Debbie Lim translates Luo Lingyuan
Luo Lingyuan was born in 1963 and is a German-Chinese writer. After studying Journalism and Computer Science in Shanghai, she has lived in Berlin since 1990 and published works in German and Chinese including four novels, two short story collections and numerous pieces in literary journals. In 2007 her short story collection Du Fliegst für Meinen Sohn aus dem Fünften Stock [You Fly for My Son from the Fifth Floor] received an Adelbert-von-Chamisso Advancement Award, a prize awarded to works written in German, dealing with ‘cultural change‘. In 2017 she was Writer in Residence in Erfurt.
Photograph: Dirk Skiba
The following is an extract from a short story titled ‘Der Zunge, auf der schwarzes Haar wuchert’. It was originally published in a collection of stories by Luo Lingyuan titled Nachtschwimmen im Rhein (or Nightswimming in the Rhein, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2008). The stories in the collection all centre around relationships between Chinese women and German men. In the extract, the protagonist He Xue attends a Walpurgisnacht party for the first time with her German flatmate.
The tongue which grew black hair
But Regina didn’t forget her. Shortly after eight, she knocks on the door and two hours later they’re in Charlottenburg in a private apartment. The place is huge, if somewhat run-down. At least fifty strangely dressed women have already arrived. Only a few of them are attractive, He Xue thinks. It’s true there are no old hags with hooked noses and evil looks. And few black capes, pointy hats and broomsticks. But He Xue doesn’t find the sexy costumes of these modern witches so appealing either. Many of the women have made up their faces to weird effect: one half colourful, the other with a snake depicted on it. Some are virtually naked, wearing garish masks, lurid wigs and skimpy outfits. One woman has painted eyes onto her breasts, which stare fixedly out.
As soon as a new arrival enters, a glass of sparkling wine is pressed into her hand. He Xue downs hers straight away out of pure self-consciousness and remains standing uncertainly in the foyer. She can’t help thinking about what the Professor has said – that she probably won’t enjoy this kind of a party. She allows her glass to be refilled anyway. In truth, she doesn’t feel like dressing up in costume at all. But she’s helpless against Regina’s insistence and in the end slips on a baggy dark-blue dress, which cloaks her body entirely. The women start dancing the tango en masse. Since dancing isn’t He Xue’s forté, she heaps up a plate with food, finds herself a quiet corner and watches the women. Each time she spots a glimpse of Regina’s blond hair in the crowd, she feels a deep admiration. She is, thinks He Xue, the most stunning woman at the party.
Two women are standing next to her wearing magnificent headdresses. They’ve already had a few drinks. He Xue hears one of them say: ‘Our boss is such a dirty dog. Now he’s getting it on with the cleaning woman. His assistant caught him. Ha! Apparently his thingy looked like a carrot.’
‘If I’d seen him, I’d have made him sweat a little,’ says the other. ‘Surely a pay rise could have come out of it. See the blonde with the eyebrow ring? Hot isn’t she? That’s Regina. I heard she just hooked up with a dentist. If he marries her, she’s set up for life. If …’ The two of them laugh, a strange bleating sound, then head into another room in search of a mirror.
Perplexed, He Xue searches for a trace of her friend. She knows Regina’s boyfriends are always changing. But she’d never mentioned the current one was a dentist. The women have begun Turkish belly dancing. Once more, it’s Regina who’s the star on the dance floor. Arms raised, she writhes like a snake, laughing blithely. Now she has on a tight sky-blue top and long skirt; around her hips is a belt made of tiny gold coins linked together, so that she gives off a bewitching tinkling with every shake of her body. To He Xue, her friend has a regal beauty. She follows her every movement.
Sometime before midnight, the women take up the unlit wooden torches, leave the apartment and head to the nearby Teufelsberg, singing the whole way. The Teufelsberg isn’t very high and nobody’s ever met any spirits there. Actually, it’s not much more than a large mound rising on the western outskirts of the city comprised of rubble from the second World War. But the Berliners, always liking to sets their sights high, come here frequently to go strolling and look out over the vast sea of grey houses.
After climbing for some time through the dark woodland, they finally reach the top. It’s just before midnight and on the flat summit countless other women are already waiting, most of them in similar costumes. From every other direction, crowds disguised as witches are making their way up. More than two, three hundred women, young and middle-aged, have gathered under the bleak sky.
For some moments, He Xue gazes about her. When she turns back, Regina has vanished. She searches nearby but her friend is nowhere to be found. Everyone is jostling towards the centre for some reason unknown to He Xue, so she backs out to the edge.
Precisely at midnight, one woman begins to wail. Then all the women on the mountain start shrieking war cries at the tops of their voices. He Xue retreats further. Suddenly the flames from a bonfire in the middle of the clearing surge up into the sky. The women raise their torches and stamp in a circle, hooting and jeering. The summit, just a moment ago still dark, lights up with blazing sparks and glows over the city. Now the Teufelsberg is a mountain of fire. The women whoop, their voices shrill, encircling a group that’s laughing deliriously. It’s as if each has turned into a primeval creature, has waited the whole year for this mad event. As if on this night a year of compulsory service as normal respectable humans is finally over.
Now everyone has begun to dance in a frenzy. Dresses lift and drop in the firelight, long hair whips and swirls around the fantastic faces of the women. The scene is reminiscent of numberless female demons summoning up a catastrophe. He Xue desperately wishes she had a friend by her side, most of all another woman who was Chinese, with whom she could talk with. Maybe then she wouldn’t be shivering as though she had a bout of malaria.
At this moment she’s discovered by a particularly high-spirited group of revelers. One pushes a burning torch into her hand, another pulls her along and then they encircle her, shrieking the entire time in their eerie voices. They drag her into the centre then lead her closer to the fire. The torch falls from He Xue’s hand and she feels her neck stiffen and grow numb. Only when the women grab her arms and legs and yank her behind the wall of fire, do her eyes start flickering again. Now she sees that the women have stuck the torches into the ground so they form two close rows like a tunnel.
‘A trial by fire for our little Chinese witch!’ someone yells and gives He Xue a bawdy slap on the behind. ‘Run quick through the path of fire and you’ll become pure like us.’ Someone adds: ‘Then you’ll get the witch badge with the green broom.’ He Xue searches for an escape route.
‘Run! Run! We’ll catch you!’ The women at the other end spur her on.
The torches are burning at chest-height. He Xue crouches down and waddles off like a duck. She can’t remember ever having run like this. The women encircling her burst into laughter and clap. When He Xue reaches the other end, she’s surrounded and thrown into the air three times. ‘A cheer for the Chinese witch!’ they cry.
The crippling thought that only a few seconds ago her hair could have ignited into flames inhibits He Xue as she dances. She moves stiffly, like a straw doll among a galloping herd of whinnying horses that’s in danger of at any moment being ripped in two.
As a new candidate is brought over for the trial by fire, everyone rushes back over to where the torches are standing. He Xue uses the opportunity to escape to the sidelines. Two middle-aged women with fake witch noses are approaching. They head over to those dancing, their brooms hoisted. ‘We’ve had incredible luck on the stock market this year. The tech shares went through the roof,’ says one. ‘You should get into the market too.’ The other looks pensively into the flames. ‘So what did you buy? I’ve played around a lot, but …’ Then the women disappear into the mass and He Xue can’t hear them anymore.
In the centre of the dancing crowd now is a girl whose hair is whirling like a hundred delicate snakes. The hem of her dress flutters up and down, like a black pupil dilating and contracting. Out of her mouth comes the call, ‘Ura! Ura!’ He Xue feels dazed watching her dance movements. Just where does she recognise this beauty from? And now this person is dancing towards her. The girl’s eyes display a wildness and then her hand alights, sudden as a spider, on He Xue’s shoulder. It shakes her.
‘He Xue, come on, dance!’
He Xue nearly stumbles over backwards. Until she realises it’s no-one other than Regina who’s come over. But by the time He Xue tries to follow, her friend has already danced away and is nowhere to be seen.
He Xue stands in the dark and thinks she can smell singed hair. She bats at her head with both hands to put out the supposed sparks, then she feels around her hair gingerly. Indeed, she finds what appears to be a hank that has been burnt to a crisp dry cinder. For a long time after, she pulls at the strands on her head until the stench of scorched hair finally disappears.
1. Celebrated on the night of 30 April, Walpurgisnacht is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, who was known to ward away witches and evil spirits. The pagan folk rites of Spring are also celebrated.
2. The name ‘Teufelsberg’ literally translates as ‘devil’s mountain’. Teufelsberg, in the Grunewald district of former West Berlin, is a hill made of rubble dumped after the second World War and covers a Nazi military-technical college that was never completed. During the Cold War, there was a U.S. listening station on the hill, Field Station Berlin.
DEBBIE LIM was born in Sydney. Her poetry chapbook Beastly Eye was published by Vagabond Press (2012) and her poems have been widely anthologised, including regularly appearing in the Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc.). In 2016 she moved with her family to southern Germany for 2 years where she started to translate from German into English.