Article by Tim King
Sometimes, I go out late at night. It’s not usually for any particular reason—the closest I come to actual purpose in that respect is that occasionally I’ll come home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning. Mostly though, I just like going for a quick walk in the dead of night, when even the beehive of humanity that is China is quieted. Once in a great while, the air will be clear and the moon will be full and I’ll be able to see my whole neighborhood cast in silver. It’s magic. Just me, that Chinese goddess that lives on the moon and the ringing in my ears.
I’ve always been kind of a homebody, the type of person who walks through the front gates, hands jammed in my pockets and head buried in something, straight into my building and up the elevator, never to be heard from until someone or something forces me to once again leave home. These walks have taught me a lot about my neighborhood, its brief history and current reality borne out in grand fountains that have fallen to disuse, paving-stoned paths to nowhere, exiled housecats and all the patches of grass that dogs have collectively decided are perfect for crapping on. Of all the secrets that have been revealed to me walking its winding paths, my neighborhood still has one mystery—the Red Window.
The Red Window is a picture window that belongs to an apartment on the ground floor of one of the many towering buildings in the neighborhood. Because the Red Window is a picture window, I have to assume it’s attached to a living room, or at least some larger common living space. The Red Window appears after dark and remains illuminated until at least 4am, a time after which I’ve never been sober nor awake enough to continue my surveillance of it. It is often the only apartment in the building with its lights on, even at earlier times like 10pm, and since the units in that building are not studios, the Red Window is also the only light on in the entire apartment. The Red Window is, in and of itself, not red; it’s clear, like most windows. Nor are its curtains red, but rather a white or cream color, and the curtains never move even a millimeter. There is also no light source that I can see inside the apartment that would give off red light. The Red Window is a southern exposure, further hidden from sunlight by trees and other buildings so that even in the daytime, when the curtains are tantalizingly parted, I see nothing inside but shadows. This is everything I know about the Red Window.
I have many theories about the Red Window, ranging from the mundane to the fantastical. My first theory was influenced both by a childhood of scary campfire stories and the number of cocktails I’d had before I encountered it (more than a few, fewer than way too many). Ghosts, I thought, recalling a just-creepy-enough tale someone had told me about staring through a peephole and seeing the blood-red eye of a specter staring back. Ghosts seemed, after some reflection, a bit farfetched. The oldest beliefs about ghosts in Chinese culture make no mention of a ghost attaching itself to a location. Even expanding the search to the more than a dozen types of ghost brought into Chinese culture through Buddhism, none fit the description of the Red Window. One of them, the Servant Ghosts (役使鬼, yì shǐ guǐ), the spirits of those corrupted by ambition in life, are said to have the ability to transform into blinding light, though I am decidedly not blinded by the Red Window. Even if Western traditions and folklore regarding ghosts end up being the One True Ghost Religion™, I find it hard to believe that anyone could form a bond to that apartment close enough in life to haunt it after their death. I, at least, would choose a more interesting place than a cookie-cutter two-bedroom apartment sort of near the Second Ring Road to haunt.
My next theory was a bit…sexier. Overcome by the sensuality of the color red, I began to imagine a collective of people having Eyes Wide Shut-style parties, stripped down to naught but birthday suits and plague masks, exploring every inch of one another in a frenzy of passion and colliding body parts. As with the ghost theory, the logic of this quickly fell apart. Wouldn’t I be able to make out a silhouette of a beast with two backs? Wouldn’t their carnal machinations cause the curtains to flutter, even a little bit? Such an activity would be likely to fill the night with cries of ecstasy—after all, why would you do it nightly if it wasn’t any good?—but that would probably engender noise complaints from a neighbor, which would more or less prevent that kind of activity from happening nightly. Either way, the sounds would probably make their way out of the Red Window, but there is only silence to be filled by my tinnitus.
With my wild imagination finally settling down, I tried to think of more mundane reasons why the Red Window would exist. A leading theory posited that the Red Window was to radiate lucky red light during the occupant’s “circle year” (本命年, běn mìng nián), but the Red Window was red both in the Year of the Dog and now in the Year of the Pig, which would require two people to be living in that apartment, one a Dog and the other a Pig, and I don’t have any evidence that even a single person lives there aside from the fact that there must be someone who closes the curtains and turns on the Red Window every night. Truth be told, it could be as simple as the person living there being someone who really, really loves the color red.
There are a few methods at my disposal that would help me find the answer to this, the greatest enigma of my adult life. I could hold a vigil in view of the Red Window, but even if I were to be around when it transitioned from its daytime form to the Red Window, the best I could hope for is a quick glance at the person responsible for it; worst-case scenario, I’d just be staring for hours in the elements at a pane of unchanging crimson. My community’s security guards would also probably become suspicious of this kind of behavior and put a stop to it, and thus I wouldn’t have enough time to really observe it. I could, through a clever combination of counting windows and finding some way inside the building (which has magnetic keycard locks on its entrance), get to the front door of this apartment, knock on the door and confront its occupant with a blunt, “Yo, what the hell is up with the Red Window?” Though my Chinese is good enough to ask the question, I fear it won’t be good enough to understand the answers I seek. My girlfriend doesn’t give a good goddamn about the why the Red Window exists, so she probably wouldn’t care to translate for me either. And really, do I have it within me to bother what’s probably just an unassuming older person who’s got some Chinese lanterns hanging somewhere in the apartment with my over-curious nonsense? The answer is no, no I don’t.
It’s probably apparent now that, mostly due to my unwillingness to take action, I am very unlikely to find out how the Red Window came to be. In a way, I find this more satisfying. Like when a creature feature shows its monster too early, or when hacks like Rob Zombie decide we need to empathize with Michael Myers to properly appreciate the way he slashes sexy teens, we always find that the thrill is in not knowing, because once things become known to us they lose their exoticism and their ability to capture our imaginations, draining out every last drop of mystique those things once held. We know so much about our world and each other that we have cynical, mostly rational explanations for almost everything. Every night now, I find myself basking, nonplussed, in the dull glow of the Red Window, thinking about plague-masked ghosts getting it on. It puts a little mystery back in my life. And yours too, I’d suppose. You’re welcome.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and, though he is scared of the Red Window, he’s even more scared of what it means if it disappears. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org