I am naturally phobic of short stories. They are short, spanning at most a score of pages, limiting plot development. But lately, reading Eileen Chang’s collection changes my opinion somewhat. Short stories can capture a moment in time that reveals a welter of emotions. It could be a single scene—the setting, the weather, and what is said and left unsaid—that nails the moral.
One of her least known short stories has some of the most powerful metaphors I’ve read. Traces of Love or Lingering Emotions (留情) is about a woman who, widowed at age 23, married a man 25 years of her senior when she was 34. He is about to take leave of her to visit his ex-wife, who has been ill. Over the years she had experienced the difficulties of relationship. She has married him out of convenience, for his status and money. She knows he does love her and care for her, but inevitably she can be caught up in moments of jealousy and distress. She takes a rather insouciant attitude in his finance knowing, as predicted by a soothsayer, that his first wife will be dead within a year. This second marriage is not about love for her, but rather stability for her life.
The opening paragraph depicts a sizzling fire in a cauldron of charcoals. But when you finish the story, you’ll realize this fire is really Dunfeng herself. Chang has nailed her right off the bat.
他們家十一月里就生了火。小小的一個火盆，雪白的灰里窩著紅炭。炭起初是樹木，后來死了，現在，身子里通過紅隱隱的火，又活過來，然而，活著，就快成灰了。它第一個生命是青綠色的，第二個是暗紅的。火盆有炭气，丟了一只紅棗到里面，紅棗燃燒起來，發出腊八粥的甜香。炭的輕微的爆炸，淅瀝淅瀝，如同冰屑。 In November, a fire was already kindled in their home. Red charcoal nestled under snow-white ashes in a brazier. The charcoal began as a dead tree that is revived by a dim fire consuming its body, but as soon as it comes to life, it quickly becomes ashes again. In its first life, it was a tender green color; then a dark red in the next. The brazier had a charcoal air to it. Evoked from it a fragrance of a nut porridge as a date is tossed. As the date burns, the charcoal cackles like pelting of hail.
So much details are wedged into this brief visit to her cousin’s home, where Dunfeng has to be careful about exposing her feelings. It’s about saving face and about maintaining the composure. Money is tight for many families since it was in the midst of the Second World War. Water, sugar, an rice are being rationed. Women have to skimp on their rouge and recycle the material from old cotton-padded jackets for new clothes. Dunfeng, though dismayed, fares much better than most and she feels bliss. Chang delivers a rich tapestry of a woman who strives to flourish in her second marriage. At the end she comes to terms of life: that she should cherish little moment of joy and be content. Traces of Love along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.