Chapter 4:

That was my retribution.


I was not a proud man. Perhaps I was just not smart enough to understand pride, but I never had a problem with embarrassing myself on occasion. In fact, one could say my entire life was just an over-extended act of supplication. I came into this world, naked and alone, pleading for something that wasn’t new and frightening. I begged my mother not to leave me with my grandfather before I saw her for the last time.

And now, on the hospital floor, I was on my hands and knees, sobbing uncontrollably, begging the doctor to save my wife.

I was not a religious man, and as I grovelled there, I was reminded of every prayer I did not make, every offering I did not give. When I looked up at the doctor, I saw God, and he saw me. He saw my list of sins that, if each were a drop of water, would drown the world. When the doctor told me she had a brain tumour, I knew that was my retribution.

Once I had calmed down enough, the doctor led me into his office and sat me down. He began to talk to me about prognosis and pathology and predictions. He showed me pictures and diagrams of everything. He recommended me on the sorts of treatment and medicine options we had.

I couldn’t remember a word of it. Too many of them were too long and too new. Maybe that was on purpose– if my job was explaining to people how their loved ones were going to die, I would make it as confusing as possible too. Ignorance is bliss, or so they said.

In truth, all I could think about was every moment that came before this one. Were there things I could have noticed? Things I could have done differently? I could have been a better friend; I could have been a more responsible husband.

“Doctor,” I said. “I’m not a smart man. I don’t understand anything you’re saying. Please just tell me this: how long will she live?”

He leaned back in his seat and massaged his brow, sighing. “Our technology isn’t at a level where I can give you an exact number. It could be months, it could be years.”

“Just give me a number.”

“I told you, it’s–”


He breathed deeply. “Nine months.”

My eyes began to swell again. “That’s so little time.”

“Well, there are things we can do to extend that time, maybe even indefinitely. They have different possibilities of success, different side effects. You have options.”

“What’s the best treatment?”

“Best as in giving her the best quality of life?”

“I want her to live.”

The doctor thumbed through his pile of papers until he found the right one. He handed me a sheet, blotted black with endless detail. “Surgery,” he summarised for me.

“She will live a full life?”

“As much as is relatively possible, yes.”

“Okay. Then we will do that.”

“Are you sure? There are complications to this procedure, you know.”

“Make them simple for me.”

“It’s very expensive,” he said. “And there’s no guarantee she survives the surgery.”

I found Liya in one of the hospital rooms. She was in the bed right by the window, through which the Autumn sunset coloured everything orange. She wore a patient gown and smelt of hospital shampoo. I usually loved how she looked without the paint on her face, but that time I felt nothing.

When I approached her, I realised just how long it had been since I heard her laugh.

“Were you actually on your hands and knees?” she said, stifling a giggle. “C’mon Xiao Zhou, you’re so overdramatic sometimes.”

I couldn’t think of something to say. Or, rather, I had so much that the right words eluded me.

“Stop looking like you’re about to cry,” she continued. “We made a pretty nice sum of money from this month, right? Let’s go have some of that fried pork we wanted. My treat.”

“Liya.” After a minute, I finally found the strength to speak. “The tumour.”

“Pfft. What a bunch of bullshit. My mother warned me about doctors, you know. Never trust them. They’re all just money-grubbing scam artists, out for us poor folk’s money.”


“You really think there’s a giant clump up in my head? Are you serious? C’mon, it’s all just bullcrap. I just got really tired and fell on the floor. It was nothing.”

“Please have the surgery,” I said.

The air in the room hung utterly still.

Liya scrunched her face. “What are you talking about?”

“I want you to live,” I said. “I won’t ask for anything else.”

“Xiao Zhou.” She beckoned at me. “Come here.”

I came right up beside her. She put both her arms on my shoulder and gripped tightly. “I promise you, I am fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”

My face was bent to the floor. “I’m going to take Lao Wei’s offer. And then you are going to have the surgery.”

The muscles of her arm tensed, and I knew she wanted to slap me. I felt it in the glare of her eyes. Yet, her hand never left my shoulders. It couldn’t. As much as she struggled, she just couldn’t summon the strength.

Seeing that, I couldn’t help but start to cry again. The incident stole her vitality, just as it would steal her life. In some ways, Zhang Liya had already died. She died yesterday, on the floor of our home.

“You will not call that man,” she growled. “I forbid it!”

“We have nothing to lose.”

“Things will work out. Things will get better.”

“Don’t talk to me like a fucking child!”

Liya flinched back. Her eyes went wide and her skin, pale. In our decades together, I had never once raised my voice at her.

I tried to speak gently, but I could rein in the despair of my soul no longer. It rose in my chest like a flood, and escaped me without pause. “I’m dumb as shit, Liya. I can’t count, I can barely read. I couldn’t even finish high school. But I’m not stupid. I know what risk I’m taking, I understand what it means, and I will still choose to do it.”

Tears were dribbling down my cheeks. I reached for Liya’s hand and pressed it tight between mine. She was so cold.

At that, I saw something in her break, and like a frozen river thawing in spring, she began to cry too.

“I want you to live,” I whispered to her. “If nothing else, then for my sake.”