of curiosity about him. There was nothing special about her word choices, and sometimes she’d make grammatical mistakes even he could detect, but she had a warm intelligence that wasn’t in the least threatening. All in all, she seemed a perfectly normal girl with an average education. He’d read each message three to five times before heading off to the restaurant where he’d fumble over and over for all of his work hours, because his mind was completely occupied with composing his letter to her. After his shift ended, he’d rush home to send off the thousand words that had cost him an entire day’s errors at work, and then the long wait till the next morning. This wasn’t a pleasant sort of anticipation, but he had several hundred reasons for not suggesting other means of communication.

As to why he should find himself so hooked on her after only a month, it wasn’t only because he didn’t know a single other woman outside his family; rather, to him, she represented absolute perfection. By ‘perfection,’ he didn’t mean anything like long hair or big eyes or a slender figure, though of course he did have his own image of the ideal look: petite, pale-skinned, soft as vanilla ice-cream. But the most important thing was the internal dramas accumulated after so many years of loneliness. For instance, she mentioned she adored celery, red grapes, fish, and beans, but didn’t much care for meat or shrimp, which meant if they were to eat together they could clean each other’s plates; she enjoyed after-midnight browsing at 24-hour supermarkets, picking up each item to examine it carefully before putting it back; she’d rather watch a DVD at home than go to the cinema (though she’d never rent one of those art-house films that went straight to DVD); she was an only child, she’d hated handicraft classes as a little girl, she frequently looked up at the sky as she walked along the street, she spoke too much when she was nervous, she caught colds easily, she dealt with stress by nursing little jealousies, she tried a different soft drink on each visit to the convenience store…

Her daily note might have consisted largely of idle chatter, but it also revealed more and more details like the ones above, things he could never have imagined but that immediately felt right—they conformed to the innermost secrets of his heart, yet he could never have put them into words. At the same time, his sleep was suddenly stripped of dreams. He used to dream all the time about the beauty and the happiness missing from his real life. There was nothing now—no hidden treasures, no symbolism, neither profanity nor grace, nothing but a black void.

This was illogical in all kinds of ways, and he should have had his doubts, but he believed the beautiful dreams hadn’t in fact gone away, but had rather crystallised into this encounter with the woman he was destined to be with, soon to become even more real. And so, on his wordless commute to and from work each day, he thought about this girl he hadn’t met but was intimate with, living life in parallel to him, and he felt a kind of joy that was both full and empty at the same time.

They never talked about meeting face to face, and because they had such an obvious chemistry, he wasn’t too worried about that. But after many days of sun and rain, after many moments of connection, after many sweet exchanges, she never even suggested he might phone her for a real chat.

Which wasn’t to say that if the girl walked up to him, he’d actually dare speak to her in person. But there was something frustrating about this kind of life, being single yet part of a couple, neither lonely nor fulfilled, that resulted in endless speculation. No matter how much he wondered, it was hard to settle on any one of the following possiblities:

Perhaps she was perfect in every way, and simply waiting for him to make the next move—but it was hard to imagine any woman waiting patiently for a partner like himself.

Perhaps she was already married with a three-year-old daughter and a son who’d just passed his first birthday, lumbered with some greaseball of a husband. Needing to fill the emptiness between breastfeeding sessions, and hating her life, she’d fabricated dozens of personalities, filling dozens of unfortunate fellows with frustration.

Perhaps she was not one person but a bored couple, enacting an elaborate hoax to make a stranger look foolish.

Perhaps any day now, she’d send a message asking him to transfer money to a particular bank account.

Perhaps—and this was the worst-case scenario, he unabashedly thought to himself—she might be just like him, and the person she least wanted to look at in the world was herself.

Contemplating this point, he decided to either stop the affair or take it to the next level. It was already a mercy that reality hadn’t yet brought him crashing down, and it seemed pointless rushing forward off his own bat. And furthermore, he ruminated, for all he knew, this petite, attractive girl had been put on earth just to love him. If some people could win the lottery and others survive after being struck by lightning, why shouldn’t he be visited by a miracle after suffering for so many years?

Perhaps because of his long-standing habit of avoiding reflective surfaces, he was the last person to detect the mysterious transformation.

The first to notice was a gaggle of girls from a secondary school. Every evening, they’d come into the fast-food restaurant to do their homework, covering a table or two with books and notepads. Yet their eyes, full of suppressed twinkles, were not on their schoolwork at all, but clung to him as he worked the cash register or flipped a burger or mopped the floor. This made him feel thoroughly self-conscious, and he made even more mistakes than usual, but there was nothing to be done about it.

Next, his colleagues began whispering behind his back, not bothering to conceal their chatter, which was also not loud enough to be overheard. He’d known they loved to exchange rumours about others, but had no idea he’d one day become the object of their gossip.

Then came the final straw—his mother. One morning, she suddenly thought of something or other she needed to discuss with him, and rushed over to his place. When he opened the door, she stood there slack-jawed. “Sorry, I must have come to the wrong house.”

“Ma? What are you talking about?”

She was so shocked she forgot the purpose of her visit. After studying him a long while, she finally said, “How come you’re so skinny now?”

That was the least of it. After his mother left, a dazed expression still on her face, he went to his bathroom and stayed staring at the mirror for a good half hour. He could still just about recognise himself, but was suddenly fearful. This felt like that fairy tale, the shoemaker and the elves—he wondered if something was coming in the middle of the night and only leaving at dawn, working day after day on his sleeping body, filling in and carving out, turning him into a lean-torsoed, clean-featured hunk of a man. His skin emanated some kind of light, and he’d grown a full eight centimetres. Even the big black mole by his eyebrow had shrivelled into a pale blemish that let you imagine he’d once been punched in that spot. No wonder his mother, after not seeing him for some months, was shocked into temporary amnesia. No wonder his colleagues murmured about his being on some kind of special diet, subjected to some kind of make-over. And as for those secondary school girls—of course they who’d had no interest in his former self couldn’t now get enough of his new self.

He knew it was all down to the girl. His world had changed the moment she appeared. Like Ye Gong who pretended to be fascinated by dragons but ran away terrified when confronted by an actual beast, he stayed at home panic-stricken for three days, before wandering out shakily to embrace this wondrous event, like a lottery-winner showing himself to society for the first time, still uncertain how to hold himself, having to re-appraise his appearance in each shop window he passed. Gradually, though, this began to feel good. He was now bold enough to accept the fashion tips passed on by salesgirls as they giggled, ignoring other customers, their voices so tender it seemed they were spilling their secrets.

They urged him to go across the road and ask Kenny on the second floor for a haircut. He left with shopping bags full of this and that, not to mention two receipts with cell phone numbers secretly scribbled on their backs. Beauty is a form of class, and the physical body is a weapon of class warfare. As he walked through the city meeting gaze after gaze, he knew he had become a conqueror.

But there was only one question on his mind: now that he was fit to meet her, would she come?

Every detail of that evening would remain etched into his memory forever. He got back to his apartment around eight-thirty, bearing his new outfits and a bellyful of worry. At nine, he ate the box-dinner he’d bought from a roadside stall, and then logged into his e-mail inbox. Everything was as per normal, but the e-mail recipient was a brand new person.

These three days in hiding, he thought, might possibly have caused the girl, in whichever of the thousands of lit windows across this city she sat by, to grow anxious and fretful. For some reason, this thought gave him a more powerful erection than he’d ever had before. He finally abandoned the arguments he’d spent all evening composing to persuade her to meet him, and sent only two sentences: ‘Want to see a movie this weekend? My treat.’ And with that, he swiftly logged out, turned off the light, and slid beneath his blanket. He fell asleep as soon as he touched the bed, and went straight into his first dream for a long while. He dreamt about the girl.

The perspective of his dream kept shifting. At times he watched himself and the girl from the outside, two gorgeous bodies tangled together. At other times, he was back in the trembling centre of sexual intercourse, the girl’s skin the pale translucent colour of vanilla cream. Her lips brushed again and again over his nerve endings. At the moment of climax, he instinctively bit her shoulder hard. There was no blood, just a soft yet crunchy sensation in his mouth, the taste of all kinds of fresh fruit. Now his carnal appetites had been satisfied, the desire for food was greater than ever, and he gobbled great mouthfuls, chewing at the girl’s body until it was all gone. Only then did the thought arise that something was wrong. Surely other people weren’t food?

His legs spasmed and bounced against the floor. He looked up to see the luminous clock hands pointing at three forty-seven. He was in front of the computer, not in bed, and the screen before him glowed furiously in the dark. He vaguely realised he’d just come from a dream, and made an effort to pull himself back into reality, away from the soft body that still seemed present, towards the computer he clearly remembered turning off before falling asleep.

Displayed in the web browser was a hotmail inbox, logged in to the girl’s account, full of every e-mail he’d ever sent her in neat rows. In another window was a reply to his invitation, but one that stopped after the first few words: ‘You said a mov’ as if the person composing this message had only stepped away for a moment, perhaps to use the bathroom.

But of course this person hadn’t just popped to the bathroom, but woken from a dream. Two of his fingers still rested on the ‘i’ and ‘e’ keys, and remained in this posture as he stared blankly, perfectly stationary until the sky began to lighten and he began hearing the first morning traffic. Dashing to the toilet, he got there just in time to throw up his dinner from the night before. There were fish slices in vinegar, fried carrot and sweetcorn with green beans, fragments of rice and egg. Seeing each component of his vomit with such clarity, he realised abruptly that he’d recently been eating all kinds of foods he’d never normally touch, but that ‘she’ liked.

He had no idea if this counted as multiple personality disorder or sleepwalking or some other sickness, but one thing was certain: his poor concentration at work and emaciated body weren’t caused by his lovelorn state, but by sleep deprivation. He’d somehow got up each night, walked into the living room, turned on his computer, registered another identity on hotmail and the dating website, written himself a letter saying ‘Hey, I think we’d get along,’ then returned to bed, waking up the next day with no memory of doing any of these things, for a whole hundred and thirteen days. His seven hours of sleep reduced to a choppy four hours—how could he possibly be well-rested?

After looking carefully through that hotmail account and his computer’s internal records, he still couldn’t understand why he’d do something like this to himself. Perhaps his need for love was simply too great, or the opposite—he hated himself too much. It could just be that something in his DNA contained some mysterious psychological illness. Some people won the lottery and others were hit by lightning, but he had a one hundred percent chance of inheriting genetic defects.

No matter what the reason was, it wouldn’t change the reality that he would always be alone. After a few days, he began returning to his original form, like a balloon deflating after a garden party: his extraordinarily small mouth, pointy ears, stubborn natural curls, podginess, drunkard’s nose, short stature and droopy eyes all reasserted themselves. The black mole by his eyebrow even took the opportunity to protrude a little further, sprouting wiry dark hairs. The only real change in his life came out of his absenteeism, that one day resulted in a text message from his supervisor at the fast food restaurant telling him that he needn’t bother coming back to work. He found a new job at a convenience store. In addition, he sold his computer, not because it made him sad or fearful to look at it, because after all he’d recovered his original nature, the resilience of a dog or ox. No, he simply didn’t want to give himself the opportunity to wreak havoc again at some point in the future.

And then there really was nothing. He began having dreams again, but they were only ever about everyday things: eating an oversalted bowl of noodles with pickled vegetables and meat; running around desperately looking for a toilet; playing a video game but not being able to get to the next level. And there were times when he’d get up at dawn, usually on sweaty summer mornings, lying in bed smelling his own body odour that lingered through the night, remembering the woman’s body in that one joyous dream, soft as cream cheese, and couldn’t help speculating: that night at 3:47 a.m., what had ‘she’ planned to say to him in that forever incomplete message?

But the thought filled him with resentment. All he could do was sigh long and hard, then drag himself out of bed. Now he pulled on the T-shirt and shorts he’d worn the day before, ready to start his shift at the convenience store, where he’d have some expired buns and milk for breakfast. He grabbed his keys, sifted through the coins in his pocket, and walked out the front door, completely forgetting that today was his thirty-second birthday. As far as he knew, it was just another day in which his dreams would not come true.

“Business savvy just doesn’t run in the blood,” my mum often says – in which there lies a veiled criticism of me, and a hint of regret. But no such regret existed until after I turned ten years old, because up until then I was known to be quite the businessman.

My family ran a shoe shop, but to have some kid addressing the customers – with lines like “you look great in this pair”; “it’s real leather”; “I’ll make it a bit cheaper, just for you”; “gosh, I really can’t go any lower than that” – would hardly have come across as very authentic, or persuasive. But one year, my mum came up with an idea. You can go to the footbridge, she said, and sell laces and insoles. People are bound to buy them if they see a kid like you. The innocent face of a child is one of life’s ways of tricking us into having the courage to carry on living – this was something I only came to understand much later.

The market had eight buildings in all, named ‘Loyalty’, ‘Filiality’, ‘Benevolence’, ‘Love’, ‘Trust’, ‘Justice’, ‘Harmony’, and ‘Peace’. We lived between Love and Trust. There was a footbridge from Love to Trust, and another to Benevolence. I preferred the footbridge between Love and Trust, because it was longer. The far end was in Ximending, and on the bridge itself there were peddlers selling everything: selling ice cream, selling children’s clothing, selling baked seed cakes, selling Wacoal brand underwear, selling goldfish, turtles – I even saw someone selling water monks (a kind of blue crab). The police sometimes came to harass the peddlers, but there were just too many routes down from the footbridge – the peddlers often bundled up their stuff and nipped off to the toilet before returning. Never mind the fact that the police usually came slowly along, as though they thought the peddlers were all suffering from gout and incapable of running away.

Early that morning my aunt took me up onto the footbridge, gave me a rice ball, and left. I tied the laces in pairs on the footbridge railings, and as soon as the wind picked up they fluttered to and fro. I sat on the little stool my aunt had brought with her, and started lining up the insoles in pair of lefts and rights. I put the ‘noisy skins’ at the very front, because they were the most expensive – one pair cost thirty bucks. My mum said the insoles we called noisy skins were made from pigskin – they had a pungent kind of aroma. If you layered several of them together, they produced this shuai-shuai-shuai noise when you walked around – hence the name. Wow – the skin of a dead pig could still make noise!

Ha, I sure did love selling insoles on the footbridge.

Opposite mine was the stall of a man with greasy hair, a jacket with the collar turned up, grey trousers, and paratrooper boots that were neither zipped nor laced up. Paratrooper boots are those tall boots with lots of lace holes – doing up all the laces on boots so tall was the fiddliest thing in the world. Eventually someone had invented a zip that could replace the laces. I heard this was a dream come true for all the soldiers in Taiwan – from then on, every squaddie could get out of bed in the morning much more quickly. Back then we had at least ten squaddies coming in every day to buy zips for paratrooper boots. Maybe, I thought, I could get my mum to give me some paratrooper boot zips to sell tomorrow – sales would surely be good.

This man had drawn an arc on the ground in chalk, spread out a black cloth, and put out all the things he was selling according to their type. At first I didn’t know what kind of thing he was selling: there were playing cards, linked rings, strange notebooks… My aunt said he was a magic trick salesman. Wow – a guy selling magic tricks! My stall was opposite a guy selling magic tricks!

“Actually no – I am a magician.” This was how he introduced himself. I once asked where his goods were sold wholesale, and he said, “all of this magic is real.” He looked at me with those eyes of his – so skewed they could look in different directions, like a lizard – and I shivered.

The magician didn’t wear a tailcoat like the magicians on TV, and he didn’t have a top hat either. Every day he just wore that woolen jacket with the collar turned up, grey trousers, and filthy paratrooper boots. Next time, I thought, I’d recommend him some liquid boot polish – one wipe of that and they’d be gleaming. His face was perhaps a little squareish, perhaps a little longish. Neither tall nor short, he looked like the kind of person who’d forgotten what laughter was. Once the magician entered a crowd, there was nothing to distinguish him from anyone else – that was the kind of inconspicuous magician he was. Nothing, that is, apart from that pair of eyes, and that pair of zipless paratrooper boots.

The magician put on a show about once an hour. I was so lucky, sitting opposite him selling insoles. The magic he did most often involved dice, playing cards, linked rings – tricks of that sort. Thinking of it now, they all seem so ordinary – so ordinary there were no real grounds for calling him a magician. But back then they were nothing short of miraculous, as far as I was concerned. It felt just the same as it did later when I saw Vivian Leigh for the first time. This was why I hankered after those magic tricks, in just the same way as I’d always wanted to raise a sparrow.

There was one trick he did with six dice. Surrounded by a large audience, he loaded the dice one by one into the little box with a casual manner. Once he had shut this little box, one shake – and the magician revealed the smile he only ever seemed to reveal when performing – and when he opened the box they had turned to six, six, six, six, six, and six.

It seemed like the number was at the discretion of the magician. He could ask for the birthday of a member of the crowd who was enjoying the spectacle, for instance – then, as though it were nothing, while continuing to speak – produce the digits of the date on which they were born. Sometimes one shake would be all it took, while at other times he’d only stop after shaking it so many times it made me dizzy, but whenever he opened the box the numbers were spot on every time.

When he was doing magic his eyes would sometimes gleam; he was still the magician in the woolen jacket with the collar turned up, in those grey trousers and filthy paratrooper boots – but in that instant his whole person was glowing, as though after taking in a breath of air he was then able to bring all the forces of light and gravity to bear on that little chalk circle in which he stood. As well as performing he was also selling tricks. The time came when I could no long resist the temptation to use money from the insole sales to buy one of the tricks. The first one I got was ‘the dice of mystery’.

After buying a trick from the magician he’d take you to one side and give you a blank piece of white paper along with the trick. “Take it home,” he said, “soak it in water and then dry it out – then you’ll be able to see the secret of the magic.” I spent half the night carefully soaking the paper, and then – having used my mum’s hairdryer to blow it dry – spent the rest of the night carefully studying. There were pictures on the paper as well as words – by the looks of it the magician had written and drawn them all by hand. So, that’s the way it is, I thought to myself as I read the words. That’s the way it is. At that moment I thought I understood all the most profound secrets of the magician – just like I thought I knew what love was when I was eleven-years-old and had a secret crush on a classmate.

I practiced furtively, in private. The first time I performed the dice trick in front of my big brother I was so nervous I repeatedly dropped the dice, with the result that before I’d even finished loading them into the box he had seen through the trick.

“You turn the dice face you want towards yourself, right?” he said with a look of disdain.

“Right.” I was devastated: he was right. Nothing could be more painful than to be rumbled before the magic had even happened – it was like having your whole life foretold before you’d even grown up. I felt a bitter hatred towards both fortune-tellers and those who revealed the secrets of other people’s magic. The key to the trick lay not in the dice themselves but in the box, which had a particular shape to it. You put the number you wanted against the side closest to you, and then it fell to the strength of your wrist to make them turn ninety degrees, so that side was now facing upwards. That’s all there was to it.

“You stole money – I’m telling mum,” my brother said. I had indeed ‘appropriated’ money from selling insoles, and once my brother had made this discovery, I had no option but to give the magic dice to him.

Damn, but that was one overpriced secret – no way was it worth sixty bucks! I’d gone to the trouble of tricking my mum for a whole week before I was able skim sixty bucks from the insole earnings.

But the funny thing was that even though I’d discovered there was no magic to it, whenever I saw the magician clap his hands and yell, I let go of all those thoughts of being deceived. Unable to control myself, I was lured in by the magician’s trickery again and again. Again and again I bought those tricks which – back then – seemed impossibly precious. Like the empty matchbox that could become a full matchbox; the picture book whose black outlines suddenly filled with colour; the ball-point pen that drew in as many colours as a rainbow; the mysteriously pliable copper coin… Every trick was the same: in the instant it was being performed by the magician, my desire to learn it for myself was irrepressible – but once I’d spent the money, bought it and taken it home, after soaking that paper in water and waiting for the words to emerge, the magic stopped being a mystery and became a con. It was only much later that I discovered the same reasoning applies to more or less everything.

With my lack of practice on top of that, those magic tricks were pretty much a disaster for me – I was always being laughed at by relatives or neighbours.

“You’ve been had, idiot child.” When my mum found out I’d stolen money to buy magic tricks, she gave me a slap around the head.

What was really hard to endure was the fact that Burble, from the tailor’s; the utility repairman from Justice block’s kid, Blowhard; and Ah Kai from the wonton noodle shop – all of them had bought the same tricks. I wasn’t the least bit angry about being cheated of money – I was confident I just needed a bit more practice – but the feeling that everyone seemed to have their hands on that secret paper was truly unbearable. Several times I was tempted to give the magician a piece of my mind, but I only ever dared vent my anger in my mother’s presence – irritating her to the point where she could stand it no longer, and turned around to give me another slap.

“You spent your stolen money on worthless trinkets, and still you have the cheek to complain?”

Interest in the magician eventually began to dwindle. This was inevitable – passers-by might browse his stall, but all the children in the area had already bought all the tricks. The children who had bought them tried at first to prevent their neighbours and classmates doing likewise by telling them it was all fake, but everyone bought them eventually. There are some things you have to try for yourself before you can know the feeling of being cheated, right?

The magician had also noticed this state of affairs, and he knew he had to create something new for these children to talk about. When I was at work one day, I saw him take a book out of a square valise, and when he opened it up, there was something tucked inside – something black, something that had been cut out of paper, something no larger than a grown-up’s little finger – and this something was a little person.

He put this little black man on the ground, and within the big circle surrounding his stall he used yellow chalk to draw another circle about the size of a fan, before closing his eyes and muttering an incantation. The little black man suddenly shook from side to side, and – as though he’d just woken up – rose to his feet. At first the passers-by were just hurrying past, but for some reason – as though they heard the little black man’s silent summons – they were unable to stop themselves turning back for a look, and once they discovered the little black man on the ground, their footsteps unconsciously slowed to a halt.

I truly did love selling insoles on the footbridge. The little black man leapt and danced in a bumbling sort of way, dashing this way and that in time with the magician’s singing, chanting voice. Although somewhat clumsy, his movements were very endearing – it was like he was reluctant to exert himself too much for fear of tearing himself apart. Paper was not made for sudden movements, after all. I began to fret on behalf of the little black man – if he were to take part in gym class he would surely find himself in mortal peril.

I gradually worked out that the scope of the little black man’s activity was limited to the confines of that yellow circle – he could only be within that circle. Were anyone to try and touch the little black man, the magician would stop their hand with a loud and threatening cry, saying, “those who touch him will suffer misfortune, but those who watch him dance will have good luck.” And the little black man didn’t look like he wanted to be touched – if anyone came near he would scuttle back to the magician’s heel.

Once everyone had been drawn in by the little black man, the magician would begin his routine. The tricks were the same old thing: the mysterious dice; the matchbox that produced matches; the picture book that coloured itself in with a riffle of its pages; the pencil that produced rainbow colours with each stroke; the copper coin you could squeeze between a thumb and forefinger… For some reason the things that hadn’t been selling well before were now being snapped up, and the crowd began to appreciate the magician’s tricks once more. And then, one by one, he’d take each customer to one side, and one by one give them the blank piece of paper. I had seen all these white pieces of paper – could recite them from memory – but for some stupid reason I still somehow ended up buying another set of magic dice.

At this point the little black man always knew he belonged within the chalk circle. What with his having no eyes, I guessed the little black man couldn’t actually see it. That little black man who couldn’t see, slowly pacing around that little yellow circle, looked as though he had something on his mind.

The magician’s little black man began to grow famous on the footbridge. Now it was not just the children from the market, but all the children from our primary school who came to the footbridge; the worker crowd on their way to Chongqing South Street; the peddlers from Ximending – even the military police from over the road, and the girls from the hairdressers – they all made the trip to the footbridge to see the magician’s little black man. The little black man was still a little shy – he danced that little black man dance of his in a slightly clumsy way, and then bent his paper back to bow, waving his paper arms in greeting to the crowd. I was completely entranced by him – every day I looked forward to seeing the little black man’s dance so much I sometimes forgot to sell any insoles or laces. The laces tied to the railings, fluttering about in the wind – when I picture it, even now, I’m struck by the beauty of the sight.

Once I had bought all of the magician’s tricks we gradually got to know one another. When he bought fried dumplings he’d sometimes give me a few, and sometimes when my mum brought back buttered pastries from gran’s hometown in Dajia, I’d share them with him. When he was eating, the magician’s eyes would occasionally look in different directions, as though he was afraid of missing out on anything that might be going on in the world.

Sometimes when he needed to go to the toilet he’d call me over to keep an eye on his stall. “As long as I don’t find anything missing, that’ll do fine. Don’t try to sell anything – whatever you do, don’t try to sell anything. Oh, and you mustn’t touch the little black man.”

I was more than happy to oblige, and it was a simple job. Sitting in the magician’s chair, it was like I was the magician. Sitting there, at last I had a chance to get close to the little black man. And then I clapped my hands like the magician, and sung a strange, muttering song, and chanted an incomprehensible incantation. The little black man shakily rose to his feet, like he had heard something summoning him, and began to dance around the chalk circle.

He did no such thing, of course. The little black man continued sitting quietly on top of the magic matchbox.

The size of the matchbox was just right to be the little black man’s chair, as though it was specially meant to serve that purpose. When the magician wasn’t making him dance, the little black man would sometimes sit on the matchbox with just the same posture as a fully-grown person, one leg crossed over the other with one foot in the air. Sometimes his back would bend slightly with the wind, making him look like he was deep in contemplation. What kind of things did the little black man think about? Were there certain anxieties that only a little black man could have? Was there, somewhere out there, a school where only little black people could go to study? What lessons would they teach at such a school? Would the little black people also have to memorize their nine times table? Did the school for little black people have music class (and if not, how was it that the little black man could dance?) Being made from such flimsy paper, how could the little black man possibly play dodgeball? I secretly worried on the little black man’s behalf, just the same way as my mum worried about me.

Regardless of whether I was minding the magician’s stall or sitting with my insoles opposite him, I was always watching the little black man, completely lost in thoughts like these.

There was one time when the magician went to the toilet, for a number two, it seemed like, because he had been gone for a long time. I was sitting in the chair, bored out my mind, and the little black man was sitting on his matchbox, looking like he was bored out of his mind too. Because I was so tired that day, and because the weather was a bit chilly and there weren’t many passers-by on the footbridge, I ended up dozing off. I guess I could only have been asleep for a very short time before I was woken up by rainwater. I looked up; rain was most definitely falling from an overcast sky. I wasn’t bothered about my insoles – I had to get the magician’s big umbrella open, and stick it into the umbrella stand next to the stall – but the umbrella was so big I couldn’t pull it open no matter what I did – my hands were too short. Just like that, it was bucketing down, and soon a stream of water had taken shape on the footbridge, flowing towards the drainage holes. It just so happened that on that day the little black man had not been sitting on his matchbox, but had been on the ground, leaning against the side of the bridge. He was quickly soaked through. By the time I realised, the little black man was plastered to the ground, hopelessly splayed like a piece of discarded trash. Indifferent to the soaking I was getting, I urgently cast the umbrella aside and tried to pick him up. But because the paper had got stuck to the cement of the footbridge, when I tugged on the little black man’s hand, it ripped right off. I started crying, tears plopping everywhere, wailing, “the little black man’s hand’s broken, the little black man’s dead, his hand’s broken!”

Auntie Ah Fen, who sold children’s clothes at the next stall along (although I called her auntie, she was probably only just a kid in junior middle school), having first hurried to sort out the umbrella over her own stall, raced over to help me pull open mine, before helplessly watching the little black man on the ground, at a complete loss. I kept crying and crying, crying so hard I nearly got a cramp. Only then did I see the magician return. With his two eyes facing in different directions, he began to gather up his goods.

“It’s raining, and you haven’t gone to sort out your own things,” he said. “If the insoles are all soaked you’ll catch hell from your mother.” I didn’t know whether or not he was angry; I stuttered, unable to get a sentence out intact. The little black man was dead, and his death had something to do with me. A hole had been poked through my heart, just like it was made out of paper.

When my mum ushered me out to go set up the stall the next day, I felt terrible. I didn’t want to go and be in the magician’s presence – but at the same time, I did, so I could find out for sure how the little black man was doing. Maybe it was just his hand that was broken, and he wasn’t dead. Couldn’t a little black man with a broken hand still dance? Still go to the little black people school?

When I arrived there that day, though the magician saw that I had come, he didn’t call out a greeting – “kiddo, have you eaten your fill today?” – like he used to. He just sat there in his chair, silent. I felt like I was a hopeless good-for-nothing. The cars beneath the footbridge were passing to and fro; the dust above the footbridge was drifting down onto my body; and there wasn’t a single passer-by who wasn’t happier than me.

At midday the magician bought a box of fried dumplings (not inviting me to eat any this time), and when he’d finished eating he wiped his mouth and opened his square valise. He took out the book and opened it, and there was a sheet of black paper and a pair of scissors tucked inside. The magician pulled them out, and set to work. In a jiffy, a little black man had been cut out. I slyly peered at the magician’s activity, and it made my heart beat as fast as a freshly wound clock.

The magician placed this new little black man on the ground, drew a fresh yellow chalk circle, and hummed his tune and called aloud at the same time. The new little black man was dancing, just the same as the little black man used to dance before – but with a little more dash, it seemed: he could twirl, now, too! Delighted, I yelled, “not dead – he’s not dead!” But once the words had come out of my mouth I felt they weren’t quite true. Could it be that this little black man was not the same one who had been plastered to the ground by yesterday’s rain – whose hand I had broken off? Could it be that he was just a new little black man, being used to replace the broken-handed little black man from before?

The magician looked at me through his right eye, a repressed smile playing around his mouth. With his left eye looking in another direction, he beckoned me over.

“Can you see any difference between this little black man and the one from yesterday?”

I shook my head. “He looks exactly the same,” I said, hesitantly. “Isn’t he? The little black man didn’t die, did he?”

With his eyes still facing in different directions, the magician said, “I don’t know either. Kiddo, you should know – there are some things in this world that no one can ever know. What we see before our eyes is not all that there is.”

“Why?” I asked.

The magician thought for a while, before replying in a hoarse voice. “Because sometimes the things you remember your whole life are not those things your eyes have seen.”

Honestly, I didn’t understand what the magician meant at all. But this was the first time he’d spoken to me like this – like he was talking to me as a grown-up, like there was something about me of which he approved.

When I got home and told my brother about the little black man, and about what the magician had said to me, he was angry. I didn’t understand why. He said he was going to tell mum, and she wouldn’t let me go sell insoles on the footbridge anymore, because the magician was going to trick me into running away with him.

That night I dreamt of the little black man. He took me to a forest (not that I even knew what a forest was back then – the furthest away I’d ever been was New Park) and we sang songs together, and played hide-and-seek. Deep within the forest I saw a bright patch, and the little black man said I couldn’t go there. I asked why, and he said it was too dark. But it was quite clearly brighter over there, I said, and he said there were some places that you might think are bright, but are actually dark.

I was not tricked into running away with the magician, and my brother didn’t tell my mum about what had happened with the little black man. One by one, the days continued to pass by. As I got to know the magician better and better, I pleaded with him in private time after time to tell me the secret of the little black man. It was only when I mentioned this to him that he turned serious.

“Kiddo, I’m telling you – all my magic is fake. Only the little black man is real. And because it’s real, there’s nothing I can tell you. Because it’s real, it’s not like the other magic – there’s no secret to tell.”

I didn’t believe it. I was sure the magician wasn’t telling me the truth – he was hiding something. I could tell by looking in his eyes – just like my mum said she could tell when I was lying by looking in my eyes.

“Don’t trick me,” I said. “Don’t think you can trick me just because I’m a kid.”

As the beginning of the new school year grew closer each day, my mum announced that once school started I wouldn’t be selling from the stall any more. This was depressing news. Again and again, I fought with her for some chance to carry on during the term, even if it was only on holidays. But whatever I said, she wouldn’t budge – I suspected my big brother had told her my secret.

I talked this over with the magician. “If you don’t teach me it’ll be too late – I’m starting school soon,” I said woefully. “If you don’t teach me you’ll regret it – if you die all of a sudden there’ll be no one who knows the magic of the little black man.” I don’t know when I turned into such a smooth-talker – maybe that business savvy my mum mentioned could run in the blood after all.

The magician just laughed, one eye looking at some far-off place, the other seeming to look straight into my soul.

One evening when I was packing up the stall at eight, the magician, having put away the little black man and his magic tricks, beckoned me towards him. I followed him without the slightest hesitation, my heart pounding. He kept going straight ahead, right across the footbridge and along to the furthest corner of the market, where there was a door. This door, I knew, led out onto the roof – a place where the grown-ups said we weren’t allowed to go. With one twist of his hand, the magician opened the lock, and gestured for me to head on up.

It was the first time I had been on the roof of the market, and I was entranced by the view.

The buildings of Taipei were of a completely different height back then. From the footbridge we could see the holiday fireworks over Tamsui river, and when the weather was good we could even see the hills of Yangmingshan. The Taipei of those times still resembled a basin: even if you stood in the bottom of the basin, in some place without much elevation, you could still see to the basin’s edge, and everything within it. In that moment I stood there on the roof with the magician, the glimmering lanterns of Ximending on one side, the Presidential Office Building lit up on the other. The magician pointed off to the side, to a corner beneath a neon sign.

“This is where I live,” he said. “But the day will come when I will leave this place.” The corner in which the magician lived was covered by a rain shield for the neon sign’s generator. Along with a jumble of plastic bags and a disheveled sleeping bag, it looked like there were also a surprising number of books heaped around the place.

“Where will you go?”

“I don’t know. Anywhere is fine.”

“I want to be a magician too.”

“Being a magician wouldn’t suit you. Because magicians have many secrets, and people with many secrets do not have happy lives.”


“Forget about it. It’s not something you can understand. And magicians can’t stay in the same place for too long. Kiddo, you’ve always wanted to learn the magic of the little black man, right?”

“Right!” I nodded my head as hard as I could. Could it really be that the magician was prepared to teach me? My heart thudded so hard it felt like it was trying to escape.

“It can’t be learned. Because the little black man is real – and since it’s real, it can’t be learned.”

This old line again. “Then give him to me, okay? If it’s magic, you can teach me, and if it’s real, you can just give the little black man to me – how about that?”

“When I was young I thought that if you caught a butterfly and mounted it as a specimen, you possessed a butterfly. It was only much later that I realised a butterfly specimen is not a butterfly. Only when I understood this clearly was I able to do real magic, like the little black man – because I could take something out of my imagination, out of my head, and turn it into something everyone can see. All I did was influence the world you can all see – just the same as when someone makes a movie.”

I angled my head to one side. Next to us, the enormous neon sign for Hey Song Sarsaparilla was producing a humming noise. I didn’t understand what the magician was saying; his eyes gleamed blue in the blue neon light, green in the green neon light. I thought about what he had said; what he called ‘real’ magic left me feeling deeply confused.

“So is there any way I could do it? Do something like making the little black man dance?”

“Kiddo, there’s no way I can tell you if there’s any way. But we’re two of a kind, you and me. I’m going to give you something, and you can use it however you see fit.”

Having finished speaking, the magician extended his right hand, as if about to reveal something. He held his palm before my eyes for maybe as long as half a minute. I couldn’t help but look at all the calluses, all the complicated, criss-crossing ridges of his palm. The magician slowly bent his index finger, middle finger, and thumb, and inserted them into his left eye. My own eyeballs ached at the sight. The magician’s eye socket seemed to be very soft – his fingers quickly extended inside – and with a light twist, the magician plucked out his left eye, and placed it on the palm of his right hand. The eyeball he’d dug out didn’t bleed, didn’t tear – it was like a perfect, newborn, opalescent star.