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time spent in vain

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Once he had a real surfeit of time unspent, Zhang Jiale lay on his bed and sorted through his memories. The few years when he’d first debuted all seemed to pass by slowly, so slowly that he could take a freeze frame of every evening suffused with the lingering saffron glow of dusk—when, stretching himself, he’d secretly slip away and leave the training room, ready to seize the dining hall’s best seat in an abuse of power carried out with righteous assurance. After being scolded by Sun Zheping, he’d stick out his tongue and pull a face behind his back; then he’d turn round, putting it all behind him, and laugh merrily with his teammates.

Back then, he was light; his legs weren’t tied to bricks, and he could still float on the surface of the water like a bubble, refracting prismatic light under the rays of the sun. Later he was suddenly dragged down by bricks, and slowly sank beneath the water’s surface; he felt as if he’d grown gills like a fish, for he had to learn to breathe underwater. When he thought back to that stretch of time, Zhang Jiale really did seem to have trouble remembering much of anything. Match, training, match, training… even eating and sleeping could sometimes be forgotten. It was as if he’d been numbed by the flower pollen that burst forth from his own exploding ammunition. Amidst light and shadow he rushed out, over and over again, and was poisoned deeper each time—but he couldn’t find an antidote, so he just let the poison enter into his heart and lungs. He couldn’t feel pain, nor could he sense exhaustion; he lost and went again and lost and went again, and didn’t even save any time for himself to feel sad. He feared he’d be brought down by the helplessness of defeat, and once fully awake would see the impassable gap ahead—so he might as well not look at anything. He wouldn’t even think about the future, to give himself and Hundred Blossoms a line of retreat; nor did he have the time to look back on the past, and wouldn’t think about ifs and buts. He didn’t feel like thinking about such things, and wasn’t good at thinking about such things; he only thought about winning. Everyone was also waiting to see if he could win, wanting to see just how far he could go it alone in the end; all of their expectations pressed down upon him, and said to him: Zhang Jiale, you’ve got to win a championship. He was compelled to stake everything on a single throw.

Later he lost—and with a slap of Wang Jiexi’s broom against his head, he was stricken awake. When he woke, he was dripping wet all over and lying on dry land. All around him were spotlights, the whole stadium as bright as day, and the cheers surged like a tide toward him and carried him away. Even though the wave had nothing to do with him, it still broke with him upon the seashore. He ran away from the spotlight, and after walking through the dark and endless passageway he returned to his team—to be met again by many pairs of eyes full of concern and expectation, their eyes glittering, like new spotlights that once more surrounded him in the middle; and they said, Captain, we’ll come back next year, right? Captain, Captain Captain Captain Captain Captain, the sound of each sentence like a heavy brick that would drag him down into the deep sea again.

Zhang Jiale fled. Someone who’d drowned before would naturally begin to dread the sea; if he jumped in again and let the salty, fishy seawater wrap around him, he’d have no other choice but to let himself slowly drown, for there was no one who could pull him out of the water onto shore. He discovered that he’d never grown gills in the first place, but had just held his breath all along.

He ran from Hundred Blossoms, and took nothing with him. After all, even he thought that he might return. He lay in his room, not in the mood to go out, and didn’t contact anyone; he slept a dozen or more hours in a day, making up in one go for his debt of sleep from before. Once his head sank onto the pillow, he lay in a dream—he was walking through the endless darkness, just like the countless times he’d entered the passageway alone. The sound from the stage filtered through thick walls to become a blurred rumble, and he walked straight ahead, to arrive at a bright place.

He thought that he’d dream of someone, but in reality no one anchored his dreams. He dreamed that he had returned to his junior high school days: when it was midday break, he’d secretly slip away to the water tower on the school rooftop to take a nap, resting his head on his arms and propping up his legs as he watched the myriad clouds changing in the sky; and, covering himself with his jacket, he let the warm wind wrap around him, thinking of nothing. The future became the soft clouds in the skies above, which were blown away with a gust of wind, fleeing from overhead to the distant horizon, fleeing to a place that he could not see. Of course spring’s the season used for dazing off and being lazy, he could still think with bold assurance. Such a soft warm wind, plus a temperature that feels perfect—of course it ought to be used for sleeping! And he’d go on sleeping till the study monitor came up and grabbed his ear, saying in a loud voice: Zhang Jiale! Time for class! Only then would he massage his ear pulled red, and lazily answer, Got it, got it—with a rather reluctant look at having to part from this excellent cloud-gazing spot, warmed just now by his body heat.

Back then, everything had yet to begin—he was still a boy who worried about exams for the next phase of school, who would roll up the trouser bottoms of his uniform regardless of season to show a bit of fair ankle, who would occasionally carry a guitar over during club recruitment and sit within a crowd clustering round, and with his eyes closed would play and sing. At first he’d sing a lyrical pop song, and then in the next second shift seamlessly to a folk song; he’d give a witty wink as he carelessly played and carelessly sang, as the people around him also carelessly hooted and clapped. The night’s moonlight fell upon his eyelashes to form shadows below, and time too flowed slowly beneath the guitar strings.

Later he came to Hundred Blossoms, and once in a while would call this skill to mind. But suffice it to say that Sun Zheping, as a performer, was not a very good partner at all; the songs that he could sing were probably older than Zhang Jiale himself, so Zhang Jiale deigned to lower himself and played the guitar with him for “The Moon Represents My Heart.” He was quite excited as he played, and strummed the song straight into a rock and roll tune. Next to him, Sun Zheping gave him a pointed look that he didn’t see; and so Sun Zheping could only gloomily wail a few abnormal lines till at last he realized that his accompanist had laughed himself right under the table. Afterwards they laughed and joked, for at that time everything had just begun—their wild ambition hadn’t yet fermented, and they didn’t know their lot in the future, nor did they think about it. Back then, Sun Zheping could still chase Zhang Jiale as they ran around the courtyard, and hadn’t become a still shadow in memory, a scar in someone’s heart. A flick against his chest—and in the middle of the night, in a single breath, it suddenly began to bleed without end. The night wind was blowing and blowing, blowing till Zhang Jiale felt in a split second that he was going to take to the air. Lightly, freely, he rode upon the wind, even flying past the moon. He flew up to the moon, and on its cratered surface he heard Sun Zheping singing, and himself at his side laughing and playing the guitar. He heard his own chest pounding like thunder, ba-dum, ba-dum, and in his dream it exploded like the light and shadow of Dazzling Hundred Blossoms, light and shadow that split and gave way for Zhang Jiale to emerge from within.

Zhang Jiale’s actions spoke much louder than his words. When Sun Zheping left, no one thought that he could prop up Hundred Blossoms by himself; everywhere they speculated about its next captain, coming up with thousands of possibilities for the future plans of Hundred Blossoms. But amidst these rumors and misgivings, Zhang Jiale took the odds-against Hundred Blossoms into the finals. When he felt tired afterwards, he didn’t talk about it; he wasn’t good at stirring up sympathy, or explaining, or inspiring, or declaring his resolve, or sharing his burden with others. He only squeezed out the last bit of his energy in silence. When his strength was exhausted, he turned his head and saw people who still looked at him with expectant eyes, who believed he could still start anew, just as before.

At that time, Zhang Jiale felt that giving up was a simple yet painful matter—to take his tightly clenched fist, deeply ingrained with perseverance over time, and pry his fingers loose one by one, from forefinger to little finger. His bones creaked and chafed, pressing against flesh and blood, and then revealed a palm that had never seen sunlight. In fact, his palm had always been empty without a thing—only he’d been duping himself, numbing himself, pressuring himself, and from nothingness had grown a flower vine for himself to climb, so he’d hardly fall. But when exhaustion ambushed him, giving up seemed like the only way out. He said to everyone: I’m tired, I want to rest. It was then that they realized Zhang Jiale could actually tire. He’d gone mad long enough, and all the repressed despair and bruising from his blind determination seemed to crash over him like a tidal wave, for he wasn’t one who couldn’t feel pain. He was thrust ashore by the very last wave.

So he decided to rest for once. He didn’t want to think about anything; only when he stopped did he discover that time could be this long, enough for him to waste and while away—shrinking into his snail shell and thinking of nothing, where no one could even dream of dragging him out.

Let me rest a bit more, just for a bit. He closed his eyes, and so prayed.