To accompany new three-dimensional painting works by Han Feng, Ran Dian commissioned Alice Gee to write a story inspired by the objects. A related interview with Han Feng can be read here.
Han Feng studied at the Art Institute of Harbin Normal University and the Art Institute of Shanghai University. In 2010 he won the John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize (China). Han Feng lives and works in Berlin.
By Alice Gee
Rachel wrapped the final frame, laying it down in the double-walled box marked FRAGILE. Mugs, candleholders, figurines, everything reduced into shapes of thin white foam and tape. She folded the cardboard lips, seated herself, and waited for the box to collapse beneath her. When it didn’t, she pulled the card from her back pocket. The cut on her fingertip caught on the crisp envelope.
Glue glinted beneath the painted rice paper. Snowbells from the kitchen window. Watercolor and ink. Next time, her father wrote inside, she should expect bluebells. On the top fold of the card, printed in neat strokes, were lines from a poem her mother wrote.
Rachel read the poem, loaded the car, and left. Andy arrived back at the apartment two hours later and emptied her grief into each newly blank space.
Rachel had planned the trip to Bavaria to celebrate the completion of a high-profile commission for the re-design of a penthouse. After two months working on top of each other, ‘an intimate and traditional lakeside cabin’ was not Andy’s idea of a holiday. During the long drive down from Berlin, something forgotten fidgeted in Andy’s mind. An object? An obligation?
The diversion would delay them by at least an hour. ‘Let’s investigate. We need a break.’ They left their car in a lay-by and pushed their way up the road’s sharp incline. The road was lined with pastel-colored homes with dark shutters and empty flower boxes.
Rachel pushed through the crowd to the pavement’s edge. Jumping and whooping, men swept by in costumes covered in fabric petals, their bodies thawed into fluttering colors. It took Andy a moment to realize that their swollen, red features and black, hollowed eyes belonged to wooden masks.
Plump, hunched creatures spun across the cobbles in tall black hats. Figures with long, woolen faces tossed slack hessian bodies into the air. Cheering. Howling. Screeching. A band of turbaned minstrels pranced through the town in a din of flutes. Rachel searched anxiously for Andy’s hand. Andy’s reached for her phone. ‘We should leave now’ she said.
The directions did not specify which ‘leafy right-turn’ to take. As Rachel made the corner on the most-‘leafy’ turning, she did not notice the small boy crouched in the roots of an oak. Dusting his cropped hair of earth and snatching a handful of gravel, he leapt from the hollow and began pelting the car with stones. Rachel shouted at him as her window rolled down as she sped away. Andy watched the boy vanish in the wing-mirror as Rachel sped down the track. ‘Feral. It’s like they’ve put something in the water here’.
The track opened into a clearing. A lake gleamed through a thicket of bare pines. They pulled up beside a grey, tiled home with green shutters and a wall of neat, chopped wood. Rachel got out and checked the car’s paintwork. Unmarked. Andy trudged towards the house. A note on the door read, Looking for my son. Cabin behind hause. Key under plant pots. Make yourself a home, with a sketch of the grounds and a flowerpot. Lugging their bags, Rachel unlatched a gate with her elbow, and they arrived at a porched cabin shrouded by trees.
The scent of pine and cinnamon welcomed them. Andy felt for a light switch. A basket of star-shaped-biscuits waited on a table. ’Tastes like sawdust’ Rachel said, biting into one as she set her bag down on the neat double bed.
The cabin contained one large room and a bathroom. The ornate bed, side tables, wardrobe and chest of drawers looked barely 10 years old. Andy’s fingers curved along their wooden carvings. Rachel began to unpack. Woolen, moth-eaten blankets crowded the wardrobe. Andy noticed rings on surfaces where coffees had gone cold, and spaces marked by hooks where pictures once hung.
Andy was showering when the host dropped by. Clothes, hair ties and toiletries cluttered the cabin. Would she notice the void of masculine objects? Or would the host see what she came to find? Some vapid, foreign girl with too many shoes, too many things. Would these spools of thought wind the host’s focus away from Rachel’s eye? Or would these judgements ravel imperceptibly?
Andy listened to Rachel falter over German phrases. It would be easier if she just spoke English, Andy thought. Three months in Berlin and one of the few words Andy immediately recognized – after two months of overestimating her popularity – was ‘Handy’. She tried to picture the provincial woman’s expression as Rachel handed her their business card.
‘Zenith Designs: Re-orienting Spaces.’
In bed that night, the glare of Rachel’s phone broke the darkness.
‘This is it: “The Maschkera.”‘
Lying next to her, Andy ran her fingertip across Rachel’s arm. Her skin was golden, warm, clear of blemishes save from a small cluster of moles on her right shoulder. Long ago they had mapped Guǐ, the Ghost of the Vermillion Bird, in this constellation of five freckles. In the dim light she struggled to re-connect the dots.
After ‘Epiphany’, when nature hibernates and demons menace the valleys of Upper Bavaria, locals band together to scare away the ghouls and awaken spring. At noon on ‘Crazy Thursday’ the ‘Maschkera’ parade through towns in their outlandish costumes. Traditionally, these costumes – including the hand-carved masks – pass down from generation to generation.
As Rachel dozed off, Andy whispered, ‘We are the demons.’
‘The boy. Didn’t he try to chase us away?’
‘Maybe the boy is a spirit. Maybe we are Spring. Fresh life.’ Rachel said, and kissed the back of Andy’s neck.
Rachel lay flat on her back, in a dreamless sleep. She seemed to pass through life like each new place had a Rachel-sized hole waiting to be filled. Andy arranged the crumbs of Rachel’s half-finished biscuit into a star on the side-table. How different would she have been if she had grown up somewhere like this? If she had filled into spaces left by her ancestors?
By the time Andy was 15 and her family had settled in Shanghai, she had lived on four continents and attended five different schools. She pulled her knees to her chest and bound herself in. She sucked the split ends of her bleached hair together. Demons haunt a wanderer; Rachel had said. What demons haunted her?
One of the few consistencies in her childhood was a large Chinese watercolor. Retreat in the Bamboo Grove. By the third or fourth move, rehanging the picture in their new home had become a ceremony, a ritual of relocation. Her parents gifted Andrea the privilege of choosing its position. Something to occupy her. The arrangement had suited her. The lonely girl could lose herself in the enchanted, unchanged landscape. As the family settled, and playdates were arranged, the picture would fade into the crowd of decorative objects and await the next beginning. By now it had waited 8 years.
Andy’s eyes, adjusting to the dark, imagined the watercolor in the void above her.
Foggy strokes washed over the ceiling. Next, in delicate, black lines, she traced the outline of a town. She gave the homes shutters and tiny parading stick-figures – neat and insignificant, she thought, in the rocky expanse. With quick, sharp brushes, pines surrounded the town. In the furthest, eastern corner – just visible through whispering mist – she traced the outline of a building. From this distance, Andy could not distinguish if the timber cabin was more Chinese or Alpine.
Color draped the rocky hills. Grey clouds lulled into pale blues and jagged branches of teal. She raised her fingertips against the sky. Her fingers pushed deep, deeper into a mouth of cobalt blue. Slowly at first, an emptiness crept from the West.
The void relinquished a moan and hailstones bit into the earth. The cobalt mouth engorged in a howl as a sea poured out and swallowed the people and their little homes. You took it! You stole it! The sea roared as it flooded into crevices and tore through empty spaces in its desperate search. She ran, her feet pounding against the hail-like rocks, to the distant cabin.
She was the boy and his voice purled inside her.
‘You’ve been talking in your sleep again’ Rachel said, forcing her feet into knotted trainers. Andy sprawled on the bed and reached for her phone. ‘Shit’. It had long gone 11. ‘I’m going to have a cigarette and nose about’, continued Rachel. ‘Leave in 10?’ Bitter air gnawed at Andy’s toes. She murmured agreement beneath the duvet. A zip fastened and the door closed. Andy kicked the covers onto the floor, hauled herself onto all fours, and stretched her back. Her legs swung off the bed and propelled her towards the sink. Two minutes to brush her teeth. Two minutes to clarify the dream by daylight, then drive it away.
Rachel’s parents moved to Oxford in the ‘80s before Rachel was born. They had returned to Changsha only once, for her grandmother’s funeral. It had been easier to leave 9-year-old Rachel behind. 12 years later, in a moody London bar, Andy told Rachel her stories of Shanghai. The shade of plain trees, the sun’s heat on her changing body, a first kiss on steps behind Nanyang Road: ‘my lips burning from the spice of Sichuan-skewers’. ‘I’m more Chinese than you are!’, Andy teased, and rocked the Star Anise in her G&T round and round.
Andy spat the toothpaste into the sink. She reached for a flannel and smeared toothpaste on the soft, cobalt towel.
‘So, after 3 hours hiking up a mountain, you buy kitsch you could get in Berlin?’ Andy said slamming the car door. Rachel tied the novelty apron over her jacket. On its front a man’s belly bulged in tight lederhosen. She wobbled comically over the stony path. ‘You only bought yours because he was cute’, countered Rachel. Frustrated she had forgotten to charge her camera or bring blister plasters, Andy had impulsively blown €40 on a decorative beer mug. ‘Well it will make a nice vase’. The sun fell through the bare trees and encased the clearing in soft, pink light.
‘Actually he fancied you’ Andy said.
‘The store owner, he fancied you. You bought it to prove a point’
Andy kicked the gravel. ‘To me’.
Rachel moved in long strides towards the cabin door and swept her black bob into a knot, flung the apron on the bed, and faced her. She would not blunt herself against Andy’s edge.
‘Something’s missing. Not lost, missing. Under the sofa–missing. You’re meant to help me look.’ Rachel said and dug her nails into the bedpost. If she gripped it tight enough, she might become sturdy, robust too. ’I don’t think you want to find it. In fact, I think it’s you who kicked it away’ she continued. Red blotches collected on the skin below her neck.
‘What the hell are you on about?’
The dim lightbulb idly brightened but the room was cold.
Rachel left for dinner. Andy told her she had a headache, to go without her. For a few hours this lie slackened the knots that tightened their stomachs. Andy lit candles and sat on the porch, shuffling through music on her phone. At first the crunching of biscuits and a thrumming guitar drowned out the faint call. Then it held her attention.
Mewing came from the clearing’s farther side. She unlatched the gate and passed by the house. Glass-panes framed warmly lit domestic scenes, though she resisted the urge to peer in. Max, in his spider-man pajamas, saw her and watched the stranger closely.
She envisioned herself fading into the dim forest, called away by an endless woodland night. The night breeze snuffed her candle out, and she switched on her phone’s torchlight. A warning displayed – 30% battery.
Among the trees the sound crystallized. The call was sharp and short, too confident to belong to someone lost. There! Peeking through the nook of an oak, was a fluffy owl, no larger than a paperback novel. Startled by the phone’s glare, it dived into the darkness, its wings tipped in moonlight. Following its flight, Andy’s eyes landed upon a shadowy outline in the distance, a grander, older cabin between tall pines.
A mossy heap of off-cut wood obstructed the arched, double door. Her hands hurried to remove the planks which blocked her passage. They hurried as if Andy had no choice but to anchor her body to an action whilst blood swelled through her like helium. A woodlouse scuttled between her fingers and moths accumulated in the torchlight. She flinched from the mossy static of their wings as if disease textured them.
She hoped a locked door would reprove her to go to bed. But the iron handle seemed wrought to the curve of her palm and the door opened silently. Darkness ate her light.
As her eyes adjusted, on the walls knives and axes nicked through choking dust. Spiders whispered their legs over the glinting glass of lamps hanging from ceiling beams. Moonlight through dirty windows reflected off white sheets cast over expansive tabletops, shielding dormant landscapes beneath. She walked to the largest table. Her hands ran across the fabric, over unfinished work, invisible objects hinged between being and non-being. She fingered the corners of a sheet hesitating. Then she began to tug.
Hanna was washing up when she heard the scream.
He had suspected the women from the moment they arrived. They had taken the annex but his grandfather’s workshop had to remain uninvaded, unspoilt. Max thought he was brave and strong but when he rammed into the tall woman’s side, he had not foreseen that his form, small and strange, would elicit this much terror. He had never heard an adult scream like that, at least, not since that night. The night Max was trying to forget.
Max ran out of the barn, tripping over gnarled roots, back to the house, falling into the arms of his mother. He burrowed his face into her chest. ‘Opa’, he exhaled as his chest rose and fell and relented to her heartbeat. Hanna exchanged looks with Andy.
‘Sorry, sorry, Entschuldigung.’ Andy offered.
Max’s glared at Andy and fled inside. The woman was petite, younger than Andy had imagined, and wrapped in a fuchsia dressing gown. ‘It’s OK’. He is very sad because his Grandfather died. Max loved being with his Grandfather in his workshop. Carnival was their special time.’
Close to the house the owl continued crying.
Andy slunk into the empty bed, relieved her host had been understanding. She tensed and relaxed her sinewy limbs, tracing a line of focus about herself like a silkworm winding a cocoon.
Rachel would be back any minute. It would be easier to be asleep. Hours later Andy awoke but Rachel was still gone. Her silk thread kept snapping.
Last month, Rachel had invited Andy to spend Chinese New Year with her family. One evening, Andy found herself alone in the kitchen with Rachel’s mother, Lili. As Lili stirred her wok, she recounted to Andy the legend of Nian, the beast of Spring Festival. Hungry Nian, the child-eating monster, would emerge from the mountains and tear through villages. To intimidate him, locals banged drums, plates and saucepans and doused their homes in red paint. ‘Gou Nian’. Lili pressed the shape of the words into the girl’s mouth like a ginger candy. The cadence soured under her lips. How had this girl ‘gotten away with’ learning so little? Rachel’s friend knew even less Mandarin than Rachel. ‘Pass-over of Nian, the year-beast’, Lili translated.
Translucent snowflakes caught on the window. Outside, the boy played in the garden. He threw something, retrieved it, threw it again. Snow blanketed the panes until she could only hear him. It’s gone! It’s gone! Where is it? As he shouted, the object bulleted through the glass and into a sideboard. Blue and white China splintered into triangular shards. Andy tried piecing them together as snow rushed through the window. But as she grasped them, the painted details smeared together winding blue trails across the snow. The boy plunged through the window, searching the snowdrift until he lifted the object to his face and a spirit summoned in the window.
Andy wailed. Rachel held her in her arms. ‘I’m here now, I’m here now’.
It was their final day in Bavaria. Rachel had overslept. If they wanted to visit the Castle and Weiskirchen then they should be passing the Tegernsee right now. Andy slammed the wardrobe door. Rachel groaned. What had the revelers taught her? Saufen wie ein Loch: Drink like a hole! Saufen bis zum Verlust der Muttersprache! Drink until you forget your mother tongue!
‘Have fun?’ Andy said, refolding a red turtleneck. She lay it in the empty suitcase, stared at it, then retrieved it and pulled it on.
Rachel swallowed an aspirin. ‘I wasn’t grumpy with you yesterday, why do you have to be so…’
‘I don’t know…’ Andy parted the curtains and Rachel grimaced ‘– fragile.’ Her voice was measured but the still word roared. Rachel went into the bathroom. Makeup had collected in the corner of her eyes. ‘You feel things deeply, and that’s fine…’ she said, pulling out threads of mascara from her eyes, ‘…but are you sensitive to your surroundings, or expecting the world to accommodate, you?’ Andy watched the spitting rain collect on the windowpane. ‘I’m not saying this is deliberate, just…’ Rachel tried to collect Andy into her arms, but Andy stiffened.
‘Is this why you brought me here? A trap?’
Tears pricked at the raw skin beneath Rachel’s lashes. ‘No. A retreat.’
Andy threw the beer mug against the wall. She began crying. Not knowing what to do Rachel collected the shards. A trail of blood bloomed on her finger.
Max belted his papier-mâché monster into the front seat of the car. As Hanna reached for the gear stick, she knocked against one of the creature’s flailing arms. Craftsmanship must have skipped a generation, she thought. She did not expect to meet Rachel’s car pummeling down the narrow track. Rachel pulled up on the verge and rolled her window down. She had to leave, but Andy would check out tomorrow. Rachel fumbled for her German. The cabin was wonderful, and the biscuits were delicious. And could Hanna provide Andy with a taxi number? Dark smudges around Rachel’s eyes appealed to Hanna for silent understanding.
As Hanna scooped Max’s limp body from the pool of television light, she thought she heard something move across the gravel path. Carrying Max up to bed, she pulled on a blind’s cords with a fore and middle finger, but the blind just gave way to unmoving darkness.
She lay her son down on his cabin bed and prayed for undisturbed sleep. He was right, it was too soon to rent the annex out. His room felt too warm. Hanna loosened her dressing gown and went outside. She thought of Rachel. What if her father – voicing his objections – had jinxed the strange couple lying in his bed, splintered them, burrowed into them, whilst they slept? Maybe this young couple offended her father. All that infinite, celestial perspective, now, yet his ghost remained in the past. She chuckled. So much rot beneath that veneer of tradition and pride. Hanna turned inside and missed the light thrown towards her across the thicket from the workshop.
His eyes and mouth gaped open. Hanna rushed up the stairs to dam Max’s pouring screams,
Another nightmare. The psychologist said Max would relive the trauma in his unconsciousness for some time, though she assured Hanna he was doing fine: ‘Well, when you consider how Max found the body’.
On Sunday Mornings, Hanna would prepare small parcels of rolls and salami, and two flasks of hot chocolate. Max would scurry with this breakfast to the workshop where his Grandfather would already have begun work. He would set his tools neatly down, and share with his Grandson in their silent communion, whilst heaters whirred and burnt dust. For two hours each week, Max was permitted entry into this precious, masculine world.
Milk congealed on Max’s mug of chocolate. He lay in the hollow space of morning with no routine to fill it. Pulling a hoodie, then a jacket, over his pajamas, he scampered out into the cold. He reached the lake’s edge where grassy blades met still water. Reaching into his coat pocket, he found the sharp gravel stones. He crushed them into his palm. They did not skip across the lake’s surface like the pebbles his mother threw. They sunk, he could hardly make out where – the ripples left behind were so fleeting. If Max threw himself into the water, would the sound fill the valley? Would it knock birds from tree-tops, wash plastic debris to the banks? Or would he sink, as simply and quietly as these stones? Max searched about for something heavier. A second reflection collected in the pool of water.
Andy thought she was always going to put them back, and really, she had not known what she would do with them anyway, other than examine their terrifying, appealing depravity, passing their weight between her hands. Now they clunked in her cloth bag as she moved through the thicket to the lake to return them to the workshop.
Max rummaged through the tall grasses. When he emerged she was standing there. They stood, each mirroring the other, waiting for their reflection to flinch. His tight gaze loosened into ambivalence, and Max slumped onto the dirt, his back turned to Andy. Andy watched as the boy fed rocks to the lake, its water leaping to engulf each morsel. She approached the water’s edge and sat down with her bag beside him.
Entranced, they watched the stones fly and fall, and listened as they hit the surface and each splash subsided. The mouth of the cloth bag slumped open. Inside were two masks. One had prized itself free with its long-curled horns that squirmed out of the darkness like centipedes. Last night Andy’s fears had writhed in its hollow eyes. Now it lay, childish, almost benign under the pale, grey sky. Now she looked through those holes to the face beneath. Another face, pink and flushed and red, propped the monster up.
Max reached for the mask by its horns, a lump of wood chiseled and painted into the image he had given his Grandfather. The wooden ridges curved about his face exactly. Bitten, grubby fingernails twitched over the dog-grin. Max pursed his lips and yelped. The sound, unsteady at first, evolved with each cold breath until an eldritch howl punctuated the valley.
The face in the bag watched her. The familiar face Andy had taken in kinship now grimaced menacingly in the periphery of her vision. She had cradled his face. Now it grinned gleefully in her hands. When she put him on, she could not see him.
The small wooden mouth moaned. Andy tried again, her ungainly cries merging with Max’s. At first furtive, the sounds grew stranger, wilder, louder. The tawny, slicked moustache twisted over gaunt cheeks which hollowed into a stiff, gaping jaw. Pale pink lips engorged with every mangled cry, every screech, and from bulging mounds chartreuse eyes sneered at the crying child.
Max tore off her face, his grandfather’s mask, and threw it into the water. A hollow briefly opened in the surface, then the turbid water stilled. Max and Andy stared at each other blankly, then watched as the mask stole across the water towards the wood.
‘Wir haben ihn verjagt.’
Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure;
And spring comes green again to trees and grasses
Where petals have been shed like tears
And lonely birds have sung their grief.
Alice Gee was born in the UK. After graduating from Cambridge University in 2019 with a degree in English, she moved to a town just outside Shanghai, where she spent her time teaching and writing. In an unexpected turn of events, she recently moved to east-end London.
This is her debut story. Her website, alicenatalie.com, will be published shortly.