Shi Yan went to He Nuo’s house in the morning. The door was still locked, and there was no answer when he went to knock on the window at the back. He thought about it for awhile, did He Nuo’s family allow him to resume classes? So Shi Yan went to their school, but he wasn’t in the liberal arts class. Without any other clues, he walked out of the third year’s building and saw the building that the first and second years were in. It suddenly occurred to him that those twin younger brothers of his should have just entered high school this year. He assumed a ‘just give it a try’ mentality and went to the teacher’s office to ask, and actually did manage to obtain information on the classes that He Nuo’s younger brothers were in right now.
He waited until lessons were over. When he found them during their break, he asked them where He Nuo was right now. His younger brothers gave Shi Yan the name of a factory and its approximate location, then Shi Yan hurriedly left. When he was approaching the place where the factory supposedly was, it was easy for him to ask for its exact location. Shi Yan couldn’t ride his bike in because the narrow road was littered with debris, and even on foot he would have to walk on a dirt path that was a foot wide under some low eaves.
When he walked across it, he entered a courtyard that was also in a mess. He felt as if he had just entered a garbage dump, and there were even reeds that had grown up to his thighs underneath its walls. Opposite a row of houses were a few large ponds in the middle of the yard; a lot of rubber hoses led out of the houses and into these ponds. Several middle-aged women squatted next to the pond and laughed as they chatted while washing something. Shi Yan’s entrance had attracted the attention of their group — his dressing and temperament did not fit in with this place.
He plastered on his signature smile and asked them if this was the place he was looking for. Shi Yan didn’t believe that He Nuo would be here, so he wanted to ascertain that he was at the right place. After he got an affirmation, he said that he was looking for He Nuo and they enthusiastically told him that He Nuo was currently at the back. Without this revelation, Shi Yan wouldn’t even have known that there was still a space behind the house.
He went around the house and without searching any further, the person he was looking for appeared in front of his eyes — because there was only one person at the back. Even though he was dressed in oversized clothing, even though he was squatting, even though his back was facing him, Shi Yan still knew that it was He Nuo; because those pair of sharp shoulder blades almost pierced through his shirt. A glaring light flashed.
The light suddenly died out. He Nuo turned around as if in disbelief, “Shi Yan?”
“He Nuo.” Shi Yan felt like something got stuck in his throat.
That was when He Nuo confirmed that it was Shi Yan. He stood up, “Why are you here?”
Shi Yan walked over. The He Nuo in front of him was once again so skinny that his jaw was protruding out sharply. He was wearing ill-fitting work clothes that had quite a bit of dirt on it, and because of the thicker material on his uniform, sweat was trickling down He Nuo’s face. His line of sight fell upon the hand that was holding a mask. When He Nuo realised it, he quickly retracted his hand to hold onto the edges of his sleeve, and wanted to pull his sleeves down.
When he saw Shi Yan, a tingling pain shot through He Nuo’s numb heart. After several days of work, He Nuo refused to think, or to feel. He only knew that he had to work hard without being conscious of it, otherwise even breathing would hurt for him. He never thought of becoming a living corpse, he just wanted to seal off his senses in order to keep moving forward. But his kind nature still made him ignore the pain and inferiority he felt, while a slight sense of embarrassment had risen instead along with the edges of his lips, “Why are you here?”
This smile of his made Shi Yan’s heart ache like hell. He rushed up and pulled He Nuo into his arms, “He Nuo, He Nuo……..”
He Nuo instinctively resisted his touch but Shi Yan was hugging him very tightly, and his voice was filled with an infinite amount of pain. This pain had infected the wound at the bottom of He Nuo’s heart. He had always been licking and caressing this huge wound by himself, but at this moment, he let himself go and snuggled into the embrace of this terrifying and detestable person, who was also the one who treated him best in the entire world.
Shi Yan buried his head into He Nuo’s shoulders as he repeated over and over again, “He Nuo, He Nuo, my He Nuo…….” He Nuo’s body was extremely stiff at first, but he slowly began to relax before leaning into Shi Yan’s embrace. It was only when he felt a few drops of tears land on his shoulder that He Nuo stretched out his hand that was covered in scars to pat him lightly.
After Shi Yan calmed down, He Nuo immediately withdrew from his embrace. With one pull, Shi Yan yanked him back and picked his hand up.He Nuo didn’t try to pull his hand back and awkwardly allowed Shi Yan to hold it up with both his hands. There were various cuts of all sizes on it, and they were all black. The longest cut was more than 2 centimetres long, and it hadn’t closed up yet. He Nuo retracted his hand, “Dirty, my hand’s dirty.”
Shi Yan clasped his hand tightly, then held it as he dragged He Nuo away. He Nuo anxiously called out, “Shi Yan, wait a moment, I’m at work.”
Shi Yan stopped. He Nuo explained, “It’s not the time for my lunch break yet, our break only starts at noon, I can’t leave now.”
“You’re not going to work, go back.”
“Back where? If I don’t want to work I need to tell my supervisor and apply for leave.” He Nuo thought that Shi Yan was dragging him outside to talk.
“Go back to school. You don’t need to apply for leave, you won’t be coming back here.”
“I,” He Nuo didn’t know how to tell Shi Yan that he can’t resume classes. His father wouldn’t even look at He Nuo right now, and if he merely thought of He Nuo another round of scolding and slapping would start.
“Is it because you didn’t get good results, and they found out that you were an Arts student so your family got particularly angry and wouldn’t let you resume classes?”
He Nuo nodded.
“Leave it to me. I’ll talk to them, you must resume classes.”
“Don’t go, my Pa is still angry, what if you get implicated?”
“Don’t worry about that, let me do the worrying. You have to go to class.”
He Nuo applied for leave and left, and he had already changed into his own clothes. Since he was a temporary worker, all his equipment had actually belonged to someone else. After he was brought to the paddy field outside their school by Shi Yan, Shi Yan began to raise his questions and asked He Nuo to tell him what had happened. He Nuo narrated it very simply — he only talked about not getting into college and how his secret about being in the arts stream was exposed. Shi Yan asked how he got a job at a place like that, He Nuo told him that he needed to wait until National Day was over before there would be a formal recruitment examination. But his mother saw how infuriated his father would get whenever he saw He Nuo, so she asked him to work part-time at their family station first.
Family stations are the affiliated departments set up for company employees like He Nuo’s father in order to resettle them after they marry an unemployed woman. This was a place for those who were at the bottom of the social ladder to gather; since they had no educational qualification or skills, they had irregular work hours and worked with no clear purpose. They were given whatever dirty or menial labour that the company had, and their wages were extremely meagre. Their retirement funds in the future wouldn’t even be enough to help make ends meet. By the way, when the Cultural Revolution had just ended, Shi Yan’s mother was part of a family station as well.