"Blue Light in the Sky" and Shadows
"Blue Light in the Sky" is the title story of the collection by Can Xue (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping). It's a creepy story about two sisters, their adversarial relationship, and what happens when one is mysteriously injured. I'm interested in the ways two characters are played against each other—how one identity dips into the other, shadows it, echoes it, becomes it—and yet defines itself as separate all the same.
First, it's worth listing some of the more straightforward ways the story establishes a link between the two characters. Of course, just being sisters is important, as is the similarity of their names, Sumei and Sulin. They're also linked by what they share: a home, a father, chores, and, most importantly, a secret.
The story makes the link more obvious in moments when the two physically shadow each other. Several times Sulin stands ominously at the foot of Sumei's bed or appears suddenly at her side. Clearest of all, at one point Sumei looks at Sulin and sees that "under the light, Sulin's face had become a shadow."
These are all great strategies when you want to metaphorically connect two characters. I should also say my list is by no means comprehensive. As a white American reader with no connection to or special knowledge of Chinese language or culture, I'm sure I'm missing a lot!
But there's one passage in particular that I want to look at because it connects the sisters in a slightly different way, one that that illuminates the strangeness of their intimacy.
[Sumei said,] "I was at home thinking about your situation. The more I thought, the more I felt afraid. Why do you always have to go outside? I guess it's great outside. It's so dark that it seems there's no point in being afraid."
[Sulin] took Sumei's hand solicitously, and strolled around with her on the path. All at once, Sumei felt greatly moved. She had always thought that Sulin just talked rubbish. She'd thought that she stirred up their father to be against her, but at this moment, she felt puzzled. Maybe Sulin really was more sensible than she was, and knew some things that she was in the dark about. Why had she taken on all the housework Sumei was supposed to do? Sumei had learned through repeated experience that Sulin was a smart person and had always had a clear head ever since she was little. With this thought in mind, Sumei felt she could rely on Sulin, and she held her hand tighter. She whispered to herself, I can count on Sulin no matter what happens. She is so good, kind, and gentle. She helps me take care of everything. I should rely on her. Then Sumei suddenly found that she had been following Sulin all along. They hadn't gone far at all; they were just circling around Little Plum's home. Now no one was on the street. The wind blowing from the mountain was like a song. All the while, Sulin was silent. What on earth was she thinking about? Or wasn't she thinking of anything?
Look at how the sentences snake between the thoughts of the two girls. The story is told in third-limited, aligned closely with Sumei throughout. But the quote that starts the passage is Sulin expressing her thoughts. More interesting, she's telling us that she's been speculating about what Sumei must be thinking. This is a layering of perspective that necessarily creates depth.
Sulin's thoughts almost immediately convert to feelings: "the more I thought, the more I felt afraid." Whose fear is she feeling? Because she's imagining Sumei's thoughts, I think it's part hers and part Sumei's.
When Sulin asks a question about Sumei's thoughts and then answers it, she is imagining Sumei's response, but the answer emerges in a way that feels like dialogue, giving the sense that Sumei has spoken even though she hasn't. In this way the answer belongs to both characters.
Whenever one character speculates about the inner workings of another, it creates intimacy. It shows how well they know each other, but it also makes a space for the reader to wriggle into their relationship and judge how they are judging each other.
In this case, Sulin's guesses about Sumei's brain workings are almost immediately confirmed and also complicated. When we go back into Sumei's head, it's her turn to speculate about the thoughts of Sulin. And something incredible happens: the thoughts she's imagining evolve in real time. They move from distrust of Sulin, to puzzlement, to trusting her.
We learn that as Sumei has been thinking, she has literally been letting Sulin lead her around. Thus her new trust has not only emerged in her brain but manifested externally.
When Sumei asks, suddenly, what Sulin has been thinking, we answer with what we've just experienced—what Sumei has been thinking. (Questions tend to prompt answers from the reader, even when the answer can't be proven.) We're therefore inspired to assign Sumei's thoughts to Sulin. This puts Sulin inside Sumei's head in another way, not just as imagined, but as a voice with purpose and agency.
And so Sumei's march from suspicion to trust makes sense; Sulin has been leading Sumei inside her mind too. We might not be sure if it's a literal mind-meld or Sulin's persuasiveness, but either way, it's fascinating to watch. And it brings these girls together in ways that are both natural and exceedingly unnatural. It's fun. It's creepy. In many ways, the tangled consciousnesses of these two makes the story run.
But there are other advantages to mirroring characters. I'm not even talking about the concept of "shadow self" (much as I love it), in which a character can confront their own hidden psyche.
Rather, I like the way shadowing characters lets us know them in shadowy ways.
Almost everything we learn about either sister is in relation to the other.
It was strange: Pa didn't even like Sulin. Of the two sisters, he liked Sumei somewhat better, but from the time she was little, Sulin had always done her best to please her father.
Other examples abound: "Sumei didn't hear anything. But Sulin was terribly tense." "[Sumei] admired Sulin's skillful way of working that she could never learn."
And we see a very clear example of this in the longer passage I quoted earlier. Sumei admits to being puzzled, and the reader has direct evidence of swirling, tangled thoughts. So when Sumei thinks "Sulin was a smart person and had always had a clear head," it is in direct contrast to what we know of Sumei. The way the thoughts finally untangle at the end of the paragraph is, in fact, further evidence that it's Sulin inside Sumei's head, pulling the thoughts into line.
It's as if the sisters are a closed world unto themselves, and, within it, they are playing a zero-sum game. Each resource or feeling or personality trait can belong to one of them but not both, and so learning something about one is the same as learning the opposite of that thing about the other. But it's not precisely the opposite, either. How would we even define the opposite? It's much more like a shadow.
What I mean is that every time we learn a fact about one of the sisters, we image the shadow of that fact and apply it to the other sister. Of course, knowing that Sumei is the shadow of X is not the same as knowing she is Y. But it's something! We can get a sense of these characters, even as they remain mysterious. It's not for every story or every character, but I admire the way I can sense aspects of these sisters without knowing them fully. They keep their secrets.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss, and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com.