Little Finger

Mu Tang translated by Kevin Wang

Lobsang kept saying that crossing fates with me would get him killed.

When we first got on the road, an old woman at the foot of the mountain had been selling snow chains. Each link on the chain was the size of a fist. I didn’t want to spend the money, but Lobsang insisted on getting two. The snow on the ground grew thicker as we climbed. Just as he had feared, the car skidded on a turn. Lobsang slammed on the brakes, stalling the engine. He got out to check under the hood.

The sky’s gloom had deepened, and a bird whimpered from somewhere on the frozen slope. Under rows of frosted-over pines, the remains of five or six cars lay half-buried at the bottom of the cliff.

Lobsang’s boots crunched against a crust of snow. After getting back in the car, he came at me again: “Your whole life began with a jinx. Now, you’ll jinx me too.”

“Aren’t you a Buddhist?” I said. “You people aren’t supposed to talk like that.”

 “If I were any wiser, I’d push you off the cliff.”

I laughed at him. He laughed back. The car started again with a shudder.

Maybe the good luck I’d enjoyed all my life would finally run out on this trip. I’d taken my camera to shoot in all kinds of dangerous places, believing carelessly that the universe was benign, at least to me. A bullet once grazed my scalp during a standoff between the police and some drug trafficker. The cop’s name was Ma. It was his first day on the job and he’d pulled the trigger with his eyes closed.

What had spooked Lobsang, though, was the story I’d told him on our way up.

My father had always wanted a son. He looked all over for doctors and fertility experts and managed to find a master of divination. Whether legitimate or not, those services were a desperate measure for desperate times. I held my hand at the level of Lobsang’s waist to show how tall the little man was. He’d go around telling people that he was a sorcerer, born to serve the lords of hell.

My sister was seven years old then. She was a bit… thick in the head. It took her a while to learn how to speak and read, but she had a strong body. When other kids were just starting to walk, she was already climbing trees.

It took three tries for them to bring me into this world. What’s that thing people believe? “Three times a mishap.” On their first try, the little man had someone deliver a joss paper doll to our family. My father even gave the doll a name, Mumu. He named it after the sunset to mean that there was yearning night after night for my birth. The doll wore a red hairpin and a red belt. Its face was drawn on with an ink brush, and a black tear ran down from the corner of one eye.

My sister asked what the thing was. He said it was her brother—at least to treat it as her brother from then on. She said she didn’t want a brother, and he ignored her. The doll stood on the bed, leaning against the wall. My parents worked shifts around the clock and instructed her to speak to the doll three times a day, addressing it as “Brother Mumu.”

After a week, the doll grew moldy. The oils of its decomposing corpse seeped into the wall and a stench of rot filled the air. My father pulled my sister aside and said, I told you to call him brother. Did you? My sister said she did. My father took the doll outside and tore it open to find it stuffed with the tongue and stomach of a dog.

At their next meeting, the little man grinned and said, your nasty girl stopped it from working. At first, my father couldn’t believe it. The little man said, I’ve been doing this work for nearly half my life—I’d let you run me over with a car if I were wrong.

My mother told him to stop listening to these people, they talk like everything’s cursed. But my father knew the little man was right. He pleaded to my sister using the same slogans as his factory boss: you’re a good girl with a proper attitude. Haven’t you learned from your teachers? Serve the people. Lift up your spirit of devotion. Keep your eyes on the big picture. Crash the chariot, save the king. Sacrifice one for the sake of many. Just help Ba and Ma this once, okay?

She said, if Ma gives birth to a son, I’ll strangle him to death.

My father lowered his head and went to the little man, who assured him that there were still options. My father said, the heavens are watching. I’m scared of bad karma. Still, they went through with the next plan. Not long after, my sister caught a fever that wouldn’t break. No one could figure out what was making her sick.

When she asked for a doctor, my father told her, they’ll put you on an IV, Western medicine ruins the body. Instead, he invited over an old man who carried a set of silver acupuncture needles. The old man peeled off her clothes and pushed rows of needles under her breasts and along her spine. They waited for an hour. Maybe they expected to paralyze her, but the needles didn’t do anything.

My father went back to the little man, who lit some incense, read the smoke patterns, and nodded: your girl really is stubborn. Have you made up your mind? My father said yes.

The little man came to our house and consulted his bagua compass while walking around each room. My sister followed him around, asking why he was as short as the table. He smiled at my father. Didn’t someone check the feng shui while you were fixing up the place? It’s already auspicious for bearing a son. You don’t need me to tell you what’s in the way. My father said, son of a bitch. Just get it over with.

The little man looked at my sister and asked if she’d ever cut her hair. At the time, my sister's braids reached down to her ankles. He took a strand of hair from her temple, wrapped it around the base of her left index finger, and tied it in a tight knot. That’s all it took. I was born within a year.

“And your sister?” Lobsang asked.

She couldn’t break the strand of hair. It tightened and turned her finger red, then black. One day, her finger snapped off like a wilted stem, and she finally ran away. My father spent two days looking for her just to keep up appearances. When my mother wept, he brushed aside her desiderium. That girl was bad luck for us, he said. Just forget it.

“That’s the way with our age-old customs,” I said as I looked at the little portrait of Mao Zedong dangling from the rearview mirror. “Not so easy to get rid of.”

The clouds to my right looked heavy as they slid past the blue cliffs. Lobsang rolled a strand of prayer beads between his fingers as he drove. He was getting tired. I gave him the two cigarettes he had left and he lit up both in his mouth. “Let’s take a break,” I said.

“Not with the night ahead of us. The road is going to get worse.”

“If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would’ve had us buy all four snow chains.”

He glared at me and pulled out a knife. The ruby on the hilt flashed like the eye of a sparrow. He made a cut on his finger, and when the pain wore off, he slapped himself in the face to stay alert. His jacket was damp with nervous sweat. I kept the cigarette box in my hands and tore at it bit by bit.

Suddenly, the shadow of a woman appeared in the headlights. We lurched to a stop. She held up her gloved hands. Her coat was so old that it looked rusty. There was a red scarf looped around her neck.

Lobsang glanced at her. “There’s always women like her along this road.”

“Let her in,” I said. We need more weight in the back anyway.”

The woman took off her hat. Veins on her sallow face strained against the skin. Her lips were purple. Her thick hair was bursting out of its tie. Her age was hard to guess. She looked middle-aged, barely. Lobsang asked if she had money. I looked at her in the rearview mirror. “It’s alright, you don’t need to pay,” I said.

The car was creeping slowly down a sharp bend when I heard a creak of metal. The wind moaned faintly from somewhere beneath my feet. Lobsang pulled up the emergency break. I looked out the window and saw the front tire on my side hanging over the void. “Almost went down,” he said.

“Let me take over for this stretch,” I said. “You move to the back since you’re heavier.”

He opened his door. I kept a hand on the dashboard, slid past the stick shift, and smiled at his stomach as he squeezed out. The woman shifted to the right. I yelled for her to be careful.

Lobsang breathed heavily as he climbed into the backseat. He asked if I had a wife. I said no. He said to the woman, “You’re traveling alone?” She nodded.

Lobsang let out a long exhale. I looked in the rearview. He took off his jacket, the white sweater underneath covered in yellow stains. The woman unwound her scarf loop by loop. Her neck was very thin. She was having trouble with a button on her coat and Lobsang wrenched it open. She took off her sweater, the wool crackling with sparks. She unclasped her bra with both hands and readied herself, pulling her hair aside. Lobsang grabbed her neck and yanked her head toward him, smashing her nose against his thigh. Her hair had a satiny sheen. Then, Lobsang tugged her pants halfway down.

As the car rocked, I leaned forward to keep the weight even and listened to the snowflakes as they disintegrated against the windshield. The woman began to yell. Lobsang took out a towel from the seat pocket and stuffed it in her mouth. He pressed her down and swore at her in Tibetan. Then he took out the towel, sat up, and wiped his lower half. Foam spilled from the woman’s mouth.

Some piece of metal suddenly snapped, and I felt the whole car roll forward. Lobsang reached over from the back and gave the steering wheel a desperate yank. We veered away from the cliff and struck the side of the mountain.

A mass of ice and gravel slid down, landing in a blast of powder. Shards of the smashed side mirror glinted from the snow on the rock face. Lobsang jumped out to check the car. The woman wiped her mouth, put on her underwear, and followed.

“We fucked so hard it broke the snow chain,” he said.

“You stupid cunt,” I said to him.

He laughed, walked to the side by the cliff, and stooped down. “Not a scratch here.” He was getting up when the woman went over and, with a shove, sent him over the edge.

Nothing but silence rose from below. Lobsang had disappeared like a snowflake.

The woman was still in her underwear. I stared at her blankly. Thick strands of snow clung to her hair. She turned to look at me before getting in on the passenger side. “Let’s go,” she said.

The headlights pulled the road inch by inch out of the dark. Other broken, abandoned chains twisted along the frozen ground like snakes. As I drove, the woman took off her gloves and stretched. There was a stump where her left index finger should have been.

She took out Lobsang’s knife from the glove box. I said, “You can have it.” She opened the car door and tossed it out. “That’s for peeling fruit.” She opened her coat and drew a butcher knife from its leather sheath. “This one’s mine,” she said.

She spread her legs, placed her palm on the edge of the seat, and hacked at her flesh with a methodical rhythm. Then she pressed her mangled hand against the dashboard and gave it one more chop. Her little finger fell on the floor mat. She spat on the finger, wiped it clean with her scarf, and dropped it in the cup holder.

“A lucky charm,” she said. “Keep it.”

I said, “Please don’t pull the knife again.” She laughed.

“What’s a finger worth?”

The car rattled down the mountain. The left headlight gave a few flickers before it faded, leaving a rush of gray shadows. I could still see blood dripping from her hand in the half-dark. She wrapped Lobsang’s towel around it. The tires rolled unevenly over bump after bump as though we were crawling over an endless waste of curled-up fingers.

“Where do you want to go?” I tried to catch her eye.

“Just drive.”


Translator’s Note

“Little Finger” opens with a warning on a dangerous mountain road. The narrator, who appears to be a tourist, is told by his driver that his 命 (life/fate) is so 硬 (firm/unyielding) that it would 克 (overcome/subdue) those he crossed paths with. These words, so resistant to translation into English, are derived from the oral language of fortune telling: a vast, overlapping, chaotic assortment of folk practices with no centralized source of authority. Such “customs” appear throughout the first half of the story, starting with a paper doll made to represent the unborn son—an uncanny inversion of the common practice to burn effigies as offerings to dead relatives. Among the divination expert’s abilities, the most recognizable is the use of feng shui to assess whether a house’s architecture is favorable to conceiving a son. His tool, a bagua compass, uses the mathematical system described in the I Ching, a text that has been consulted for nearly three millennia as a guide to wise decision-making (and as a treatise on the nature of the universe). Instead of telling fortunes, the divination expert uses his art as a tool of control. His practices become increasingly malevolent, leading to a curse that disfigures the unruly sister and expels her from the family.

The story likely takes place on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, a famous pilgrimage route. Yet none of the characters have any coherent spiritual aspirations, nor is there a reliable sense of logic behind their actions. This quality to Mu Tang’s work possibly reflects his biggest literary influence: Yu Hua, whose stories of the late 1980s broke from classical realist conventions in favor of surreal circumstances and ambiguous language to portray a callous world with a disintegrated culture. In “Little Finger,” a single page of dialogue will flit between the rhetorics of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and state ideology. It would be too simplistic, though, to say there is no center that holds in this story’s moral universe, as its final movement hints at a vengeful restoration of karmic balance.

While translating this story, I sat by my New York apartment window, which was a poor buffer for the sounds of horns and engines on the city street. To tune these out, I turned to the organ drone of Kali Malone’s The Sacrificial Code and the whirl of snowstorm recordings.

Kevin Wang 王可 is a writer and translator from Henan. His translations of Terao Tetsuya, Leung-She Kwan, Chen Bo-Ching, Shuang Xuetao, and Du Fu have been published in Books From Taiwan, Circumference, The Margins, and Asymptote. A graduate of Columbia University's MFA, he presently works in Taipei.