T/N: This chapter contains content that may be triggering (specifically, depictions of child abandonment) so please take care of yourself and proceed at your own discretion. I also highly recommend having tissues on hand, just in case.
Day 09 21:18
Before he turned six years old, Song Ran did have a family.
J Province’s G City, Xiaxi Village in the town of Nanwu, half an acre of fertile fields at the foot of the mountains, a house with a tiled roof at the entrance to the village.
His mother had died young, so his father relied on doing farm work to support the family and brought him up all by himself. Perhaps because of his loneliness as a widower, his father was always a man of few words, his forehead could not be smoothed out, and whenever he had money to spare he would always buy cigarettes and alcohol and get completely wasted. He didn’t like to reply to Song Ran, but on the other hand, he also wasn’t like the other fathers in the village who beat and cursed their children at the drop of a hat.
Based on this point, Song Ran felt that his father loved him.
At that time, he was already responsible, unlike the other kids who liked to make mischief—either chasing dogs while naked or being chased by dogs while naked. He borrowed studying materials from the older children of the village, and when he wasn’t helping with work, he sat on the door sill with Chinese in his left hand and math in his right hand, thinking that he wanted to study well and earn money to show filial piety towards his father.
The year he turned five, he could already count from one to a hundred, then count back down to one. The village teacher praised him for being naturally gifted and said in the future, once he learned math well, he could be an accountant, a teller, or help people manage their accounts, and it would be a quicker way to earn money compared to toiling in the fields.
Thus, Song Ran brought a small seat to the village primary school to attend classes, and he learned to write numbers one stroke at a time.
On a certain day after that, he heard some gossip from his neighbours who said that his father planned to leave Xiaxi village to go work in the flourishing provincial capital and save up enough money over the years, then find himself a wife.
He ran to seek confirmation from his father. His father took a drag on his Daqianmen1A cigarette brand, then slowly breathed out irritating smoke. “Your mom left early, but I can’t be alone all my life. I inevitably have to find someone to be with.”
Song Ran asked, “Dad, will you take me with you?”
His father didn’t speak or look at him; he just stared at the end of his cigarette silently for a good while before nodding.
Song Ran thus relaxed, then had some sentimental thoughts—he would be leaving this little village, and he couldn’t take his playmates with him, nor the granny who sold tofu, nor the chickens, ducks, pigs, or dogs. The provincial capital would undoubtedly be novel, but it was an awe-inspiring new world with wide roadways that were complex, unlike in the little village, where one dirt road went past a hundred homes. He had to closely follow his father, so as not to get separated.
Before departing, his father packed two snakeskin bags to the brim with household belongings. Following his example, Song Ran folded his own shirts and pants and stuffed them in. His father took them all out, put them aside, and said, “Don’t bring them. I’ll buy new ones for you in the provincial capital.”
Song Ran took his words as the truth and happily picked a set of the best-looking ones and changed into them, then gave the rest of the clothes to his friends.
On the morning of his sixth birthday, he followed his father and boarded the green-skinned train2Refers to a type of design which used to be the mainstay of the passenger railway fleets of China and other communist countries during the Cold War, and carries the connotation of slow travel on old vehicles with few amenities such as air conditioning for the first time.
The train let out a drawn-out whistle, steam billowed in its boiler, and the mechanical shafts propelled several sets of steel wheels to roll over the rails with a ‘clickety-clack clickety-clack’—holding the train ticket in his fist, Song Ran arrived at an unfamiliar city.
His father told him that this was the provincial capital, so Song Ran had no doubts at all.
To his fledgling self, this place had concrete roads, railway stations, multi-storey buildings, shopping centres, and sedans; it also had a smell of construction dust that was different from the countryside and pedestrians on the street who wore strange clothes, so of course it was a magnificent and prosperous ‘big city’.
After exiting the train station, they got onto a minibus. He helped his father drag along the dust-covered snakeskin bags, trembling with fear as he went around the other people, and found two seats. As the vehicle started up, he pressed himself against the window, resting his head on his arms, and curiously examined the teeming streams of people on the way as he thought, Starting from today, I’ll be living here.
Every one of the houses here was so tall. Would it be better to live in a two-storey building or a three-storey one?
Amidst his wild fantasies, the bus arrived at the stop, dragging a winding trail of dust in its wake. His father shouldered the snakeskin bags and brought him out of the vehicle, and they walked over a stretch of road that was neither long nor short to arrive at a large compound.
The compound’s gate was an old-fashioned iron fence, and a faded red banner was hung upon it. The nearby reception office was deserted; nobody was there.
His father stood there for a while as he looked at that banner before leading him to the west wall and telling him that he had left an important piece of luggage at the train station, so he must immediately go back to get it.
Song Ran tilted his head back and asked, “How long will you be gone for? When will you come back?”
His father unnaturally looked away and said to him, “You wait here and start counting from one. Once you’re done counting, Dad will come back.”
This wasn’t difficult at all.
Song Ran was very fast at counting, so he would always finish counting after not too long; the amount of time it took for his father to go and come back would probably be enough for him to finish counting several times.
He wanted to help move the luggage to the compound wall so that his father could free up both hands and come and go more conveniently, but his father strangely refused to let go. Shouldering those two hefty snakeskin bags, his father quickly returned to the bus stop and boarded the nearest bus, vanishing amidst the billowing smoke thrown up at the rear of the vehicle.
Song Ran didn’t know why he felt somewhat unsettled; he hurriedly sat down, held out his ten fingers, and bent them as he counted each one.
One, two, three, four, five… As he counted, he comforted himself by thinking, It’s okay, I’ll be done counting in the blink of an eye.
So long as he finished counting, his dad would come back.
The Song Ran of that time still didn’t know that there was no end to counting.
He finished counting to a hundred, he finished counting to a thousand, and he could finish counting to even ten thousand and a hundred million, but the only thing he was waiting for… he would never be able to finish counting to it.
He wanted his father to come back too badly, so he counted more and more quickly; the hundreds and thousands piled up, nearly exceeding the limit a six-year-old child could bear.
At the distant platform, buses came and went. Sometimes one would pass by, and sometimes another one would pass by.
Every time a bus pulled in, Song Ran would eagerly jump up, extend his neck, and stand on tiptoe, eagerly anticipating his father’s emergence from the opened vehicle door. But every time, in the crowds that threw up clouds of dust, the figure of his father could not be seen. What was more frightening was that once the bus drove away and his excitement cooled, he would suddenly forget where he had counted to.
The numbers were too big and the child’s brain was too small, so as soon as his focus of attention strayed, he wouldn’t be able to hold on to even a scrap.
As the number of times he had forgotten increased, Song Ran became more and more fretful, and he also wasn’t willing to count from the beginning again and again. Extremely agitated, he stamped his small feet and was unsure of what to do, so he could only grab a sharp-edged rock and strive to make marks on the wall.
The sky darkened; dusk was approaching.
The last bus of the day departed from the platform, there were no more pedestrians around, and the atmosphere had turned silent and cold. Song Ran could no longer clearly see the marks on the wall, so he groped at it with his frozen-stiff fingers and wished for the jumbled numbers in his mind to settle down, but it was truly too difficult. The more anxious he got, the more he was unable to remember; in the end, it was like he had entirely lost his mind. All muddle-headed, he collapsed to sit at the corner of the wall and began to cry shrilly.
How come he couldn’t finish counting?
Since before, he had clearly been able to count so well that he could finish counting every time, so why couldn’t he finish counting this time?
As soon as he started crying, there was a stirring in the large compound. The fence gate gradually opened; amidst the darkness, a ray of blazing light fell upon his body and stung his eyes so much that he lost control of his tears, which poured down like torrential floods breaking past a dam.
The welfare institution director walked close to him and bent down as she asked him about his situation, wanting to bring him inside.
Because she had seen too many children like Song Ran who had been abandoned at the welfare institution by their parents under various pretexts, she understood what had happened at a glance. But no matter how she coaxed, Song Ran held onto the corner of the wall and stubbornly refused to leave, crying as he shouted that he was almost done counting and that his dad was going to come back.
Seeing that he had an obstinate temper, the director could only let him stay where he was.
Later that night, the director crept out, picked up the child who had nearly been frozen stiff at the foot of the wall, and carried him inside. At the time, Song Ran still had a few fragments of consciousness, but he no longer resisted. He huddled in the director auntie’s arms and silently recited numbers as boiling-hot tears overflowed from his eyes and dripped down his cheeks.
On 24 February 2001, the second day after his sixth birthday, Song Ran was taken in by T City’s welfare institution for children.
His obsessive-compulsive disorder also began to manifest from this day.
At the very beginning, he would take advantage of when the doorkeeper grandpa wasn’t paying attention to sneak out of the welfare institution, squat at the west wall corner, and bend his fingers. After he was brought back, he would latch onto the main entrance’s iron fence, look into the distance at the bus stop where his father had left, and count. After that, he was more strictly watched and locked inside a small cubicle. But every time the teacher went inside to pay him a visit, he would always be in a fixed posture—facing the wall, fingers constantly moving as he abnormally wrote Arabic numerals.
He was immersed in a sealed-off inner world and hadn’t the least reaction to the external environment. Apart from counting, he wouldn’t do anything at all.
When a bowl of rice was brought to him, he would even count the grains of rice one by one as he ate them.
The medical treatment ideas at the time were very backwards; for children like Song Ran who suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, the only option was to send them to a psychiatric hospital. But right as the adults planned to do this, Song Ran seemed to have miraculously recovered his clarity of mind in the span of a night.
As if he had somehow sensed the danger.
He never again spent all day counting. His beautiful eyes also brightened up, shining like the stars at dawn. He faced everyone with a smile and was polite, responsible, and extraordinarily likeable.
In this manner, Song Ran remained at the welfare institution without a hitch.
After seeing that he had recovered, the teachers and nurses would good-naturedly tease him on occasion, saying that since Song Ran could already count to fifty or sixty thousand before even going to primary school, he would definitely be a little math genius in the future. Song Ran would cutely smile at them and shake his head while modestly saying that he wasn’t that capable.
During these times, his forehead would always sharply hurt; he had to bow his head, grit his teeth, and endure it with all the strength in his body.
The year he turned eight, Song Ran started attending primary school.
To everyone’s surprise, math became the class in which he had the worst marks. The numbers printed on the papers were akin to a nightmare; he had no way of directly facing them, and he couldn’t complete even the simplest four fundamental operations. His original natural gift for math was thus abruptly cut off and thoroughly abandoned.
But what made him the most fearful wasn’t math class, but rather physical education.
Because prior to class, the teacher would require everyone to stand in a line and count off.
As soon as the resonant sound of counting began, he would uncontrollably enter a daze and be unable to resist continuing to count, as if his father would appear in a corner of the playground at any time, clad in his old winter clothes and carrying the snakeskin bags on his shoulders, smiling as he held out a hand towards him to pick him up and take him home. Only by digging his fingernails into the meat of his palms and forcing himself to think of other things could he escape the control of his desires and delusions.
As seventeen years passed, Song Ran’s illness repeatedly recurred; sometimes it was mild and sometimes it was severe, but throughout the entire time, he never recovered.
Having missed his chance with math, he was no longer able to become an accountant or teller and became a book illustrator by chance instead. He made a long trek back to Xiaxi Village in Nanwu, but his father wasn’t there, and he himself never returned there again. The village had already undergone tremendous changes; the neighbouring old houses had been demolished and rebuilt one by one, the childhood playmates had left, and the elders in his memory had passed away. There remained nobody who still remembered that there once lived a family surnamed Song at the entrance to the village.
This year, Song Ran was twenty-three and living with a very clear mind.
He understood that his father wouldn’t turn his head back again, and he himself had long ago left that place where he had waited for so long. He should find someone to love who also loved him in return and form his own family. In this family, he would assume the obligations of a man instead of hiding within his memories and continuing to play the part of a loved child.
But the unsatisfied obsession was like a deep infection, still safely hiding within his illness.
To this day, that weary figure who carried the snakeskin bags and squeezed his way onto the bus hadn’t yet faded away from his field of vision.