Burning River

It was a stifling summer day, and I strolled into a park seeking a cool, flowing breeze.

It was a stifling summer day, and I strolled into a park seeking a cool, flowing breeze. I’d just planted myself on a brookside bench and relaxed against the backrest when I heard someone calling my name. I looked up and saw the doctor from the psychiatric hospital, Uncle Seydulla, and couldn’t help being greatly surprised and taken aback. This man had passed away several days before.

Poor guy. Could it be he didn’t yet know he’d shuffled off this mortal coil?

He was still quite far away, but waving at me.

“Hey! Mister writer! Mister writer!” Shouting, he made directly for me.

Could I be dreaming? I blinked a few times and took in my surroundings. A distant sidewalk near a flowerbed was crowded with passersby, coming and going. Children played tag and hide-and-seek in a nearby grove of trees, shrieking with laughter. Everything seemed so vivid and real, so normal. The doctor was drawing near, leaning heavily on a cane. During his life he’d worked for many years at the psychiatric hospital. Just now he looked so happy to have run into me, I couldn’t help wondering if he needed me for something important.

I sprang to my feet.

“Sit sit.” The doctor hooked his cane on his left arm and extended his right hand. “How’s your health?”

I reached for his hand without thinking. It wasn’t a dry skeletal death’s hand. It was the fleshy hand of a live person.

“Everything’s well with you?”

“Oh my,” I muttered to myself. “How do I extend greetings to the dead?”

“Thank God,” the doctor said, “I’m doing pretty well. Although flesh is temporary, the soul remains. Haven’t you ever heard the saying ‘The soul is immortal’?”

“Right, yes, the soul, uh… look over there! What are those people singing, anyway? A shepherd’s drunken carousing would be more melodious.”

I didn’t really know what I was babbling about, but I was thinking: This doctor has died, but his soul lives on. In other words, I’ve come into contact with the ghost of the doctor!

“Come come, sit.” The doctor leaned his cane against the bench and sat. “So, you like to come here too? It’s one of my favourite spots in the park.”

“Here? Really? I’ve heard that addicts used to smoke their hookahs around here!”

“At the time there was a big elm tree here, so big that you could not wrap your arms all the way around the trunk. After it dried up and died, there was just the elm’s roots, sprouting with emerging spirits… Have you noticed this creek water’s colour is quite abnormal? In the past, the water was so clear you could see the stones on the bottom. Young women would use the water as a mirror to brush their hair! Nowadays, everyone’s houses are adorned with all manner of multicoloured, strange things, but it doesn’t change the fact that this environment is polluted … Oh, but my friend, why are you still standing?”    

“Who me? ... Oh my, I haven’t sat down yet? I thought I was still sitting, as before! Oh dear, oh dear, I’d better rectify that and sit, by all means!” I sat down beside the doctor, all the while yearning to flee. I couldn’t fathom how, or why, I was sitting and chatting with a dead man.

“So, are you writing any new material these days?” the doctor inquired.

“Lately, no. Unfortunately, I haven’t been writing.”

“I often ask people about you. They always say … he goes here, he goes there. Is it because you can’t find subject matter that you rush about everywhere so busily?”

“Well, sometimes and stay put, like now.”

“But, my friend, this is precisely a case of that saying, what is it? ... ‘The dark patch under the lamp.’ The blind spot very close to you, I mean! Why haven’t you come to visit me, eh? The things I’ve seen and heard during my time working at the psychiatric hospital … let’s just say you could fill a multi-volume series with it!”

“Really? Things happened there worth writing down?”

“Oh, think about what you’re saying. Everything interesting happens there! You can well imagine how meticulously the Creator puts together each of our brains. Think of all the components. What’s one little part more or less? I’ll tell you, it means a perfectly normal person at once becomes very strange. Oh yes, then you have some lively, thrilling sights, I assure you. Our hospital, it turned out, was packed with these sorts of mental patients. I mean, I’ve seen such patients, some who didn’t feel the cold outside in the dead of winter. Others who never ate a bite yet didn’t get hungry. Some were well-behaved, sitting motionless all day long. Others were ferocious. They’d see someone and attack, they’d see something and smash it, causing enough disorder to invert earth and heaven. These sorts we had to keep separated from the general population of the hospital, behind high walls. In any case, every day served up something new you never could’ve imagined.”

Dr. Seydulla warmed to his subject and launched into a torrent of stories about mental patients. I sat next to the dead man and listened to him speak, terrified, afraid to move. I balled my sweaty hands into fists. I imagined trying to flee. Would he seize his cane and wield it like a weapon, crack my skull open? I felt glued in place, unable to move.

“I treated a patient once,” the doctor continued. “He always smiled. No matter when you looked at him, he was smiling. It was a strange smile, devoid of meaning or real joy. We tried every method at our disposal, and we couldn’t make the smile disappear. Sometimes he would rant and rave, unable to restrain his emotions. He would taunt me: ‘Pathetic doctor, every day you go to work then go home, go home and go to work, there and back, supporting the wife, raising the children, always rushing about. Afraid of losing your monthly salary and your position. Flattering whoever you’ve got to, speaking falsehoods … it must be uncomfortable sometimes, right?’

“It is hard to say. We tell them they’re mentally ill, but perhaps, from their point of view, we’re the ill ones, rushing about in our often-futile daily lives, so it can be hard to persuade them … Well, there were some that thought otherwise! We had a female patient. She was always howling with laughter, that one. A serious condition. Sometimes she’d ram her against the wall until she fractured her skull and bled. We wanted to bind her hands and feet, but we never knew when she might flare up. When she was quiet, I would always dress her wounds. At these times she would very happily kiss my feet. We all called her Sari Hénim. Once I asked her: ‘Sari Hénim, why do you kiss my feet? Where’s this custom from?’ To my surprise she answered: ‘I kiss your face, don’t I? Very strange that you don’t know this.’ Later we understood. She saw everything upside-down. Inverted, feet above, head below.”

“Very strange,” I said. “How can this be, Doctor?”

“Don’t tell me you never climbed a mulberry tree when you were a kid and hooked your legs on a branch and hung upside down, looking earthward. It was like that, sky underfoot, house and street and pedestrians above your head, very amusing. Sari Hénim’s incessant laughing, well, originally it was due to that.”

I couldn’t help staring in wonder. I looked him up and down, finding no traditionally ghostly signs about him. He went on as before, pouring out words in a steady flow of narration.

“Rooming with this Sari Hénim was another young woman called Jananihan. All day she would rub her cheeks red, wear flowers in her hair, and sing one song after another. To my ear they were melodies that no musician has ever thought of to this day. And the lyrics … beyond imagining, or comprehension. ‘Beloved, so dear, where in the dream have you gone? The new pot never used to cook, what a pleasant flavour for people to enjoy.’ It was all that sort of thing. Really these words didn’t matter. She could just sing syllables, rhythms, non-stop. One day, an old man with a long beard, Qasim was his name, was sent to our hospital, bound up. Reportedly he’d suddenly lost his mind, had been throwing rocks and smashing things, raising a ruckus, giving his neighbours no peace. Maybe you won’t believe this. The old long-beard, as soon as he heard Jananihan’s singing, immediately calmed down.”

“Just like that? Like magic?”

“I don’t understand it any better than you, Mister Writer. We brought this Qasim Boway to the walled courtyard. Those who’d sent him repeatedly warned us: ‘Doctors, please take care. He could injure you.’ Well, now that Jananihan’s singing resounded through the courtyard, the old man just sat there listening, calmly, even after his bindings had been loosened. Soon enough, he and Jananihan were inseparable, he her devoted fan and follower. Probably no one else in this world so thoroughly comprehends her songs, or so deeply understands them, or is so totally charmed by them. Now then, these are things to write about, are they not?”

The doctor sat facing me.

I’d once heard a dead person’s eyes weren’t reflective. Could it be that Doctor Seydulla had been resurrected?

“Maybe I could submit these stories to ‘Burning River.’”

I said this tongue-in-cheek. It came out before I knew what I was saying. Actually, I had no idea what ‘Burning River’ was in terms of literature. I watched the doctor’s eyes. My silhouette against the glare of the park flickered in his pupils. I’d once heard a dead person’s eyes weren’t reflective. Could it be that Doctor Seydulla had been resurrected?

“There was another patient … I can’t remember his name clearly. All day long he would spin, sometimes stretching out both arms, earth and sky spinning, growing confused and disoriented. Even the onlookers got dizzy. Later we found out that if he didn’t spin now and then he’d have a splitting headache. Another man named Halmuhammat caused even more wonder. He was originally an able, efficient accountant, perfectly normal. Sometimes we even let him balance our hospital books. You couldn’t find a fault in his work if you tried. He was also a brilliant chess player. People from all over the country came to measure their skills against him, and they always lost the battle. Without fail they just had to scratch their heads and leave.”

“What was his illness?” I asked, puzzled.

“During his free time, he would face a wall and say crazy, bizarre things. It was quite baffling. Reportedly he’d taken some sort of bad drug or medication, causing permanent damage to his brain. We never ascertained what exactly he’d taken. Sometimes he’d launch into a longwinded torrent, talking non-stop. Once I came up quietly behind him and looked at the part of the wall that seemed so interesting to him. Of course it was just the usual coarse brickwork. But why make a fuss about this, in the end? You watch a movie, and what are you really looking at for two hours? A plain white cloth screen!”

“And what did he say?”

“If you heard his words, a lot of it was what he thought about in the womb. How he was eager to be born into the world and its chaos, how after he was born and opened his eyes, the world didn’t measure up to his imagination and he cried and wailed. How he outraged his bosses with his accuracy in book-keeping, and was fired from three different work units, and so on, and so on, he covered everything. There was another patient called Niyaz who was even stranger. We called him ‘Backwards Walker Niyaz.’ We all rely on the whim and luck of God, of course, and this Niyaz simply couldn’t walk forward. He always walked backwards. Watching him from the sidelines, craning his head slightly one way or the other to keep from colliding with something, you’d conclude in amazement: ‘God’s blessings, he must have come out of his mother’s womb feet first!’ You’d be dumbstruck to see him stroll backwards a thousand steps. It’s how his brain worked. Give him a book and he’d read it from last page to first! For three years I couldn’t teach him to take a forward step … And then there was ‘Filthy Nasir.’ If you saw him do certain things you’d certainly feel the urge to vomit. He liked to take a stick and stir up any excrement he could find, as if searching for something. He’d been abroad, visiting family. When he returned, there were valuables, you see, and a question concerning customs checks, so he swallowed the valuables. Later, these valuables, whatever they were, never came out the other end, or he missed them when they did. From then on, this pitiful person descended into an obsessive disorder, a compulsion to search excrement … In any case, there was always something like this, or something else you couldn’t imagine in your wildest dreams, happening at our little institution. More than you could ever hope to write down. And I haven’t even told you about General Sattar!”

“A general? What sort of general?” I couldn’t help myself at this point. My misgivings about the doctor were gradually fading. I wanted to hear more.

“How do I know what sort of general he was? A mentally ill general? A general of mental patients? In any case, he was from head to toes decked out in a yellowing, frayed uniform, the smelly soles from his shoes hung and looped on his shoulders as epaulettes. A strange sight to behold. He wore all kinds of emblems, buttons of various colours, copper coins from God knows what era, row after row of makeshift badges on his chest. Like a general of antiquity, he had an iron chain hanging from his breast pocket, and another button hanging down like a pocket watch. It didn’t really matter how you regarded him. In his own imagination he was an ever-victorious general. He was not sociable. During mealtimes he ate alone, off to one side. In the courtyard, from dawn to dusk, he hurried to and fro, commanding imaginary soldiers to form ranks, and now and then he’d shout, ‘Charge!’ as if attacking invisible enemies. If he suddenly appeared in front of me, he’d stamp his feet and salute, and it was no laughing matter. At first it made me nervous, and I’d look to my left and right uneasily. Of course, as a general he ought not to be saluting a civilian like myself. Regardless, I could see how earnest he was, and serious, and in a hurry. When he was walking, he was always focused straight ahead, no looking sideways, chest out, shoulders squared, like a bona fide general with the impressive bearing and so on. And momentarily you’d forget all about Jananihan and her songs, the spinner, the backwards walker, the excrement stirrer, the chess player and all the rest of them.”

“So how did he treat you?” I asked.

“Very respectful and proper.”


“Well, I often treated him as a patient. Sometimes I had to take down his trousers and give him an injection in the buttocks. This naturally put me in a superior position. Perhaps he regarded me as a marshal or a supreme commander. Moreover, I sometimes had orderlies with me when dealing with troublesome patients. I think General Sattar saw these orderlies as my guards, maybe my ex-o’s, and he envied me. I think he felt neglected, not having guards or officers under him. Sometimes I would off-handedly say: ‘Hey, General Sattar, how’s the military situation?’ At these times the general would bang his heels, salute, and report: ‘Marshal sir! General Sattar reporting sir! We destroyed the enemy’s left defensive flank last night! Our losses came to fifty planes, a hundred tanks, and close to a thousand infantry. The enemy’s losses were tenfold ours. Report complete. With the Marshal’s permission, the General will continue conducting the days’ operations!’ Then about he would face, and off he’d march to his imagined battlefield. It would’ve been highly disrespectful to laugh at the sheep jaw ‘pistol’ in his rope belt, or his toy wooden broadsword. You had to maintain a serious face, and salute, and watch him depart.”

I wondered if all the resurrected dead were so gifted with gab. The doctor’s narrative was gaining momentum, pulling me along.

“What an extraordinary character!” I couldn’t help exclaiming.

My enthusiasm seemed to hearten the doctor and spur him on: “Indeed, this general of ours seems to interest you, am I right? Later, he got more interesting still. Because he unceasingly conducted his imaginary battles in the courtyard, at night he slept like a log. And there was this other patient, I can’t remember his name either … so many patients, so many years, you know? But anyway, we called him ‘The Scholar.’ They said he used to be a university professor. Nobody knew what inopportune words about the government he’d said to get himself dragged before a public meeting and denounced, then beaten, but from then on he suffered from this derangement. No matter what time you saw him, he was always wearing his long coat and short underwear, two different shoes, and was obsessed with the number 12. According to him, 12 was a mystical number: 12 months, 12 zodiac animals, small intestine 12 finger-widths in length. He had many arguments. You might think he’d have been better off with someone of higher learning to speak with, right? What could we do? We echoed what he said, we nodded, we agreed, that’s all. We coped. After arriving in the hospital, he was busy making a 12-barred birdcage and painted it 12 colours and then occupied himself with capturing 12 species of birds. One morning I was making my rounds of General Sattar’s ward. The General was sawing logs, fast asleep. The Scholar was using a shard of glass as a magnifying lens to inspect the General’s numerous buttons and ornaments and ‘medals.’ ‘Respected Scholar, what are you looking at?’ I asked. ‘Hmm, you see these coins?’ The Scholar gazed up at me. ‘Maybe you don’t realize what a rare treasure this old coin is. Qing Dynasty. Only 12 were stored in the Imperial Palace, and later they were stolen. The Imperial Household was shocked, scandalized. Now, how can this old coin be sewn into this madman’s mock uniform? And where are the other 11?’

“I was sure he was talking drivel. I had a look, and sure enough an ancient-looking copper coin hung on the left breast among all kinds of badges, buttons, and other random trinkets. It was a corroded, pitted, stained copper coin tied through the square hole in the middle, like the ones we used to make kicking shuttlecocks with. Only God knew whether it was worth anything. The Scholar seemed sure of his convictions, for whatever reason. At that time, a new patient was sent to the hospital. A driver, or former driver, I should say. He’d been thrown from a crash and sustained severe head trauma. Henceforth he became a walker, walking everywhere, walking all the time, always on the move. We helped him settle into the courtyard as best we could. He kept walking, as if his motor was stuck in drive, even eating on the move, even getting undressed for bed in motion. Lying down, he was soon asleep, probably exhausted from the incessant, excessive exercise. I mulled it over and had to conclude that the most pitiful part of it all was his helpless sleepwalking while unconscious. When he opened his eyes the next day, he got up and continued his seemingly endless journey. Maybe you can’t imagine why he didn’t just hurry out of the institution, but within a couple days this former driver found himself falling in step with General Sattar. Needless to say, we’d been growing used to the General for some time and so we thought nothing of it. The driver at first didn’t seem to understand all the General’s commands, but he did his best with the ‘Left shoulder, huh!’ ‘Right shoulder, huh!’ without a rifle. At one point he ran over to Sattar and stood in front of him and gave a salute, putting his hand on his temple. ‘Greetings, Respected senior officer!’

“Sattar knitted his brow and corrected him: ‘I am not a common senior officer. Understand this, I am General Sattar!’

“You would’ve been fascinated by this interaction, I’m telling you. That driver stood at attention, bolt upright, posture adjusted. ‘I wish to pay my respects, respected General. I am a newcomer. If I may, please allow me to join your ranks!’ ‘Very good!’ Sattar said. ‘Approval granted!’

“Since that day, the moment General Sattar gave an order, that driver was before him. ‘Turn to the left!’ ‘Turn to the right!’, ‘About face!’ In the wake of all the usual orders, the two of them would go stamping around the courtyard in synchronized step, creating a lively din. Other patients saw this and couldn’t sit still. First the shit-stirrer, Filthy Nasir, tossed aside his foul tool and fell into step. Then the endless spinner, the reverse-walker, and Mr. Smiles frequently began to join in the formations. Even Jananihan and her admirer Qasim joined the ranks, which began to acquire a certain grandeur of its own. General Sattar became very excited as his army grew. He arranged his troops by height, the tall soldiers on the ends and the shorter ones in the middle, and conducted drills. They were often thrown into disarray by the backward walker. General Sattar would grab him by the collar, drag him out of formation, spin him around, and put him back in the line the right way. The incessant spinner, like a pigeon tumbling through the sky, now and then would depart formation and spin for a spell, but would soon return to formation. They formed up every day and completed their drills, conduct assault practice according to Sattar’s commands, and sometimes even fell in rhythm with Jananihan’s strange syllabic singing. This kicked up quite a row.”

“In a sense,” I said, “these mental patients had formed a vast and mighty army.”

“Alas, don’t bring that up. We would stand outside the metal bars of the locked courtyard gate and watch them do their thing, and we could only marvel. Try to imagine, how else could we restrict them? If they weren’t harming each other, or stirring up trouble, we were quite content. Seeing General Sattar getting them into such good, docile order, we considered ourselves lucky. It made our jobs easier. But one Sunday, unfortunately, there was some negligence. A staff duty officer, after providing lunch for the patients, forgot to lock the residence gate on the way out. General Sattar continued on like any other Sunday, ate ‘til he was full, then mustered his troops. In perfect formation they marched out of the compound and into the public street beyond the courtyard gate. General Sattar took the lead, magnificent in his decorations, his makeshift pistol and broadsword. Next came the whirling dervish, then the backwards walker and other eccentrics, a parade of unusual soldiers. Children gathered to watch the spectacle and, making their own uproar, followed behind, like the fools’ pageant trailing a Roman Triumph. Drunks poured out of pubs and added their Bacchanalian delirium to the scene, and the General’s army transformed into a great roving celebratory festival. General Sattar brought his forces into an already-bustling, lively marketplace, and products began to lose their balance and tumble over. Businesspeople and merchants converged on the scene as the chaos spread. There’s no need to describe just how out-of-control things got at this point, with fruit stands capsizing and produce rolling all over the ground. Hats, liberated of their stands, blowing in the breeze, the clang, jingle, and general din of washbowls and buckets falling and rolling. Well, it was noisy enough to invert heaven and earth. I got the news during my siesta at home. I woke up and everything was calm, normal, serene. Yes, I’m afraid everything I just told you was a dream, Mr. Writer. And I can’t help counting myself the luckier for it, thank God.”

“Wait … All of that just now was a dream?” I couldn’t believe it. The doctor was a rather convincing storyteller.

“Indeed, all a dream. I still wonder … how can I have dreamt of things from so long ago?!”

The doctor waved his hand at something that was crawling on his neck—an ant or fly—then removed his handkerchief to wipe his hand. Had his speech been a recollection of real things, or a dream? The Doctor himself: alive or dead? I was baffled. I was no longer sure of anything.

“Those patients,” I said, “I mean, what can you say about the past? Is General Sattar still alive?”

“Alas, dead these many years. As a matter of fact, I ran into him several years ago … in the other place. He looked melancholy, quite worried, downtrodden. Maybe he was still remembering his glory days at the institution. ‘How are things, General?’ I said. ‘Anything you want me to pass on to the living?’ ‘Tell my son,’ he said, ‘to stop piling up so many stones and bricks on my grave, would you? It’s not necessary. Makes me feel stifled.’ I returned to the world of the living and saw General Sattar’s grave and sure enough it was decorated to the hilt, very imposing, dignified, splendid, a big vault chamber, the works. I had to ask around but eventually I found General Sattar’s son’s home. It was a foreign style residence, quite lavish. Just when I got to the door, a limo pulled up and the younger Sattar got out of the back. I recognized him at a glance, since he used to come to the hospital all the time to visit his father. At that time their family’s circumstances were rather impoverished, quite pitiful. Nowadays he was much more nicely groomed and well off, I’d say even dapper.

“And he recognized me. ‘Assalamu Eleykum,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you Dr. Seydulla?’

“I introduced myself. ‘It seems you’ve come into some good luck, wealth-wise,’ I couldn’t help observing. ‘You know my father’s, uh … uniform?’ ‘Which uniform …’ ‘Come now, Doctor, his worn-out uniform with epaulettes on the shoulder? Turns out it was worth quite a lot, a certain piece of it anyway.’

“I couldn’t help feeling dumbstruck. ‘Used clothes like that? How could they be worth anything?’ ‘You must remember all the trinkets and buttons and copper coins hanging on the clothes, right? One day, two people came to our home to ask after the whereabouts of my father’s clothes. I asked what they wanted with them. They said they were interested in buying. Not really knowing what they were after, I brought out the clothes for them to inspect. They examined the trinkets and buttons, muttering to each other, then asked how much I’d sell for. I thought to myself … why not aim high? And why not say it right to their faces? ‘This is my father’s heirloom, his legacy. If you want it, hand over a hundred thousand yuan, or forget it.’ The haggling began, the persuasive words, and they finally got me down to fifty thousand. After they, and the clothes, were gone, I stood there staring at the cash in my hand for a long time. I kept worrying they, or someone else, would return, demanding a refund, so I didn’t dare spend the money for at least a year. But no one ever showed up. Later, I invested and put the money to work, and in a year or two I had done quite well, with God’s favor, of course! If those buyers came back now seeking a refund, I think I’d throw down a hundred grand on the spot to get dad’s uniform back!’

“Hearing General Sattar’s son’s words, I recalled that patient, the Scholar, who’d been obsessed with the number 12. Anyway, I couldn’t just tell him, ‘Your father’s depressed and unable to breathe because his burial mound is too big. Could you tear it down?’ Therefor I was forced to say, ‘Child, this is God’s subtle blessing for you. Goodbye.’ And I took my leave and returned home. Oh … time already has passed so quickly! I’ve prattled on for so long. I’m afraid I’ve annoyed you …”

The doctor took his cane and stood up, his eyes fixed on mine. “Oh, that’s right, you received the invitation to my seventh mourning ceremony today. Don’t forget about it. 49 days, a ceremony per week. It really is a bit much, though I suppose God knows best, praise His Holy Name. Anyway, please do come!”

I didn’t know what to say. The Doctor turned and hobbled away, gradually vanishing. The cold sweat poured down my body. Without really thinking about it, I reached down to touch the bench where he’d been sitting, and the wood was cold, like no one had been sitting there.

March, 1999, Urumqi


About the author

Memtimin Hoshur, an eminent writer of Uyghur fiction, was born in 1944 and grew up in the town of Ghulja near China’s border with Kazakhstan. Hoshur studied at Xinjiang University in Ürümchi and published his first story in 1965. Although his 2003 epic The Sand-Covered City (Qum Basqan Sheher) is regarded as his masterwork, he is most widely known for the vitality of his biting short stories of social satire. Since 2016, as the Chinese authorities began a major campaign to eliminate unauthorized Islamic practice and beliefs and transform the Uyghur population, a number of his short stories and novels, including The Sand-Covered City have been banned. The reason for this censorship is likely due to religious and ethnic imagery and the way his work provides a narrative of Uyghur Indigenous history in the region.

"Burning River" has been translated from Uyghur, to Mandarin, to English. The translators received permission to seek publication for this work, and in the interest of safety, wish to remain anonymous. On behalf of Hoshur, they have donated their fee to Save Uighur. https://www.saveuighur.org/

While it cannot be confirmed, it is likely that Hoshur is currently detained.