I dream I am walking in a field of pink orchids, just like I imagined earlier. They transform into chrysanthemums, and the richness of their petals is intoxicating, making me run my fingers through them. Soon I find myself walking out of the flower field and onto the path that runs by the cliff’s edge. It takes me to the supply line, where the crowd gathered this morning. They are here again, waiting for some important news. Only this time it’s me who stands on the crate, forced to deliver a terrible message to my fellow villagers. My hands move quickly as I sign the news, and I barely process what it is I’m telling them, only that it signifies a bleak future of worse conditions and no hope. When I finish, I find the courage to look out at the faces of the crowd, and I gasp at what I see.
All of them gaze up at me with blank eyes, their irises gone white. And even though their faces are lifted in my direction, it’s clear none of them can see me. Everyone around me is blind. Only I have been left with all my senses. Despair fills the villagers’ features, and they all open their mouths at the same time.
What happens next is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, a sensation that’s almost like a vibration and yet something more. It seems to reach a part of my brain I didn’t even know existed. I have no words for it, no way to articulate this experience. The villagers open their mouths wider, and the sensation grows more intense, pulsing in my ears. My head begins to ache. Then, as one, they all shut their mouths. The sensation abruptly stops, and all is still. I feel a pull in my chest, as though I am reaching out to someone or something far away.
And then my own vision goes black.
Panic fills me until I realize I’ve simply awakened and am looking around the girls’ bedroom of the dormitory. I sit up in bed, gasping, peering around me and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Faint moonlight trickles in from behind the window blinds, and eventually I can see well enough to make out my surroundings. Zhang Jing sleeps peacefully in the bed beside mine, and beyond her, the other girls are asleep as well.
But something is different. Something strange tugs at the edges of my senses as I search and take in the darkened room. I’m experiencing it again—that same sensation from the dream, that thing that’s almost like a vibration but not. Only it’s much less intense. It doesn’t make my head hurt, and it’s fleeting, coming and going. As I look down at Zhang Jing, I notice that the sensation I’m perceiving seems to be timed with her breathing. I study her for a while, watching and trying to understand what I’m experiencing.
I have no answers, only the nagging thought that I must be overtired. Finally, I snuggle back into bed and pull the covers over my head to block out the moonlight. The sensation diminishes. On impulse, I take my pillow and put it over my head, covering my ears, and the sensation fades so much that I’m finally able to ignore it enough to fall asleep. This time, I have no dreams.
Morning comes, and we are awakened in the usual way: by a servant standing in the hall, turning a crank connected to a device that makes our headboards shake. But something is different today. Accompanying the usual vibration is more of that strange sensation, which I find shocking. It’s still with me. What I perceive now, as my bed frame taps against the wall, has a different quality to it. This is sharp and short compared to the long, drawn-out phenomenon created when the crowd opened their mouths. I kneel down, studying the shaking frame, trying to understand how it’s creating this other effect. Zhang Jing taps my arm, and I jump in surprise.
What are you doing? she signs.
What is that? I ask, gesturing to the bed. She looks at me, puzzled, and I notice the servants have stopped turning the crank. Gingerly, I shake the frame so that it hits the wall. To my surprise, I recreate the effect to a lesser extent and immediately look to Zhang Jing for explanation. What is that? I repeat.
What is what? she asks, completely baffled.
I strike the wall with more force from the bed, making the effect more intense. But Zhang Jing doesn’t seem to notice. She only looks more and more confused.
You don’t notice it? I ask.
She frowns. Is the bed broken?
The other girls have dressed, and some are already on their way to breakfast. Zhang Jing and I hurry to follow suit, carefully checking each other over to make sure our robes are straight and hair is pinned in place. We have the same fine, black hair, and it often escapes its pins. She can tell I’m still troubled and asks me if I’m okay as we walk to the dining room, but all I can do is shake my head by way of answer. Part of it is because I have no way to explain what I’m feeling. And the other part is that I very quickly become too overwhelmed to talk anymore.
Everywhere we go, everything we do that morning, the foreign sensations follow me. They are caused by all sorts of things and come in all different forms. Two china cups hitting each other. The sliding of the door when the servants come through. Porridge splashing into bowls. Feet hitting the floor. People coughing. At first, I’m curious about what new sensation will come next, riveted as I watch cause and effect happening all around me. But soon my head is hurting again, and I’m lost in a sea of stimuli. I can’t process it all, and for once, I can barely eat. Only the conditioned knowledge of the importance of food drives me to finish my porridge.
When we go to the workroom, there are fewer sensations hitting me, but they’re still present as we all finish up yesterday’s record. Even my calligraphy brush touching canvas creates an effect, just barely perceptible. As I’m finishing up, a much more intense, more jarring sensation occurs—one that sets my teeth on edge and causes me to look up in alarm. I quickly find its source: Another apprentice has dropped a ceramic pot of paint, making a terrible mess of both paint and shattered pieces. I’m the only one in the room, aside from those working immediately beside him, whose attention is drawn to the accident.