Authors: Bi Feiyu
he dress rehearsal was a roaring success. Chunlai performed the greater part of the opera and Xiao Yanqiu took over at the end, a sort of grand finale. It was a major event for teacher and student to appear on the same stage. Bingzhang, who was sitting in the second row, was so excited he had to strain to calm himself as he watched two generations of
perform. He sat there with his legs crossed, his fingers wildly tapping out the rhythm, like five little monkeys scampering down off a mountain. A scant few months earlier the troupe had been in terrible shape, and now they were actually putting on a performance. He was pleased for the troupe, for Chunlai, and for Xiao Yanqiu; but most of all, he was pleased for himself. He was, he believed, the big winner.
Xiao Yanqiu did not watch Chunlai’s rehearsal. She stayed in the dressing room to rest, feeling unwell, until it was time to go on stage and sing the longest and most splendid aria, “The Vast Cold Palace,” which Chang’e sings after flying heavenward and is alone in the palace of the moon. Moving from meandering and slow to a lyrical rhythm, and then to a strong beat that leads to a crescendo, it lasted a full fifteen minutes.
Chang’e is now in the celestial realm, where, with the Milky Way and the Morning Star disappearing, she looks down on the human world, as loneliness surges through her, highlighted by the green ocean and blue sky. Amid boundless heavenly benevolence, the loneliness fosters a bitter remorse. The remorse and the loneliness prey on each other, spurring the other on as, in the eternal night of the vast universe, stars sparkle, off into infinity, year after year. People are their own worst enemies; they want not to be human, but immortal. They are the cause of their own problems, not the solution. People, where are you? You are so far away. You are on the ground. You are deep in your own thoughts. You ingest the wrong elixir and live a life that cannot bear any reflection or reminiscence. Ingesting the wrong elixir is Chang’e’s fate, it is a woman’s fate, and it is humanity’s fate. Humans are what they are. If they are fated to have only this much, they must not quest for more.
aria was followed by a flute dance, with Chang’e holding a flute brought up from the human world, and celestial fairies floating around her. Circled by the fairies, she projects helplessness, pain, remorse, and despair, as she gazes all around. Chang’e and the fairies strike a pose, and with that the curtain falls, ending
The Moon Opera
Bingzhang’s original idea had been for Xiao Yanqiu and Chunlai to share half of the play during dress rehearsal, but Xiao Yanqiu was not sure her body was up to it. For, after taking the elixir, Chang’e has a brisk-tempo aria followed by a water sleeve dance with gestures that require exaggerated movements. Strength is essential for both the song and the dance. In the past, that would not have been a problem for Xiao Yanqiu, but today it was. It had only been five days since the abortion, which, though medically induced, had caused much bleeding. She was still frail and worried that her voice might not be up to it. Besides, it was only a dress rehearsal.
She had made the right decision, for the flute dance alone proved to be too much for her. As soon as the curtain fell, she collapsed. The “fairies” were frightened, but she put on a brave face. Seated on the rug, she smiled and said, “I tripped, I’m all right.” Then, instead of answering a curtain call, she headed for the toilet with a feeling that her body had taken a turn for the worse; something warm was dripping from down below.
When Yanqiu emerged from the toilet she was at once surrounded by cast members. Standing in front, Bingzhang smiled and gave her a thumbs-up. It was a heartfelt compliment. His eyes were moist. Xiao Yanqiu’s Chang’e had been magnificent. He laid his hand on her shoulder. “You
Chang’e,” he said.
Yanqiu smiled weakly, then spotted Chunlai, who was leaning against the factory boss, looking up and smiling radiantly as she said something to him. He walked with rapid, confident strides, a vibrant great man in disguise mixing with commoners. He smiled benevolently and nodded. Xiao Yanqiu knew at once that this was not a good sign, and her heart skipped a beat. But, with a smile on her face, she went up to greet them.
A snowstorm hit the city on the day
The Moon Opera
was to open. After the snowfall the sky cleared and bright sunlight shone down on the city, turning everything blindingly white. Like a gigantic cake submerged in thick butter, soft and warm, the snow-blanketed city was bathed in an unusual ambience, like a fairytale or perhaps a birthday. Xiao Yanqiu lay in bed quietly gazing at the gigantic cake outside her window. She puzzled over the bleeding, which wouldn’t stop. She was spent and needed her rest; she had to save energy for the stage, for every movement and gesture, for every word and every note.
By dusk the cake was ruined beyond recognition; the party was over, the guests had left, and messy, dirty dishes were strewn everywhere. The snow had melted in places, was piled up in others. Melted areas exposed the dirty, nasty, ugly, menacing face of the earth. After calling for a taxi, Yanqiu arrived at the theater ahead of curtain time. Makeup artists and technicians were there waiting. This was no ordinary day; it was the most important day of Xiao Yanqiu’s life. She walked around the stage, front and back, greeting the technicians before going to the dressing room to check the props. Then she sat down quietly at her dressing table.
Looking in the mirror and slowly regulating her breathing, she examined herself closely. Like a traditional bride, she had to make herself up and dress with such care that she could be married off in glitter and splendor. Who the groom was she did not know, but the red curtain that had yet to be raised would be her head cover, her veil. Suddenly she was overcome by anxiety. The audience on the other side of that veil would be a mystery to her and she would be a mystery to them. Hidden behind it, she would be caught up in a paradoxical relationship with the outside world, each side wondering about the other. That notion made her heart beat faster, causing her thoughts to run wild.
After taking a deep breath to calm herself once more she slipped on a long-sleeved gown and tied it around her waist before squeezing flesh-colored foundation cream into her palm and dabbing it evenly over her face, her neck, and the backs of her hands. This was followed by a layer of Vaseline. The makeup artist then handed her the red face paint, which she applied with her middle finger around the eyes and over the bridge of her nose. She paused to study the effect until she was satisfied. Then she brushed on powder and applied rouge on top of the heavy red face paint to highlight and brighten it. The outline of a
was beginning to emerge. Now for the eyes. With the tips of her fingers, she pushed the corners up toward her temples and painted both her eyelids and eyebrows. When she removed her fingers, the skin around the corners sagged, leaving the outline of the eyes higher and lending the area an oddly seductive, almost fiendish look.
That done, she turned herself over to the makeup artist, who moistened a band to raise the brows and, adding a bit of discomfort, pull the sagging eye corners up. Then she wrapped another band around Yanqiu’s head, over and over to hold the skin around the corners of her eyes in place, turning them into the bewitching and lively eyes of storybook foxes. The brows and eyes now done, the makeup artist pasted patches on Xiao Yanqiu’s cheeks to transform her face into an oval shape. The completed image of a
materialized in the mirror after the addition of the bangs, the sheer second layer of clothing, the headdress, and a wig. Xiao Yanqiu stared at herself, hardly able to recognize the beauty looking back at her. Clearly, it was another woman from another world. That, she believed, was the real Xiao Yanqiu, her true self. She thrust out her chest and looked over her shoulder, discovering to her surprise that the dressing room was crowded with people, studying her with looks of wonder. Chunlai was standing right beside her. She’d been there all along, transfixed, finding it hard to believe that the woman beside her was her teacher, Xiao Yanqiu. Like magic, Yanqiu had transformed herself into a different person, and she knew without question what Chunlai was feeling at that moment: the girl was jealous. But Yanqiu said nothing, for at that moment she was not just anyone; she was her true self, another woman from another world. She was Chang’e.
The curtain went up, raising the red veil. Xiao Yanqiu spread her water sleeves, prepared to marry herself off. There was no single bridegroom; she was marrying the world and everyone in it. The bridegrooms in the audience all fixed their attention on the one true bride. Xiao Yanqiu stood in the wings as the gongs and drums sounded.
She hadn’t expected the opera to be so short. She felt she’d just begun, had barely left the world, and now she had returned. At first, concerned about her stamina, she was somewhat nervous when she took to the stage; but she was quickly able to relax. She began to express, to confide, eventually forgetting herself, forgetting even Chang’e. Turning the grievances in her chest into a long thin thread, she slowly unravelled it, entwining herself as she moved freely. She revealed herself to the world and the world applauded her in return. Gradually she lost herself; she was enthralled, sinking further and further into the opera.
For her they were two hours of joy, two hours of sobbing, two hours of exhaustive emotion, two riotously high-flying hours, two intoxicatingly merry hours, two sad and plaintive hours, two unbridled hours, two hours of dazed confusion. It was like two hours spent frolicking in bed. Her body and her heart were opened up, spread out, elongated, moistened, softened, loosened, and filled to the point of near transparency, brimming, as if on the brink of a climax. She felt as if she’d turned into a ripe grape, whose sticky juice would burst from a gentle slit and flow unimpeded, like a wish fulfilled. But the opera was finished. It was all over.
That other woman departed cruelly, leaving Xiao Yanqiu to be just herself again. She had been in perpetual motion, and now she couldn’t stop; her body didn’t want to. It wanted to go on, to sing more and perform more. She could not recall how she’d answered the curtain call, except that the curtain had come down like a dark face, like a man withdrawing just as she is reaching orgasm. She was heartbroken; she wanted to shout to the people below, “Don’t go. Please don’t go. Come back. Come back now.”
The performance was finished and everything was over. For Yanqiu it was less a matter of exhaustion than of nervous energy still waiting to be released. Her anxieties were telling her to do something. Dejected and lost, she walked backstage, where Bingzhang stood waiting for her. He greeted her with open arms. She walked up and, like a mistreated child, threw herself into his arms. As she buried her face in his chest, she began to wail. He patted her on the back, over and over; he understood. He was blinking uncontrollably. But no one could know exactly how she felt, no one could know what she wanted to do at that moment; even she did not know. Chang’e had flown away, leaving Xiao Yanqiu alone in this world. At that moment she wished she could find a man and make passionate love. She looked up abruptly, unnerving Bingzhang with a face that, given the smeared face paint, was more ghostly than human. He did not expect to hear what she said next, and it was clear that he did not understand her after all. Looking at him coolly, she said, “I’m going to sing again tomorrow. Promise me I can sing again tomorrow.”
Xiao Yanqiu gave four performances in a row, and would not yield, not to her student, not even, had they asked, to her own parents. It was no longer a matter of who was whose understudy. She was Chang’e, she was the true Chang’e. Xiao Yanqiu was unconcerned about the change in atmosphere in the troupe during those days, or how people looked at her. She had no time for any of that. When it was time for makeup, she sat calmly in front of the mirror to transform herself into someone else.
Following four days of fair weather, the afternoon sky suddenly turned overcast. The weather forecast was for a late day snowstorm. In the afternoon the wind came, but no snow. Xiao Yanqiu was fatigued, her legs leaden, as if she had been trussed up. She developed a fever a little after three o’clock and was bleeding again, more than usual. It wouldn’t stop. The fever came fast and spiked quickly. Chills ran down her back, while tugging pains developed in her thighs. Worried, she went to the hospital and registered at the gynecology department.
She had it all planned; she’d get a prescription and rush back so as not to miss that night’s performance. But this time the doctor held off on writing a prescription. Instead he asked many questions and put her through several tests. He looked somber, not to alarm her but not wanting to put her mind at ease either; it was as if to say, you’re not about to die, but you do have a problem. Finally he spoke. “Why didn’t you come earlier? Your uterine wall is badly infected. Just look at your blood count.” He added, “You need an operation. I want you to admit yourself as a patient.”
But Xiao Yanqiu was not in a bartering mood. “I’m not staying,” she said firmly. “Can’t it wait?”
The doctor looked at her over the top of his glasses. “The body won’t wait.”
“I’m telling you I won’t stay.”
The doctor picked up his prescription pad, wrote with a flourish, and said, “Let’s at least deal with the infection. No matter how busy you are, you must do that. I’ll arrange for a couple of IV bottles, then we’ll see.”
Yanqiu walked out into the lobby to check the clock. Not much time, but enough. The IV would be finished by five and she’d have time to eat something before getting to the theater around five thirty. She wouldn’t miss anything. It might even be a good idea to rest while she was getting the IV, which meant that, for a while at least, she would stay in the hospital.
Yanqiu never expected to fall into such a deep slumber in the IV room, like the sleep of the dead. At first she’d planned only to close her eyes and rest awhile, but the room was so warm she fell fast asleep. She was so tired, her fever was so high. Besides, the curtain was closed around her, so how would she know from the artificial lighting how fast time was flying? She woke up, feeling better, as if her body had been freed. But when she asked the time, she flew into a panic. Ripping out the needle, she ran to the door, not even stopping to pick up her purse.