Zhen – Delays
“All warfare is based on deception.” (Sun Tzu, Chpt 1, 18)
I have been in this bar so many times, it’s like reading the same book again and again. The pages are grubby and hold no surprises. I’m here alone tonight, hoping beer will wash my irritation with Sun.
My head feels like it’s being split with each bass thud, makes it hard to think. DJ’s all sound the same don’t they? Just different posters. Stupid names; DJ Missile, DJ Jam.
Each drink purchase is studied, timed. I switch to cognac from the cheap beer. I work out each glass of cognac costs me four point one hours of my meagre wages. This is not to be taken lightly. But I don’t care anymore. It relaxes me, softens the sound of jackhammers in my head. The bartender pours a small stain of four hours labour into my glass, I wince. Here’s to my family-friendly fiance who has been so busy at work I’ve been stuck at my parents for two long extra days. He thinks his meetings with his boss are more important than moving me into our flat.
I swig another small mouthful of cognac and message my friend Mei to see how she is. But there is no reply.
Some cheap looking girl moves in front of me and eyes a foreigner. She must think I’m competition, but I don’t have the required layers of makeup. I wear jeans, not a short skirt. And I don’t like foreign men, not like that. The foreigner smiles at her, doesn’t see me. His eyes move down her legs to her high heels. We are playthings to them. He is like a child.
The cheap girl, in heels that are more like school made stilts, stumbles onto my toes causing a sharp stab of pain. Worse, I see in a quick machine gun fire of strobe that she’s stained the toes of my favourite shoes. I try to push her away but end up stumbling myself. Too much cognac and out manoeuvred, I fall off my stool and onto my feet, but kick out at her as I do. Mud that always seems to be caked to the bottom of my shoes stains her clothes, makes me smile. My handbag strikes the foreigner in the side. He doesn’t notice though, he is too busy trying to scoop up the heeled painted doll falling at his feet. He looks like a baby happy with a cheap breakable toy. You get what you pay for, right?
I feel more lost than when I arrived. Drink has clouded me. I feel like I’m sinking inside. More music, too loud. I have to get out so I head toward the flood of light spilling from the exit. There are lots of people between me and the coat rack. I’m going through my pockets looking for the tag. Hair is in my eyes, sticky with sweat. People behind wait for me, watching.
A foreigner stumbles ahead of the queue, with a small group around him. I can’t see his face clearly. He has sandy coloured hair that was once styled in some sort of business cut, but it’s now slightly overgrown. I see a flash of dark eyes. His clothes look cheap, but I notice an expensive pair of shoes, one of the brands Mei goes on about. He looks bored, numb. He’s too drunk or too clueless to see a system and pushes ahead of me.
I must have drunk too much, I am never so direct with strangers, “Wait, line up. They are getting my coat.” I feel blood rush to my cheeks as I say this, want to rewind that last moment and keep my mouth shut.
He mutters, “Doesn’t even seem to be a line, don’t know how you can tell.”
I push hair out of my face, fold my arms, “Foreigners often miss the obvious.”
He rocks back on his heels now, steadies himself on the counter. I see him examine my face. The group with him has drifted off toward the door. He doesn’t seem to care, says to me, “I’ve fucked up. I…” He looks down at his shoes, takes one hand out to steady himself against the wall near him. He splutters, “I didn’t mean it quite like that…” The words run together like ink. I wince at the toxic smell of what he has drunk, I can smell it from where I am.
I pull back a little, “I don’t talk with drunks.” I regret starting this, look over his shoulder hoping someone will come back with my coat. I fold my arms and stand there, hoping I can escape quickly. My bravery is evaporating.
He grunts, points his finger at me, trying to end the tense silence between us, “You know… I’ve seen no system in this city so far… crazy drivers, brave cyclists…”
He stops pointing when he realises I won’t respond. People are looking, I just want to go home now. He turns away from me, sighs, runs his hands through his hair, says, “Sorry.” I glance at him, he looks lost. I feel a flicker of pity for him.
I mutter, “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” He doesn’t reply.
Someone comes with my coat and I take it off her, anxious to flee. In my haste I stumble, and he lurches to help me, grabs my arm. I jump away and move toward the door. I feel the air from the outside smother the sound from the club behind me. It shrinks it to monotone.
He follows me outside. I stumble to the head of a taxi queue and try to muscle my way into a taxi to get away from him. I hear him from behind me, “There’s a system, a line…” His interruption has prevented me from being pushed by three women I have offended as I take their place in the taxi queue. He looks happy seeing this revenge and leads me away before they vent their rage at me.
He says, “I’d buy you a drink, to say sorry, but I don’t have any money left.”
He must be lying, “How can a foreigner not have money?” I grunt.
He smiles, looks at my shoes, “Well, not all of us have money to burn.”
I should walk away, but I don’t, I stand on the edge of the street not in a line for a taxi and not walking away. I can’t explain why I don’t want to move or why half of me stops the other half from moving, a stalemate. I say, “Well, you must have something, you couldn’t have swum here from your country.”
I hope he will walk away, but he chuckles. I see a flash of those eyes and I look down at the pavement, and he says, “My company paid for the ticket and set me up, so… no great swimming skills.” He tries to say something else but the wind picks up and we both recoil as the cold hits us.
We shuffle back away from the road toward the door where there is some shelter. I notice, with enough light now from the light in the doorway, that he is unshaven. “You don’t need to buy me a drink, I’m used to foreigners.”
He raises his eyebrows, “Used to arrogance?”
I nod, “Yes.” My cheeks flush and I turn away from him, my arms folded and pressed against my breasts to hold the warmth in.
He says, “Funny, I was just thinking you were arrogant.” I grit my teeth, want to yell at him but I am incapable of even grasping at an English word to respond.
He finds a business card and holds it in one hand in front of me, “Well, I should give this to you. They say that’s the right thing to do here.” I feel my eyebrows arch. Such thick skin; ‘the nerve’, as they say in foreign movies. It says, ‘Golden Dragon Property’ above his name, Lindon. He works for them.
I snatch it quickly, my upbringing forbids me from leaving it in his hands. I pull too hard and he topples forward, almost falls to the street. I leave, turn my back on him, heading for the subway as rain starts to fall. I only get a few metres form him and he yells, “What’s your name?”
I wonder why he cares. I stop and turn around. Rain starts to prick my face with icy water and I breath hard, “Zhen Yi.” The rain gets heavier and I rush away.
I look back as the subway entrance looms up in front of me and see he is following me. I notice, in the rain that’s fanning out on the road, the mud from his shoes is leaving a trail behind him. He looks like a child, a large clumsy child. I being to laugh, a real laugh. I’m more used to giving ‘show faces’ and deceitful body language. That is my life. Smile to the right people, strategic-emotional-display. But this laugh is real. I put his card into a pocket, careful to remember where I put it, and disappear into the subway.
Later on the platform I see him squinting in the glare of fluorescent light. We don’t talk. He has retreated into himself anyway, is far away. I turn to go to my side of the platform and I am happy a train glides in right away. I don’t look at him again, I just turn and disappear into the carriage.
My phone begins screeching. It’s Sun, I see his name on the screen and I’m relieved to hear from him. I want to hear his voice after everything that’s gone on tonight. The night has flushed out the frustration. Was I bitch to him? Should I be a more supportive fiancé? There are ads for bras opposite me, Sun sounds perfect, as usual. His voice deep and calm. He apologises for being out so late again. He has signed a big new contract. Says this one will “change everything” but I’ve heard this before.
I say, “I’m not feeling well baby. I need to be in our own place. My parents are driving me crazy…” I listen to his voice, my toe aches from the club. The foreigner’s smile is everywhere I look in the subway. It’s the only thing I can see and I feel terrible for this small emotional betrayal of Sun. I don’t even know why I would think about that stupid arrogant man.
The train gathers speed as we head away from the station, Sun is saying, “…and you should make sure you keep warm, it’s starting to rain they say, and I hope you were careful with-” but as the train disappears into a tunnel we lose our signal. His voice disappears mid-sentence and my shoulders go slack. I sink back against the door. I look forward to being surrounded by him, smelling his skin. But I won’t see him again tonight, and I will be with my parents.
When I get off at my stop, rain has started to descend in heavy sheets. At home I clear my pockets. All the paper has formed a soft mess of running ink and pulp. There is no number left. I’m relieved about this, almost happy.
Why would I want some arrogant foreign man’s phone number anyway?
Lindon – Foam realities
“Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”
(Sun Zi, Chpt. 13, 6)
I have been hired much like a mascot on a sports team to smile and drink and show my face at ceremonies, not to actually work. I have the foam model in my head, but there is no “nail house” on the model so I have escaped today, slipped out of a press conference between camera flashes and toasting glasses and managed to get a taxi; we are speeding out across endless overpass toward the site, Chinese news blaring over the car’s speakers. I must get a look at this nail house for myself, size it up and give them their marching orders.
I sit in the back, sandwiched with the young guy they have given me to translate, his eyes permanently attached to his mobile phone. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t seem to care too much to know mine. I notice another taxi travels behind us the whole way and stops a block ahead of us as we arrive and I wonder, in a made-for-TV moment, if I am being followed. I watch an old guy get out of the taxi clutching a shopping bag wander off ahead to a small row of shops in the distance but he doesn’t look back.
I leave paranoid thoughts behind and stride across the road through the torn muddy shreds of earth left in machines wakes. Blue construction steel fence has enveloped the site. I duck under a loosely chained driveway in the centre on the front side of the fence next to the company logo and I smile to myself as the translator trips on a rise of mud as he texts and walks- serves him right.
Once inside I stop, trying to take in what I see, startled. There are two deep round pits that all this construction rises out of; behind this, in the distance is a block of apartments that have, on the plans at least, already been removed but they are still partially standing. I see only two cranes installed to service the ten stories of the building that has currently been started in the pit to the left of me; there should be more machinery, more activity. Workers accommodation, at least, has been built at the far end of the site, opposite me- small white sheds are piled on top of each other, some sort of makeshift kitchen next to it billows smoke. Some of the bottom sheds have been made with what I assume are the bricks of the houses already demolished.
As I look around men stop around me – one guy stands in front of me to my left and a couple thrust pages at me that are tattered and torn. I ignore them for the moment taking in the nail house in front of me. I’d pictured a house or two standing amongst machinery but this is so much more than that- there is an island of land left in the middle of the second pit, and a narrow land bridge has been left to connect it to where I stand.
Sitting on top of that is a house, a regular terrace house that’s had other buildings obviously demolished around it, but this one has been spared, left intact and it’s perched up on top of the island like a rotten tooth. An old man shuffles around on the roof, piling up stones and rocks. He has red flags flying from makeshift beams of wood from the corners of the roof and he stops when he sees me and stares in our direction, peers at us like we are somehow the odd ones in this scene. The translator shuffles up beside me breathing heavily from the short walk and doesn’t seem to be at all taken aback, like what is in front of us is an ‘everyday’ occurrence.
Voices now attract my attention. I count over a dozen people wandering toward me. One guy has an ill-fitting security uniform on and a jar of tea in his hand and they all talk at once at me. The guard points back at the gate and I shrug and yell, “I don’t understand…” I wave my company ID at them, hope this scares them off, intimidates in some way. A dog starts barking from within the house in the pit. The translator looks at me for direction but I shrug and move closer to the earth bridge that connects the nail house to the edge. The small crowd that has gathered follows me.
As I stop on the land bridge itself to take a couple of images with my phone, the translator pulls on my sleeve, “We should go back, let others deal with this.”
The people who have followed us start to back up, won’t set foot on the bridge. I pull away from the translator, say, “I just need to let them know a couple of thingd, I’ll be all right.”
He laughs “Mr, the on-site office is over that way…” He points back behind us and I notice the small crowd are looking at each other- some smile and I wonder what these smiles mean.
“I won’t take long.” I start to walk across the land bridge. No one, including the translator, are moving with me; they stand watching like they are looking at an accident, but this suits me, it makes things less complicated. I notice a camera crew have run up behind the crowd but they keep their distance as well.
As I turn my head from them I look up to find the old man but he seems to have disappeared from site. It’s then the first projectile hits me. I am lucky that the first one is just a ball of mud that strikes my leg so it doesn’t hurt too much, but I still stagger a bit with the force and surprise of it. I’m off balance and I lurch toward the side of the land bridge, hands instinctively now over my head waiting for the next blow and I overbalance at the edge. I hear a collective sigh behind me and look down – the drop looks to be about twenty metres and I feel my fingers and toes tingle as I pull my weight back the other way to avoid dropping into the pit. I stumble as I do this and end up on my hands and knees.
Mud covers my legs and looks like it will stain my only suit and I curse under my breath but another projectile hits my head. It’s softer and larger. My legs crumple. Soft mud cascades down my face and brings me safely down to the ground where I curse again. I hear laughter from behind and I turn to hurl abuse at them but as I open my mouth the third projectile hits my back and pain shoots up into my neck.
Another harder object hits the ground in front of me as I try to get up, my eyes foggy with mud. It’s then I hear a loud woman’s voice from in front of me yell “Stop!”
I wipe mud off my face and it drips off the ends of my fingers. I peer through the grime looking for the source of the voice. I can’t see her face under a woollen hat and a hooded jacket.
I can only really see her eyes – they shine somehow out of the cold. She walks from the nail house and the old man trails twenty metres or so behind her, some sort of projectile still in his hand ready for battle.
Anger overwhelms me driven by the pain in my back, “What the fuck was that for?”
She comes closer now, pushes back the hood and she is instantly familiar- the girl from the nightclub. She says, “My father is causing all of us lots of trouble. I’m sorry.”
It takes her a fraction longer to recognize me, but then it’s there in the way her face tightens as I speak, “Your father is mad.”
She frowns, “My father is under a lot of pressure.”
Pain radiates across my back again in a new wave and I wince. “I just came out to chat with him, not get attacked.”
“My father was the one that attacked you, talk to him.” She turns to leave.
“I assume that animal behind you is your father?”
Zhen stops, spins around, “Don’t call my father names, drunk.”
“Drunk?” Mud is trickling into the corners of my mouth, it’s gritty in my teeth. I sneer, happy this has offended her, “You’re just lucky I don’t get the police out here.”
Zhen whistles and I hear the dog bark again. It appears from a hole in the wall at the front of her home and races toward me. I grin despite the pain, pretend the dog doesn’t frighten the piss out of me, “Calling out your attack dogs?” I leer.
Zhen stands opposite me, impassive and the dog, much to my relief, stops beside her. I look back, smiling. The film crew have advanced onto the land bridge and are still filming. I notice a brand on the side of the camera that seems to suggest some sort of local news station so I consider my next words carefully now. I clear my throat, straighten my muddy tie, push muddy hair out of my face and say, “Well I won’t bill you for the dry cleaning I’ll need.”
I hold out my hand to pressure her into a handshake, but the dog darts forward and sinks its teeth into my calf. There is excited chatter from the crowd behind and no one stops to help. I curse, trying to flick the dog away with my hand but only the translator makes an effort and the dog lets go of me to lash out at him. I launch a kick at the dog but my other foot slips in the mud and I end up landing on my backside. The jolt aggravates the pain in my back but scares the dog and I hear clapping from the now excited audience behind.
I keep my voice calm for the cameras, try my best to smile. When I look up at Zhen I notice she is holding her hand over her obviously grinning mouth and I say through gritted teeth, “Just remind your father he only has another forty eight hours to leave. We are behind schedule already and this building won’t stop for him or anyone else.”
Zhen turns and marches away, obviously filled with contempt and hate for me, yet I have sent her a clear strong message; at least I have that satisfaction. I get up slowly, fighting pain and mud. The foam model could not be more false, more unlike this muddy shitty fucking hole.
I get to the road, the crowd stares and smiles at me with my muddy suit and hair and I see a man with a shopping bag watching me from across the street. He smiles at me. He looks like an ordinary person, but he has perfectly straight white shining teeth and he nods his head at me when we make eye contact.
SEPTEMBER 15th, 2017
Lindon – Glass rooms
“Ground which can be abandoned but is hard to re-occupy is called ‘entangling’. From a position of this sort, if the enemy is unprepared, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if the enemy is prepared for your coming, and you fail to defeat him, then, return being impossible, disaster will ensue.”
(Sun Zi, Chpt. 10, 4 and 5)
I’m hung over from the third formal welcome dinner for me in the last several days. My throat is dry and my clothes smell of a hotpot meal and bijoe, a potent head-splitting white spirit. I squeeze out of the taxi into a bloom of humanity and as soon as I am upright and ready to walk away from the curb someone has jumped into the taxi and it is away again. I thread through people and pass between two bicycles with fruit laid out for sale on a tray behind the bicycle seats, my head pounding with each footstep like there is a direct line from my feet to my brain. I side step a beggar in blue jeans and Nike shoes who smells of mold and pushes a small dented plastic disposable cup full of old coins at me. I need all my coins and so I ignore him, pretend I haven’t see him.
A glass cube stuck to the side of the building hauls me away from the mess below. I notice a couple holding hands in the throng and I watch them as the lift ascends, wondering if I will ever be able to forget the scars Julie has left and be able to do that again with someone.
The American CEO is standing waiting for me as the lift doors ease open, an age-scarred version of the young man in the image with Zhang Zimin. He shakes my hand so hard the bones in my fingers creak under the strain and I wonder if he shook Zhang Ziminn’s hand like that, wonder if he dared.
We go up to the boardroom, a space almost completely devoid of concrete walls- it’s just curtains of glass on never ending city. The carpet has probably just been rolled out in here because it hasn’t even been attached to the floor, I can see it rolls up at the corners and sides.
I have borrowed all I can, stretched the goodwill of my family and friends to the limit just to get here- I’m anxious to get my signature down on the contract so I can start paying people back. But I forget all that for a moment and allow myself to be distracted by the view; it’s overwhelming, engulfing. The CEO notices and he says, “It’s quite a city isn’t it?” and I nod, trying to obscure my hunger. An old grey landscape is being swept away by glass steel and concrete stacked up by hundreds of cranes. It’s mesmerizing and my heart starts to pound when I think of the money to be made here, the staggering numbers that must lie beneath me.
His secretary comes in, she looks perfect, newly minted, like she has just come out of a box on a shelf. She tilts her head and smiles at me but doesn’t stop to talk- I’m part of a task she must perform, nothing more.
A large model of the apartment complex sits in the middle of a new office in a corner, the completed foam replica of the apartments we will build twenty stories into the sky. It looks small after my last job, like a toy. The CEO sees me looking over at the model and he waves me over toward it. From a distance it looks like a miniature of the real thing, but as we get closer I see plastic edges, sloppy paint and it looks fragile and cheap.
He begins to talk me through some figures on the number of apartments and their expectations but he is interrupted. Some locals in suits come to the door, ask to speak to him. He speaks for a while in Chinese that, to my untrained ear, sounds as good as the locals he is talking to, then excuses himself from me and turns to go.
I put out my hand, touch his sleeve, my anxiety spilling out, “The contract, is it ready to sign?”
He smiles, glances down at my hand, “It’s been finalized now, but if you have some settling in tasks to do, you can come back this afternoon or tomorrow morning.”
I try to curb my impatience, keep a smile on my face, slow my voice down, “I may as well sign it now, I can wait here.”
He nods and points in the direction of a meeting room he says my contract will be delivered to in a little while. He says there is a pile of magazines in there and then he strides away from me engrossed in his next conversation.
I take a wrong turn, end up at the doorway to another office. A lady in a black suit sits opposite a shorter woman who is crying- tears roll down her cheeks and drip off her chin. I stand shocked for a second, I don’t know what to say. The woman in black points in the other direction and pushes the door shut on me. I don’t understand what I have just seen, I’m trying to survive each day blindfolded and I’m stumbling ahead one step at a time.
His secretary is in the meeting room, she has a thick wad of paper wedged in her hands. I stare at it, hoping it’s my contract and she looks up at me and says, “Mr Lin, we are ready.”
“It’s Lindon.” I correct her, my eyes on the paper in her hands.
She laughs but her eyes are on something over my shoulder, “Mr Lin, please step inside so we can deal with the documents.” She motions for me to enter the meeting room and I step toward her and settle into a seat, lean forward in her direction opposite me. She lays the document down between us, the tips of her fingers resting on it. Her nails are painted a thick glossy red. She looks at me, the smile gone. I reach forward to pull the document toward me but her fingers press down and the document is stuck between us.
She says quietly, “There are certain formalities that we must discuss first.”
“This is China so one of the documents you will sign here requires you to be aware that your contract will be terminated if you violate the laws and morals of the People’s Republic of China.” I pull a little harder on the document but she doesn’t release it, she asks, “Are you aware of what this means?”
I’m not but I don’t care. I say, to dodge more lengthy unnecessary talk, “Yes, of course.”
She lifts her fingers and I pull the document toward me, start flicking through the pages. She anticipates me and as I look up to ask for it, she slides across a black pen. She makes no eye contact, she is already lost in her mobile phone, onto a new person, a new task.
I scribble in signatures where required, ignoring all the fine print, ignoring all the conditions. The only figure I check is the monthly salary and bonus. I smile as I finish and slide the documents eagerly across the table. I sit back, relieved. I have not disguised how much I need the job with my eagerness.
The numbers in the contract have so many zeros I forget my hang over, the jackhammers in my head. As I rise to leave, smiling stupidly, she says she has to tell me something else. She slides the meeting room door closed, and shuffles her chair next to mine as I sit back down. I can smell her perfume, it’s strong and flowery. She leans toward me and begins to tell me about nail houses.
The lift seems to take an age to get to the ground floor. I stare at the floor working through what I have just learned, feel the weight of it bearing down on me. I find myself, naively, looking for the couple holding hands but I see instead people alone, their hands in pockets, their eyes far away.
SEPTEMBER 11th, 2017
Zhen Yi – Caged
“Be stern in the council-chamber, so that you may control the situation.” (Sun Zi, “The Art of War”, Chpt. 11, 64)
Even from here, three blocks away, I can feel the small shock waves from the school as the walls crash down. It’s one of the last buildings to be demolished, the chalk stained white washed walls in which I completed my schooling. Dust is dislodged in my room, it drifts in small currents towards the window. I have lived here, in my parent’s house, forever. I’m itching to leave. I want to fly away.
The door still has my name carved in it, Zhen Yi, from my school days. If you are a foreigner reading this, you say my name “Jen Ee”. My parents have already stuck the red double happy character paper cut out above my name even though the wedding is weeks away.
I feel the lightness of the bag leave my hand. It’s ready to be filled with memories from here. My finance, Sun, will come tonight after work to pick me up and we will spend our first night in the flat we rented across the city. This will all be an ‘open secret’ of course. Something everyone knows is happening, but no one talks about. We can’t officially start living together until our wedding night. He said he will borrow his cousin’s car, an old VW Santana that breaks down more often than it completes a trip, to rescue me from my parents.
My mother is trying to paper over her sadness about me going, and the avalanche of other things. She shoves food at me as I go back out into the living room. She has tea made in her chipped enamel cups. I say no to the food. It looks reheated and dead. She doesn’t seem to have the energy to cook fresh food each day now. She looks pale, too thin, like the part of her I know is wilting. She says she is glad the school is gone, she says it was old and mouldy. But her eyes betray a different feeling. There are no more shockwaves now.
My father is by the front window cleaning up glass, sweeping it up into an old red cracked dustpan. Someone smashed the front window last night, used a broken piece of concrete. The lights reflected from the glass buzz around him, flies around the dying. Last week they jammed pig shit in the guttering. The week before that they burnt my mother’s clothes. That was the last straw for her, that’s when she passed out for the first time.
The property company desperately want us gone, we are the last house left on site undemolished. My father has turned our house into a ‘nail house’. It’s a pun that refers to nails that are stuck in wood, and can’t be pulled out. My father is the nail. We have even been in the papers. Defiant photos of my father on the roof pelting attackers with rocks. He is our family’s greatest embarrassment. He has some old fashioned idea about this being “his home” but it’s just a sad sagging old building that needs tearing down. Some of our family friends have already moved into new flats across town, with air con and sealed windows. I had respect for him when I thought he was just hanging out for a better compensation package, but I despaired when he started ranting about “our rights”.
The tea burns my lip. I blow gently across the steaming surface of the liquid and watch my mother through the fog. She goes to the kitchen to wash up and I can see her from here. Her hands shake. I tell her to stop but she ignores me. My father does nothing, I can hear the sound of shattered glass scratching across the concrete floor like gnashing dragons teeth as he continues to sweep, lost in his own battle. I sigh and leave my tea as I head for the kitchen to stop my mother washing. I look at the clock, willing it forward. In a few hours Sun will rescue me from all this shit.
Lindon – Making luxury home future
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Sun Zi, Chpt. 3, 18)
How could I end up somewhere so grey, so cold, cocooned in concrete and smog at the end of the world? Then I close my eyes against an icy gust of wind and I see her nasty smile and that image tightens my stomach, brings the anger up into my throat. The end of a relationship haunts you in ways other things don’t; it hounds you through the beginnings of your new life. China seemed to be the best place to forget Julie’s face, a place far enough away, big enough to allow me to forget- where a bankrupt person can work off their debt.
I open my eyes. They don’t seem to understand my English and I don’t understand a thing; but they smile nonetheless, cigarette stained teeth and touched up carbon fibre black hair. It has started to snow, it settles on our coats like icing sugar on puff pastry. I look up at the small stage next to us constantly to see if we will begin soon, but there’s only a lonely microphone there now.
We are outside our office building in the city, my seventh day in China; seven days of semi-comprehensible ceremonies and planning meetings. We stomp around in hats and gloves and heavy coats trying to keep warm, but I am optimistic today- this is the official start of the project, start of what I hope will be actual work. I gaze up at a banner above the stage with the company name “Golden Dragon Property” printed across it; below that, “Making luxury home future first-class world in modern harmonious China” for all to see with its lost articles and persuasive impotence.
Finally, three beautiful girls in long red traditional dresses wobble up on stage in high heels and we are pointed at, the translator and I, to join them. We clamber up and stand to the right of the pretty girls and others file on stage to the left; one of them is the CEO. I’ve only seen his photograph in the city offices, above the front entrance, as a young man smoking cigarettes with Premier Zhang Ziming, the one-time head of the country. The image is blown up to garish proportions, maybe a metre wide- a totem of power. It arrests you as you walk in, presses you down, reminding you how powerful he is- the white man from over the ocean who smoked cigarettes with Zhang Zimin isn’t to be fucked with.
Suits move forward with more urgency to the ribbon, cigarettes hanging out the corner of their mouths; lazy precarious columns of ash jut out at angles and make grey smudges on the shoulders of their jackets. The CEO holds scissors up high, the metallic edge catches in the sunlight and he brings the scissors down like he’s slaughtering an animal, sacrificing to something. The ribbon falls to the ground with no cheers, just a crescendo of a band’s rhythm and some lukewarm clapping – classic corporate propaganda.
I thought this would all be so simple, come cheaply; but everything has its price.
Zhen – Model houses
“While heeding the profit of my counsel, avail yourself also of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary rules.”
(Sun Zi, Chpt. 1, 16)
It’s good to see Sun for a change. But why are we here? My bags are bulging with objects ready for our flat. But he has told me that can wait, that he wants to show me an ‘exciting development’ first. Our plan had been to buy our own apartment close to my parents in the city, to buy a place in an adjoining block of the new development. Instead we are here, on the edge of town, on the edge of civilization. Sun doesn’t listen.
More lines. Small kids play toys on the side, bored old people squat. They put down newspaper and sit on it. Above us a giant bill board is stretched out, it flaps softly in the wind. Two perfect looking people with digitally altered white teeth and no blemishes stand with an impossibly cute child. They live in the completed development in some indefinite future. It has made them happy, four walls and a roof. The woman’s breasts look like they have been stretched. Everyone around them smiles like they are in an American movie, and the sky is blue. Blue in blue, fluffy white clouds. We see blue sky like this two or three weeks a year. Perhaps that’s why they have the imported smiles.
Sun has bought snacks. He slides them out of his bag and starts cracking open nuts, throws the shells at his feet. He peels a small handful and offers them to me. He does it quickly, excitedly. I take one. It’s dry and flavourless. It gets stuck in my teeth and I spit the rest out.
He is looking through the leaflet, like everyone else. They flap in the breeze in people’s hands, some blow away down the line toward the street.
I don’t know what to say to him, he feels thousands of miles away, even as we touch. I’m thinking of my full bags at my parents place, bulging with the possibility of a new freedom with Sun.
“I like the north block…” Sun says, spitting some husks out onto the ground at his feet, “…there are some good floor plans still left.” He looks up the line. He knows that a lot depends on how quickly we get to the front of that line. Lots of what we like will be sold by the time we get there.
“They are better.” I throw in, irritated. I’m watching the leaflets blow into the street and my eyes follow one that gets picked up by a gust and drifts back into a farmer’s field next door. This development is in farmland, rising from a peasants village that’s being demolished. I scan the city on the horizon. Every side of this development is framed by wheat fields, a little rice. I can smell animals on the wind. Maybe pigs. No one seems to look into the farms, they all have their heads stuck in their brochures. They are all dreaming of high rise, the future not the present.
Sun speaks, excitement lacing the edges of his words “There will be a small shopping area built on the east side, and two more developments the other side.” He knows I’m wondering why we are here, he doesn’t want to answer the question.
I let the wind take my pamphlet, it flutters away, “This is not what we agreed. I don’t want to be a farmer.” He sighs, puts his arm around me. He is blushing at my very public directness, “We couldn’t get a place this size in the city.” He smiles more to the people around us than me. To cover his loss of face.
I nod, watching a farmer cycle out to a spot in a wheat field. It all looks the same to me but he must know of a spot, and he stops and gets something out of a bag. It looks to be a long tool of some kind. He starts to attack the earth.
“We are getting in at the right time…” He must be looking at me for a reply, I sense it in his silence. The knowing of lovers.
I say, “Yes, good time.”
He squints at me, “You seem to be thinking about something else. I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am.” I say, trying to keep my irritation from getting out.
“This is where our baby will be.” He says. I have small future snaps in my head of our life, but they seem to be fading. The colour is blurring. Wedding nerves.
I touch his leg, “Don’t you think it’s a little cold?” He rummages for a light jacket, drapes it on my shoulders. I let my shoulders slump under the jacket. I pick at the edges of a nail that has split.
I say, “I hate lines. You know that.” He examines my face not convinced.
The line starts to shorten. Sun draws some ideas on a couple of the plans, and we discuss what designs will be good. “That will be good for the baby…”, “That will be good for our parents…”, “We should focus on decorating like xxx here…”. I agree, seeing the good all these will do everyone.
A couple of families leave, frustrated with the line. Or perhaps they’ve heard the place they want has been sold? We are in the showroom now. Three large models are buried in a glass box like jewels made of foam. People in purple suits with laser pointers stand around looking bored, or hungry or both. They flash the light around, show what places are left. I hear a lot of talk about price. These are cheap places.
Sun elbows his way in closer to the model, starts matching the plans to the model. His eyes hunt the small doll-house-like windows. He turns around, he has taken a laser pointer and points for me, drags me closer and out of my daydream. “That would be good for us, the kids. Our parents would like the way it faces.”
I agree, “It would please everyone.” I have a fantasy, just for a moment like I’ve never had before. In this fantasy I back away while Sun is preoccupied and slip through the people and run.
I run through fields of wheat, disappearing to find my own potholed road after stealing the peasant’s bicycle.
JULY 28th, 2017
Zha materialized in my front yard, having finally found me after an interval of roughly five million years, give or take a few millennia. He was human again, and male, wearing those ragged worn-out monk’s robes he seemed to cherish so much; they rippled and fluttered in the breeze, even though my little asteroid hosted no atmosphere and, therefore, no wind. Above us, the twin red supergiants of this system—which I’d long ago named Mother and Father, so much bigger and older than when I had first settled in this place—rotated in their dance of peanut-shaped illumination.
“Hello, Zha,” I said, continuing to rake pebbles into the form of a gigantic asterisk, the image reaching halfway round the asteroid’s face, taking patience and artistry and determination; he and I both knew what the message meant, and I suppose I’d done so in order to call him here. Despite millions of years of solitude, I supposed I still wanted the occasional contact.
Yha. My name was projected, sent directly into my mind. I preferred the physical act of talking, of sending air up my esophagus to vibrate my vocal cords and produce sounds. The fact that no air could be found in the immediate vicinity was irrelevant, and both Zha and I were past such trivialities. Have you finally decided to forgo this existence and travel with me into the Pure Land?
“Can’t a person call her former lover for a chat without leaping into the subject of existence-transcending? Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten how to engage in small talk?”
Zha’s expression remained neutral, but a dozen microscopic gestures flitted across his face. I smiled at the thought that I still knew how to irritate him. What would be the point, Yha? We have had every conversation that it is possible to have, in so many incarnations and iterations that I have lost count. Even after achieving enlightenment, I remained in cyclic existence in order to guide every last sentient being to Nirvana, including you, who are now the last. I am tired, and the stars are tired. It is time to end this foolish game of yours.
“Game? You think I’ve been playing a game all this time?” I threw my rake down onto the carbonaceous chondrite and began kicking at the pebbles of my asterisk, scattering the image into unrecognizability. It seemed that my message had been both prescient and affirmative: Zha was still an unbelievable asshole. “You still don’t understand me, you arrogant bastard. Not during the many incarnations in which we were married, not when I was your daughter, or mother or father or brother or sister, and certainly not now. You want games? I’ll give you games.”
I dematerialized, leaving behind my corporeal form, my latest home, and the plants and pets I had conjured up from the asteroid’s physical material and manipulated for my amusement and companionship; I left it all to crumble and became pure consciousness, leaping light years with but a thought, pushing myself beyond the bounds of the Milky Way, skipping from one star system to another as easily as I once had skipped over the paving stones on a pond filled with artificially-enlarged koi, the pond where we had first met, all those endless lives ago. After I’d slipped from a wet stone and splashed into the shallow pond, Zha, crouching on the bank, had laughed, not maliciously, but with a wisdom that already understood futility and acceptance; I had taken his hand then, and laughed too at my sorry state, and our karmas become forever intertwined, like a carefully sculpted bamboo.
I felt Zha’s presence dozens of light years behind me but closing the gap quickly. My path led directly through the hearts of moribund blue supergiants, immersed me in the violent radiation of hypernovae, and skirted the infinitesimally-detectable event horizons of supermassive black holes. I felt the urge to clutch every passing star to me and fling them back at Zha as casually as a clod of dirt, but incorporeal as we both were, the effect would have been negligible.
I ran, Zha chased, and billions of years flowed by. It gave me time to think, and to reflect on the gradual darkening of the space around us. The galaxies were burning themselves out, what had seemed like endless fuel and energy proving its finitude before my vision. Would it be possible to exist once the universe had expired? And, as Zha had so frustratingly pointed out, what would be the point? Damn him.
I became somatic once more and reposed onto the shifting plasma surface of a white dwarf on the outer edge of the known universe, warming myself with the dying star’s heat. The crackling and hissing of its radiation in extremis tickled my auditory senses. Why was I still clinging to this existence? Was I really so afraid of death? It was unclear how long I sat there contemplating my stubbornness and fear, but at some point Zha arrived, as I’d known he would. He didn’t say or think a word, and instead just rested next to me, still infinitely patient despite everything I’d ever said and done to him. Calm and resignation settled over me like a blanket as the white dwarf’s energy cooled.
“I’m ready,” I told him, and his response was not condescension or arrogance, but relief. He took my hand and vocalized the mantras he’d so long ago devoted himself to learning and tried to teach me. The ancient words flowed around us as a palpable living river, and I repeated them in sync with Zha’s utterances. All around us the stars winked out, but the chanted syllables took their place, filling every occupiable space in the now-cold universe with Om, our white dwarf the last to burn out, but deplete itself it did, bleeding its energy into us, into the words, lending us strength, and as its temperature reached absolute zero and its atoms ceased movement, a doorway of blissful orange light opened in my mind.
Zha turned to me, his smile both beautiful and beatific, his essence the very apotheosis of empathy and love, and held out his hand. I took it and followed him through.
* originally published in Strange Mammals, Infinity Plus Books, Oct 2013
JULY 21st, 2017
- The early morning sky over Singapore’s Central Business District, grey and overcast. The clouds harshen the sunlight into flatness; one can almost hear them rumbling with impotent thunder, holding the air tense and stiflingly still with the anxiety of the forthcoming rainstorm that will not come.
- The ground floor steel-and-glass entrance of One Raffles Quay, Asian headquarters for international banks such as UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and Societe Generale. A chain of elderly women and men with interlinked arms forms a blockaded perimeter, some sitting in wheelchairs, some standing on aged legs and propped up with canes or walkers, some sitting on blankets directly on the ground, all of them staring straight ahead, unmoving.
- A similar linear barricade of the elderly, this time blocking the entrance to the ORQ offices inside the pedestrian underpass that links up with the MRT train station.
- A wide shot of the CBD’s other skyscraping seats of capitalist power and influence—including the UOB Building, the Far East Finance Building, and Ocean Financial Centre—all surrounded on the ground by calm, unmoving chains of the elderly, looked on by armies of ambitious civil servants and financial wizards eager to cross the line and earn the day’s manna.
- The gathered crowd outside ORQ, an ocean of white button-down long-sleeved shirts and black slacks and skirts. In the foreground, a handsome European man of indeterminate ethnicity in his late 20s, dressed from head to toe in tailored Massimo Dutti and holding a Fendi briefcase, representative of the financial success of the young men and women around him, likely with clients all over Asia and Europe, and an imported Jaguar housed in ORQ’s basement car park. On the man’s face is an expression of bemused confusion, as if unsure whether this is all a publicity stunt, or a government-mandated day of observance, or something else entirely.
- A close-up of one of the ORQ “protestors,” a Chinese octogenarian so thin that he appears barely more alive than a skeleton, clothed only in a stained singlet, greyish Bermuda shorts, and undersized thong sandals. The old uncle’s face is lined with deep crevasses, his skin leathery with a lifetime spent working outside under the scorching tropical sun. Despite his tired appearance, his eyes blaze with determination.
- A female police negotiator, engaged in a one-way conversation with an old Malay woman in a wheelchair. The negotiator’s posture and gestures are indicative of a willingness to discover what the protestors want, but the old woman’s gaze purposefully avoids eye contact, making it apparent that the police are not who the elderly will open to. Out of focus in the background are just visible a number of other police officers in their dark blue uniforms of authority.
- Mr. Massimo Dutti stands less than half a meter from the old uncle in the singlet, his mouth open in an angry tirade, no longer bemused or confused, his pointing index finger only centimeters from the uncle’s nose, the tendons in his neck protruding, a vein in his forehead swollen and standing out. The bankers in the immediate vicinity look uncertain whether to cheer the young man on or restrain his outburst.
- Mere seconds later, yet Mr. Massimo Dutti and his cohorts are recoiling backward in incredulity at the sight of the entire chain of elderly surrounding ORQ having transformed into stone as a reaction to the threat, looking for all intents and purposes as if they have been sculpted and then placed in that location as a work of public art.
- The ORQ protestors once again flesh and blood, the old uncle’s eyes projecting an implicit warning. The elderly on either side silently share the uncle’s expression, their attention now focused.
- Mr. Massimo Dutti, very likely not accustomed to being treated in such a way from a runty little uncle who looks as if he normally hassles hawker center patrons to buy packets of tissues, leans forward with his arm over his head, his Fendi briefcase in mid-swing on a trajectory to connect with the old man’s cranium, his lips drawn back sharply over his teeth. In the background, horrified looks from the assembled bankers. The female police negotiator reaches forward with one hand, her mouth open in a shout.
- The octogenarian effortlessly grips Mr. Massimo Dutti’s wrist holding the briefcase with one hand, a steely strength belying his age and appearance, preventing the Fendi from making contact. With the other, he has pulled the young banker close by the lapels of his designer suit jacket, his tight grip wrinkling the material into distortion, their faces close enough to kiss. The old uncle is completely calm. The young man’s eyes are widened in surprise.
- Close-up on the horrified expressions of the young bankers. Their features are pinched, as if responding to the sound of horrible unearthly shrieks that seem as though they will never end, and then cut off abruptly. Out of focus, a young Chinese man’s head is turned to the side, his hand over his mouth, as though about to vomit in terror.
- The sidewalk in front of the old uncle, where lies a desiccated corpse still clad in Massimo Dutti, the clothing now hanging loosely from the steaming husk of a human being. Only the legs of the old uncle and the elderly to either side are visible in the frame, but their skin glows golden as if from an infusion of siphoned energy.
- An overhead shot of the entrance of ORQ, where hundreds of people scatter in all directions at once, away from the elderly perimeter. The police officers in dark blue are just barely noticeable, attempting the futility of calming down the fleeing bankers or directing their egress.
- A long shot of the CBD, utterly abandoned but for the single street-level ring around each financial building and a smattering of drained corpses, the noon sunlight gleaming off skyscraper glass onto the empty thoroughfares below. Police barricades as far back as Niccol Highway form a secondary security perimeter.
- A shellacked MediaCorp television anchor, her mouth open in mid-word, nearly crowded off of the screen by the gigantic inset displaying an image of the link-armed elderly at ORQ and the words: WHO ARE THE 35K? WHAT DO THEY WANT? The static ribbon up top, in bright red letters: A National Day of Emergency. The news crawl at the bottom of the screen displays the time (2:24 p.m.), the Straits Times Index (down over 1,300 points), and the score of the latest Manchester United vs. Arsenal match (2-1).
- An army tank squats on the street just outside of ORQ, its cannon barrel aimed directly at the elderly perimeter, the afternoon sun glinting off of its green metal exterior, surrounded on all sides by young National Servicemen called up on reservist duty, covered head to toe in pixelated camo gear, their rifles raised and ready.
- The air thick with rifle smoke. Pockmarks dot the neighboring buildings, broken glass litters the concrete sidewalk. Three NSmen lay on the ground, their faces contorted in pain, hands attempting to quell the blood oozing from the holes punched through their bodies by their own ricocheting bullets.
- Out of focus, a camouflaged pant leg retreating to a distance behind the tank, a blurred variegation of greens.
- Close in on the muzzle flash from the barrel of the tank’s 120-millimeter cannon, the explosion of force a blazing orange mushroom, with a lighter orange line of trajectory extending forward from its middle, reaching, reaching, reaching for the statues in such close proximity.
- Stillness. Billowing smoke. What on first glance appears to be a grey sheet of paper drifting to the ground; on closer inspection: a rectangular sliver of concrete.
- The tank in retreat, its rear end displayed to the unharmed once-again flesh-and-blood elderly, turned away by non-violent resistance. On the sidewalk and the city street: concrete and rubble and shards of glass, all loosed by the massive concussion of energy.
- A line of young protestors beyond the police barricades, none older than thirty, mouths open in defiant yells, fists pumping the air, each holding a man-made placard: THE 35K ARE ALL OUR GRANDPARENTS! ABANDONED BY SOCIETY ≠ NATIONAL THREAT! THE 35K ARE NOT YOUR ENEMY! WHERE’S YOUR FILIAL PIETY NOW?! Unlikely that they would have been granted a permit for this protest, and yet the nearby police officers stand back, unable to join in, but unwilling to disperse.
- A MediaCorp news feed, but off-kilter as though the video camera has been bumped, zoomed in on a leg emerging from the rear passenger door of a black Mercedes-Benz limousine, clad in charcoal grey designer pants, the equally expensive shoe polished to a high shine. Recognizable outfitting of the Old Man. The time indicated on the crawl: 6:37 p.m.
- The mass of elderly protestors all stares at the Old Man, whose hands are raised in a questioning gesture. His face out of view, his back muscles tense against his ironed white short-sleeved dress shirt, his white hair cropped close to his skull as if just cut earlier in the day. A small irregular oval of perspiration in the middle of his back.
- The ORQ perimeter, now unfurled, reaching around to encircle the Old Man, all elderly eyes on their contemporary in age. The Old Man’s head is turned, shouting to someone out of frame, his hand up in a gesture of halt against the barrel of the handgun only just visible.
- From above, a double ring of protestors completely pens in the Old Man at its center. Outside the protective paddock, a confusion of security officers, hands to ear-mounted Bluetooth communication, body language indicative of panic.
- The wrinkled octogenarian uncle in singlet and Bermudas faces the Old Man, his mouth open, his hand extended to shake. The Old Man’s gaze at the proffered hand is wary and anxious, as though recalling the fate of Mr. Massimo Dutti and the other expendable bankers.
- Close-up on a tight handshake, the skin of both hands creased and liver-spotted, yet the muscles and bones underneath still convey power and confidence from both men.
- Tight on the Old Man’s face, his expression full of surprise and relief. The elderly in view behind him relax; some begin to smile.
- The entire perimeter, and the Old Man, sit down directly on the ground. The old uncle speaks. The Old Man leans in to listen.
- Over the shoulder of the Old Man as he calls to the other limousines parked next to his, the assembled crowd consisting of his son, the entire Cabinet, and various other members of Parliament, who lean forward to catch every one of the Old Man’s utterances.
- The suited government figures spreading out in all directions, each man and woman headed toward a different occupied area, not entirely comfortable but unwilling to contravene the Old Man’s dictum.
- An Indian woman in leg braces shakes the hand of the Old Man’s son, whose smile is practiced yet genuine. The woman’s sari is faded, its colors dulled with use and wear, yet it glitters in the fading sunlight, throwing sparkles onto her interlocutor’s face.
- A longer shot of the CBD, displaying more double rings, inside which sit each Cabinet minister and the other members of Parliament gathered for this summit, each locus of political power straining to hear the quiet, yet firm, voices of their constituency.
- From far overhead, the thick orange rays of the setting sun illuminate more than two dozen perfect circles, each circumference glowing a light gold, a color endemic of hope, acceptance, and optimism.
* originally published in Red Dot Irreal, Revised Edition, Infinity Plus Books, Dec 2012
JULY 7, 2017
You can dry my tears
Weak light bathed her in a soft glow. Her gnarled hands rested limply on the armrests of her wheelchair as she stared out at the same maddening view she had seen for the past five years. A smog of different fumes enveloped the city, casting yet more gloom onto the despondent cityscape (which she was merely imagining – row after row of tiny apartments filled up most of the view). Her time was nearing.
The end comes from the beginning. The beginning to the cycle of life puzzled her. Why would a woman put herself through such suffering to raise a child? The reason lay before her eyes now – to birth the possibility of changing things for a better future.
In her youth, she had scorned the sacrifice and hardship a mother had to endure. She had scorned the pitiful resources left on Earth, and the dying Earth itself that would be pushed into her child’s palms as inheritance when her generation died out and washed their hands of it. She had scorned the obligation of filial piety her child would have to fulfil, even though the child had no other freedom of choice but to live.
A child was optional in her life, compulsory for humankind.
Now she was three decades past the expiration date of her fertility, alone. Her paralysis immobilized most of her body but could not freeze the tears that were trickling on her face. The unnatural sound of moving metal parts unnerved her.
“There, there. You must be going through grief. I can only imagine your pain. It’s alright to cry, and if you need to talk I’ll be here.”
The robot was only uttering recordings of soothing, comforting words, scripted by psychiatrists to fit a situation it had identified. A mathematical algorithm enabled lifeless objects to take care of the elderly. A hand even rested on her shoulder to mimic human warmth. And when she died, this same warm personality would be the one to put her death into an equation and a series of commands:
= no protoplasm detected
= no signs of life
= find corpse
= clean up
= notify robots in residences of acquaintances/friends (if any [living]) of deceased’s passing + Block 2679 Unit #14-19 ’s vacancy
= report to distribution centre for new human
Her mouth opened and shut like a goldfish, gasping for air as sobs stole her breath. A dry, abrasive square was pressed against her face, rubbing up and down. She opened her eyes a crack and saw the robot in front of her.
The robot had mistaken it for her face towel – the sandpaper she kept in an old wooden tissue box from her days as an artisan.
The Elderly Care Association had assured the government that the robot was “99% compatible for all ages”. But the 1% incompatibility had manifested itself.
Her lips to cry out but her feeble vocal chords refused to comply. The shutdown button was frustratingly out of reach. Even if it was within reach, she wouldn’t have been able to press it. She desperately willed it to run out of battery. The salty tears stung the abrasion; the agony of the roughness on top of existing pain brought forth more tears.
Perhaps this removal of layers, sanded away to smoothness, would reveal the essence of humanity. What was left for humans to do? The robot moved away from her. The sandpaper fluttered to the ground.
JUNE 16, 2017
Let me introduce you to Caroline Miao just as she is becoming Miao Tingting once again, the customs uniform wordlessly waving for her to go through, to pass on, to proceed already. She picks up her luggage at the carousel, missing it on the first go-round because she is distracted by an urgent dingle from her phone, now she zips the big suitcase open to check that none of the LV packages are missing, she has seen online that sometimes they are purloined, and now she struggles out to wait for the bus that will take her from Pudong back to her home across the Yangtze, in Yangang. She will need to take two buses, actually, but for the moment she can only wait for the first of these. Thanks for your understanding.
Oh, we are already three days later, at one of the inescapable banquets. Which one, neither she nor I can properly remember—they run together, like similes in the rain. Her father is showing her off to other men of his approximate age and status; the fathers of the eligible; the peers. They are complementing her prettiness, they do not know or care that their compliments are, objectively, appalling; thankfully it does not occur to her that if she were a little poorer and a little prettier they would want her as a mistress. She sees through, but not too far.
On her earlobes, where else, she is wearing her French earrings, her hair is bobbed and highlighted, everyone is sipping a red wine she has lugged back with her, which privately everyone thinks is too sour but which cannot be openly criticized. The airport duty-free woman at Charles De Gaulle suggested it; it is known to be very popular in China; it bears the name and sketch of an imaginary chateau. If deception is being practiced, it is remote, almost generous.
Since her father is executive assistant to the vice-mayor, the abalone is free; and how she loathes, how she execrates, abalone! She tries, unsuccessfully, to deflect it, to humble it off, when the server, mumbly in her submissiveness, flourishes it. To no avail. It gleams in front of Tingting returned, obscene blob, tasteless, self-indulgent; she politely amputates a corner; it jiggles. In her mouth it is warm and tasteless like homecoming.
The restaurant manager enters and theatrically says “Bonjou” and she rises and says “Bonjou” and everybody raucously echoes Bonjou and what fun, what fun. And also, before I forget: what fun.
In her room, which thankfully her mother has not touched, except to clean, weekly and once especially thoroughly before her daughter’s return, Tingting texts her friends. She wants to be texting with France, or at least to be known in Yangang to be texting with France, but the people she knows there do not use WeChat and Facebook is of course blocked. With her gift of moderate foresight, she forced some of them download WeChat before she left but time has shown that none of them will ever check it, despite promises, despite friendship signals and parleys; Pauline had tried to explain her that WeChat was a mechanism of authoritarian control and therefore to be principled against in the desultory, relativistic European way. French people talked a great deal of nonsense about China—suspicious of WeChat but supportive of the Cultural Revolution.
Meanwhile, stretched out on her bed like a depilated cat, Tingting can feel her store of French words eroding, depleting, like a talent or an illness slowing being shed. Leaving a foreign country is like dementia, you know that you are forgetting, you are permitted to be conscious of the fact that you are losing it, there is a grace available somewhere. Forgiveness is a rearrangement of foreignness. Tingting memorises words like “memory” so that the next time she meets a French person she can talk about her affliction and by so talking to deny it. To have something, almost someone, to blame. Oh, beloved.
I should mention: everybody is at home from Shanghai or Beijing or Hong Kong and comparing, exchanging boredoms for the holidays. They do not go out and meet each other, everything is closed anyway, the staff is in its villages, but society is not totally eradicated, they send each other cartoon images indicating New Year’s celebrations. So raucous. In the real world, of course, firecrackers have been banned in the city centre for eleven years; it is a prosperous and a civilized city. Tingting’s district was named Jiangsu Province Class Two Civilised City only months ago. Older people speak of celebration as if it were a bygone era.
Around the bend, it will be the year of the Rooster: most often in her wish-messages Tingting deploys the picture of two red roosters, joined at the tail in an imitation of a paper-cutting, with lanterns dangling from their beaks with “Auspicious” printed upon them and the characters flowing together. Furthermore circulating are many videos of fat babies and stacks of gold ingots and memes that purport to show Justin Bieber wishing a happy year of the rooster, and these zip around between the youngish people with their phones on beds and their doors shut and the heating on. The laziest kids, the worst ones, or maybe the ones with secret lives in the real world, just answer every message with to you too.
She googles (well, since she cannot get on Google, she Baidus, but you knew what I meant) several horoscopes. She is going to have an outstanding a mediocre a lucky and/or a cautious year. She applies all these prognostications to Peng, because Peng is somehow still the point to which everything tends, the pivot around which meaning arranged, or else he is emphatically not the point; which amounts to the same thing, men being a question of emphasis, of stress on a syllable (in French) or of tonality (in Chinese). Peng is not back yet, he is working in Shanghai, and won’t come home until the day before New Year’s, he is said to claim it is on account of work, but she believes him to be designing to keep her waiting. She does not text him yet. She is very forbearing, self-abnegating. She wants him to believe that he does not occur to her. Both occur to one another constantly, and the courtship of silences and punishments is raising their respective temperature, like any bug, like any chronic, low-grade inflammation. Is love a parasite you host?
Every day she wonders whether, when he arrives, she will deign to see him or not, and decides the issue firmly one way; and then firmly the other way hours later. These twice-daily final resolutions give her a sense of accomplishment, of progress, of newness and rebirth that charms with the endless and endlessly delayed promise of the festival. And there is a joy, like opening a present, to start reconsidering the issue, the interminable nostalgia of Peng, the next morning, or after the lunchtime nap.
Once, thankfully, almost by sleight of hand, she escapes to the lake park with her friend Yuli. Tingting’s mother is subsumed with an aunt in the kitchen-cooking crackle and her father is at a banquet (her father has always been at a banquet; it is his habitat); she is not missed. Yuli rewards her with news.
Yuli has been recently engaged to be married to the manager of a factory that manufactures the machines that make sewage pipes. “No one makes them anywhere else, anymore” exclaims Yuli, proud-embarrassed-humble, “It’s practically a monopoly.” They are young and it seems like the market situation of sewage pipe manufacturing machines will continue unchanged forever. Tingting wishes Yuli luck and happiness. She will try to be there for the wedding. She does not inquire but Yuli volunteers that the factory town where she will live, where they make the machines, does not especially smell. Why would it?
Yuli’s forever future established, admired, and discarded, they round the manmade lake and sit on a bench of the concrete pavilion with the crude plastic dragons on the eaves, and Yuli extrudes the crumbly little haw roundlets that Tingting does not know she has been missing. As they fall to pieces in her mouth, Tingting realizes that she had thought them gone forever, one more feature snuffed out by progress, by development, by the march towards special characteristics, one does not quite know of what. She feels guilty for almost having missed them.
Meanwhile, Yuli shows Tingting some tricks about how not to breathe too deeply when outside. The air pollution is better than in the north, but still one has to be artful, one must take care if one has just arrived from abroad; she has read so online. A school of carp has been collecting nearby them, and against coins they grind feed from a machine and watch the carps nip one another for the treats. They stretch and move on; the girls try to keep talking, but any depth of conversation is rendered impossible by the spectacle of the cloud of hungry carp now following the girls along the riverbank. Tingting asks whether the carp would eat Yuli if she fell in and Yuli says it is more dangerous for Tingting because she is sweeter. Tingting answers that they will both taste of haw.
They do not talk about boys because it is only three days to New Year and everybody has come to air their children in stuffed jackets and so they could be too easily overheard. Yangang has a population of 1.1 million, but somehow everybody is a cousin, a classmate, or a hybrid of the two. The park children clamour for candied fruits; a migrant sells rooster with glowing green eyes that will, if you do not suppress it, crow for a full minute.
Already!— the round of New Year’s visits. The women cook all day and the men smoke and eat sunflower seeds and young people sit in the other room and play on their phones or watch replays of the patriotic highlights and homages to mothers and soldiers from the New Year’s Gala. Then they eat, always too much, religiously too much. The parents sit on the furniture, in the half-dark, and discuss the marriageability, job prospects, and weights of one another’s progeny. Tingting has been to France and come back, they think, with some kind of degree, or certificate; they grant her leeway. At least France is not a country that makes fat. But in a month of her two her immunity will wear off. One or two of the aunts is preparing a comment, perhaps for next year, about how the make-up can no longer quite mask the crow’s-eye, the droop. Twenty-six in autumn.
New Year’s brings the man. The first time she meets Peng again, they arrange to go to the bakery that Koreans have opened, with the stickers of the Eiffel tower on the coffee-bean wallpaper. He knows the chain from Shanghai; he has familiar objects to order. Tingting doesn’t bother saying that it is not like in France; it is understood. But it is the most Parisian thing Yangang has to offer, and Peng was polite to pay this homage.
Their conversation is awkward, tetchy. They ask about each other’s parents, but everybody is fine, there is so little say. Peng’s cousin is to be married. Yuli is to be married. Quiet girls in their class that they didn’t know or like are to be married.
But then, in a pinch, it turns out that Tingting’s aunt is sick; it is a serious disease, not as serious as cancer, but she has forgotten the name. Oh yes it is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Tingting has not forgotten after all. The aunt lives on the fifth floor, and wheezes on the stairs. Peng is surprised to learn from Tingting that French apartments on the fifth-floor might also have no elevator, or only a very small one. Tingting remarks, a little professionally, that is not clear whether the aunt will have to be moved. The air in the countryside is also no longer, etc.
Peng attempts a joke about everyone having to move, by which he means to hint at mortality, which ought to come back to age and therefore love, but Tingting understands him to mean that all the buildings are always being torn down and that he is alluding to his relative security in his Shanghai apartment, which is only seven years old. A three-legged dog passes the window and they agree that it is to be pitied.
They understand each other poorly, which is as it should be, but eventually, awkwardly, the opening generated by allusion, confusion, interpretation permits Tingting to ask him about girls, how his life with girls is progressing, but Peng murmuringly disavows girls, it is not clear whether as a subject or as the object. She presses; he begins to mumble about Shanghai girls, he stutters to a stop. This was perhaps the declaration; she cannot tell. Tingting says, in the name of freedom but accusingly, that she had told him not to think of her; not to miss her—she, in Paris, had not waited for him, or thought of him too much. She thought she had made this very clear. No missing was to be permitted; certainly none to be logged as virtue.
He agrees, meekly, meekly, that she made this very clear, but a man cannot help himself, which objectively speaking sounds like compulsive self-satisfaction but is interpreted by both, for reasons of decency, as romance.
For what it matters, she is not bluffing. Tingting, or at least Caroline, has a creditable experience of French men. Several kinds. Some of them had intruded, become memorable or at least nude. They were always telling her how something she was for a Chinese girl—elegant, tall, good at rolling the French r; they conceived of compliments as distinction among a gallery of Chinese girls, most of them fantastical, with whom she understood herself to be competing.
One such Frenchman, Christian, had of course claimed to be a Buddhist, she thought it was meant to explain his failure to text or show up on time, rudeness gussied up as transience. The world was changeable, Christian told her, especially the self. He expected her to understand and perhaps his reason for vanishing was that it was necessary for the illusion of Christian to dissolve once he was truly understood. In any event, there is something to be said for the dispersal of some men.
She tries now to explain to Peng how French people, for (at present she had digested them and they can be processed and generalized en masse) always seemed to have a chessboard in front of them, to have many chessboards in front of them, always making moves in a game which wavered between downright seduction, mere possibility and the faintest tinges of suggestion. Not everybody cared whether they won; often there were no stakes. But everybody played, constantly, as though this were the business of life, and this made them joyful, confused, incessantly talkative—it furnished their movies and their television and their songs and their imaginations. It was hopelessly complex and also perversely single-minded, but it lent a tension, not always unpleasant, to the act of buying a croque-monsieur from a baker, or sharing a seat on a bus—even with an older gentleman, or a teenage girl. Of course, Tingting opines, eroticism is being slowly criminalized and it promises to be a bad century for the French. But for now it is still in the air. Peng nods, trying to look grave.
And she has learnt things from them. Tristan, for instance, taught her to mix café nihilism with pleasure; how to skip classes with insouciance, even panache; how to make use of one another within the bounds of morality. If she had understood Tristan correctly, the self was incapable of truly apprehending the other—and for this reason one could only appear to solicit consent and mutuality from the other being, the beloved (there was something in here about virgins and prostitutes)—but it could not actually understand an alien humanity. Therefore humans had no choice but treat each other as tools to whom they attributed, intellectually, realization—but without access to the realization, without feedback from the other. When comprehensible she found his ideas idiotic, but she enjoyed the consequences, and the sense of perceiving the foolishness at the heart of all his lofty abstraction, and even the delicious pain she could inflict on him with the merest breath of mockery, perceived momentarily before his natural arrogance once again took him in hand.
On the earthly plane, she understood that with Tristan, too, there would be body and metaphor but very little, for instance, marriage. And all around her were Chinese women and their French boyfriends who refused to help them get status. It seemed that a fear of religion had destroyed the men’s sense of responsibility. Whereas Chineseness seemed to soldier blindly through, across belief. She was young enough to like it, to like them, to accept pleasure and friendship inconsequentially. She had known she was a bad girl, and a modern woman, and French men were apparently placed within reach for no better reason than to prove it.
Peng is listening politely. Purity is a laughable, faraway, television thing; and he quite agrees that European men, as Tingting is saying, do not partake of reality. He feigns concern at her exploits; that is the least he could do for her. They part with him telling her that he will have to think over all she has told him. He does concern, doubt, and disillusion rather well.
In good time the school will send her parents a letter of expulsion in French; she will have told them it was a commendation. Of course, by then, she will need no certificates.
It is the second time they meet, Peng and she, to which we now turn our attention. A week later, perhaps; actually six days, as either one could have told you instantly. It is a sushi restaurant, and none of their parents’ generation is likely to have their moles in here, so she allows herself a Kirin and imposes a Kirin on him too; and, do you know what?, she is imagining the ridge of his muscle, she has forgotten its name, the one that holds the thigh together. She applies a little bit of pressure under the table to his front toe, because otherwise he will continue to act too maidenly.
The toe pressure does its work, because she is able to take him, though he smells of that orange Japanese fish egg stuff, back to the traveller’s hotel, the one run by the train station. The same room—the same bank card that her father never queries and which fills up with money from some subterranean source—even the same discreet out-of-towner at the desk, aged more since last time than was reasonable. Poor people from the provinces are safe, they can be told anything, they are so hopelessly unconnected, and therefore have no access to the determinations of truth, even when they have the facts.
He wants the lights off but she has dispensed with this decorum, she tells him that this is a custom she has unlearnt in France. He makes no objection; he says very little anymore. He is not averse to experiments in style. If she insists on it, Tingting will be captured by means of what she calls her liberation.
Too late, in too deep, she grows concerned by the smile on his face, the beatitude, the triumph which is male bliss even when the woman has done all the work. Of course, she cannot be sure, because she is right up against him and half turned away from him, too close to see him and not at the kind of angle that allows expressions to be properly interpreted. But he is feverish with sleep and she can feel the smugness radiating off his bare skin.
Ah, but he takes her to the breakfast place they used to go to, he shows sign of a will reviving, and it is the congee with the pickled vegetables and the divine fried dough. The fried dough, he tells her, as he has told her on three previous occasions (one of them at this very table) is a reminder of the traitor to the Chinese people and his wife, who are bound together in this spiral and fried forever for opening the capital to the Mongol hordes.
Tingting says it looks like a spiral of DNA. She wants to be pleasant, but doesn’t know how to handle the fact that he is still too greatly pleased, too obviously satisfied. Defensively, she talks about going to France again, perhaps she will do another degree.
Although the congee looks very good, he looks suitably downcast at this. She remarks that perhaps China could use another Mongol horde. He laughs and tells her a story about a camel tour his colleagues made in Inner Mongolia and he shows her a picture they have sent him on WeChat with a yurt replica. With this distraction, with this dismissal of any last-ditch escape she might design, Peng has squelched Tristan and Christian—snuffed them out— has suffocated France.
She is driven to take him to the hotel a few more times; she is sure that it is not a revenge. Perhaps she can in some way break him? Or if it is a vengeance, it is not against him. In fact, she is very sure that it is carefree, and shows a healthy interest in life, and demonstrates that she is in control of her body and her destiny.
But she can glimpse it now, sometimes, before she wriggles out of his arms: every repetition of the act grants Peng another layer of security, she senses that he believes that things will turn out alright now, in the social sense, that she has come around, come back. It is that post-coital male satisfaction, that fantasy of taming, that illusion of ownership that the best of them cannot disguise. Surely this is how all the stories of werewolves come from—the revelations on the face, through the body, during the act, in the wake of it. And the guilty men, feeling their power, translate their own possession into fairy tales about snake-women and fox-girls.
And so on the seventh morning, when he comes up behind her to join her in admiring herself in the mirror, she says, you know that this is just for fun, right?
He smiles, bashful in his boxers, and assents to the fact of the fun.
She goes on: We’re both adults, right? It doesn’t mean anything. I mean it’s nice, but it’s not…enduring.
He asks whether she wants him to hold back for longer before—
No, what I mean is: all this, it doesn’t mean we’re back together. We both have our freedoms, right? I mean, I’m glad that China has progressed, in our generation. But we aren’t built for marriage. That goes without saying.
He gives the grunt which is reaction, acknowledgment, agreement, and dissent. He sits on the edge of the bed; then reaches for his phone. He begins to play Lost Planet: Devolution a game which has only recently come out for Androids, and which he downloaded yesterday when he went to the bathroom at 2 am. This sulky intentness is the expression she hates most about him, and it makes it easier for her to concentrate on delivering the message.
If I had known you were so immature, she murmurs. I would have.
But he laughs, not exactly at her. Nevertheless, she has figured it out.
It is in the order of things for Yuli to be the first to congratulate her; they arrange to have their weddings two weeks apart; close enough together that they can share and maybe disperse some of the planning stress.
Her father is not especially pleased with Peng—rumours have reached him— but the boy’s family will pay for the wedding and of course there is the Shanghai apartment; and so Peng is technically unexceptionable.
The invitation sits in Tristan’s WeChat forever, unread, because he drops his cell phone in the Rhone accidentally, when he and a girl and another couple take the Marne canal down to near Strasbourg. He is going through a technocratic phase, and never, until his death at 57 in a mountain-climbing accident, will he download WeChat again. Pauline sends her congratulations, three weeks after the message is sent, but does not mention coming. And Christian has reached anatta; understandably, since he no longer has any Self, he cannot be expected to reply to wedding invites.
And, unless I am mistaken, or lying, a mere seventy years later an engineering student in Padua is saying to her girlfriend—yeah, she even had a French guy, then, before the war, before she married my grandpa—with the lung disease, you remember? But she was herself always so healthy. She used to try to pull up the pictures on this old gadget she had, and I could never explain to her that they were all inconvertible now—you should have seen the phones then, they were as big as your hand. I never understood her much; she’d forgotten all her French, and my Chinese is hopeless. I would have liked to say goodbye, but she died right in the middle of exams, and you can’t even get a visa that quick.
Furthermore, it is my understanding that there are various man-made satellites which orbit the earth and then burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry, on account of friction or speed or various astrophysical variables which you can look up if you so choose or which perhaps you know already. Sometimes they fail to burn up entirely and hit the earth. But since Earth is mostly water, desert, taiga and ice, very rarely is anyone harmed, and even if they were they would have to be very isolated, disconnected people to be hit individually, so if anyone actually were hurt or killed by a reentry likely we would never hear about it.
JUNE 5, 2017
The boulder of white feldspar in the center of the Shavrrna village square was empty of meaning. Neither pictographs nor ideographs did it bear, nor any marks or inscriptions that might serve to convey information. Not ten seasons of rain ago had I visited Shavrrna to leave my own marks. These, too, were gone.
Obliterated? If so, why? To what possible end?
Or had some dark magic swept them away. But again, why?
The sense of foreboding was a lizard scurrying up my spine, its tiny claws raking my scales. I shrugged it off. Things happen for a reason. Even dark magic does not act of its own accord, but is directed, purposeful. The erasure of the feldspar had not been a random, senseless event. Someone had willed it so.
Passing adult Shavarrsh scarcely acknowledged me with a glance, but the young gazed fixedly, their inquisitive vermilion eyes remaining on me until their parents tugged at their tails, urging them away. The season of sun had fallen upon Shavrrna in full force, tanning their wintry olive drab hides to a vivid verdant green, and all around me hung the ripe, intoxicating aroma of old cabbage. The harvest of the season’s first crops had begun, the vegetables and fruits and berries not eaten prepared for storage during the season of the chills, and after long days in the fields and over the hearths, surely the Shavarrsh still had need of quiet moments around the storystone.
I sat on the grass at the base of the feldspar, in the shade of the massive kerka, waiting, but no one stopped to hear my tales or to watch while I recorded them. A light breeze bade the fresh green leaves above speak to me, their rustling reminding me of a tale I had once told, long long ago. From a pouch at my side I withdrew a plume and a welljar of tinte and prepared to inscribe the parable of The Tulip and the Chainsaw onto the white face of rock worn smooth by the abrasive they had used to eradicate the earlier inscriptions. I remained alone in my task, so I thought, but when I neared the end of the parable, and began to inscribe the explicit lesson–that regardless of the damage inflicted on a flower by those of a mindless, destructive bent, a flower will bloom again the following year–I was startled to hear the tiny, plaintive voice behind me.
“Why are you smearing paint onto that stone?”
I turned around, almost spilling the tinte. The question had been asked of me by a young female Shavarrsh, surely no more than seven or eight seasons of rain on this land. Could she not interpret the ideograms I had so carefully scriven onto the stone? Had the adults not taught her?
I started to respond, but her female parent appeared, tugging at her to draw her from my work. Voices faded as they departed in the direction of the dwellings.
“But mahr, I just want to know why she—“
“I’ve told you time and time again to stay away from…”
It occurred to me, hearing these fragments, that there is nothing so desolate as a storyteller without an audience, nor so plaintive as a tale which reaches no other ears. I felt as if I had carried this boulder on my shoulders, from village to village, for a century of seasons. For reasons not evident, the adults in Shavrrna had stopped listening, and had neglected to teach their young that there was something to be listened to.
What could have happened here?
My stomach began to rumble.
During visits past, the Shavarrsh had brought in the middle of the day and just before dark tureens and ewers and amphora containing nourishment of which I and those gathered around me might partake. Aromas tantalized me, but nothing was brought. If I desired sustenance, I would have to rummage through the kibikopila at my side. I touched the drawstring looped over my shoulder, and thought better. Food might wait, and it is ever useful to assert control over one’s internal functions.
So I sat once more, and waited once more. The leaves above continued to sing. In a sea of movement, of living, I was alone. I recalled some lines lilted to me by my own mahr, further back in years than I cared to remember:
Be not alarmed when troubles come
And you find that I am alone
Please only rock me quietly
That I might sleep until this passes
With another color of tinte I began to inscribe this fragment onto the feldspar. From behind, someone approached. I could hear the blades of grass double and snap under their weight, and feel the vibrations of their footfalls. Finished, I put away the tools of my life, and turned around, my heart beginning to skip like a child on the first day of the season of sun.
Seeing the two adult males, my heart thudded into the pit of my first stomach. Already I knew that nothing good could come of this.
The closest one said, “You are being detained. Come with us. Do not resist.”
Armed with only a kibikopila of dried fruit and vegetable matter and some scrivener’s tools, I had scant means of resistance. At least, I thought, as they led me away, I might in time learn the facts as they pertained to the erasure of the storystone.
* * *
But they told me nothing helpful. Thrust into a dank cavern in the north face of a limestone cliff, and secured within by a portcullis whose counterweight was a boulder of approximately my size, I was reduced to simple meditations upon the tales I told and to waiting for someone to explain the need for my incarceration. The orientation of the entrance denied me direct sunlight in which I might warm myself for the coming cool night, but I found that, late in the day, I might capture the energy I needed in a sliver of light from the west.
Unfortunately, that spot had already been taken.
Her name, she said, was Mashrrv, and she had been in this cell since the onset of the season of chills–a circumstance which moved me to allow her first turn in the warmth, what there was of it. I did not think her so old, but after a speculative tilting of her head, an appraisal of eyes pale yellow in this dim light, she concluded that she remembered me.
“I was but a nestling at the time, Storyteller,” she told me, “only recently come from the egg, clumsy and without guile. My mahr brought me to the storystone the night before your arrival, to await your coming. There were fresh berries from the mountain shrubs, and tubers from the soil moistened by the last of the seasonal rains, and much gaiety. We had gathered in circles, the shorter of stature in front the better so as to see and hear you…and oh, as the disk of light arose from the horizon you came, on foot, as if you had just emerged from that disk. Did you intend that effect, I wonder? I’ve always wondered that.”
“It is customary for the storyteller to approach from the east at the birth of the day,” I said. “I do not know the origin or purpose of the custom.”
“You are the only storyteller I have ever seen,” said Mashrrv. “No others have come after you.”
I could scarcely credit the sounds which reached my timpana. “Oh, surely not! What about Glembethth? And Orrthag? And I know Ffazgl spent a full season of sun in this region.”
Mashrrv’s tailtip fluttered in distress. “None of them, Storyteller, oh, none know I. Nor have I heard these names. None has visited since you.”
“And why have they placed you in here, Mashrrv?”
Her green skin paled to chartreuse, and she averted her eyes. Again her tailtip tattooed the dirt. “I invoked the parable of The Tulip and the Chainsaw to demonstrate the futility of fighting,” she confided.
I wondered whether we were being overheard. Though I saw not so much as a shadow outside, I began to suspect as much when Mashrrv led me to the cool rear of the cavern, and I kept my voice low. “Which fighting is this you speak of?”
“Many villages have we fought, Storyteller, in these few seasons. Urtha’s Ford at the great bend of the Savernon. And as far away as Windscape, at the edge of the great Cornukibi plains. Even tiny Uthrrvna at the first cataract up the Savernon—“
I was unable to contain my horror. “In the name of the Light of the First Day, why?“ Mashrrv withdrew a pace; I had frightened her. I slipped my tail over and under hers, reassuring with coils. “Forgive me, young one. I meant no trembling.”
“No one asks why,” she replied. “No one dares. But I know why.”
“You must tell me.”
Mashrrv gave me a sidelong, upward glance. Now her eyes were darker than the tartfruit which flourishes along the banks of the Savernon. Her voice dropped. “It is said that at Urtha’s Ford it is possible to impede the flow of water. It is said that the Urthash could do this.” And she cast her eyes about furtively, fearing ears in the limestone.
“It is said?”
“It is what is heard.”
Scant light of day remained. In our sliver of warmth our shadows had lengthened to the east wall of the cavern, and now they were dying, as was the day. I felt a chill, but there was nothing to be done about it. Mashrrv trudged to the west wall and curled into a ball there, to preserve what warmth she might until indirect light of the next sun roused her. I might have followed her example, for surely she knew the caveways.
But she knew the caveways. She had accepted her incarceration. This I could not do, for two reasons. First, to accept my circumstance without question gave my imprisoners sanction, for I would then have been placed here by my own permission. And second…
Second came my duty as a Storyteller. I had now an audience–a captive one, true, but an audience nevertheless.
On most rock the dark colors of tinte show best. With light, they would show on the limestone. But light and warmth were denied me. I selected a broad plume and a fresh welljar of tinte and a vial of pulverized vozvor, a difficult substance to work with because it will burn through scales on contact. Carefully I tapped three measures of vozvor into the tinte, capped it tightly, and shook it quickly. In the confined space, and without sufficient air, the burning soon ceased. The welljar felt warm in my hand.
In the now-almost-dark I cautiously approached the back wall of the cavern, and began to inscribe my tale. Alive with vozvor, the pictographs and ideographs glowed, and gave me just enough illumination to finish my task.
* * *
At the next light Mashrrv clapped her hands together and crowed, at first in pleasure, then in dismay. “They will see it,” she cried, with furtive glances over her shoulder. “You must remove it. Quickly!”
I began putting away the tools of my craft. “No such thing will I do.”
She continued to fret. “For this defiance they will not feed us.”
“And should we dwindle our days here, eating?” But my presumption was improper: alone, I might protest in my manner, accepting consequences. But Mashrrv had neither been informed of my choices, nor had she acquiesced in them.
“Forgive me,” I said, and prepared an erasive solution which reeked faintly in the cave.
Her hand on mine stayed me. “Perhaps you are correct, Storyteller. The village would speak with one voice, muting ours in here. About that, we can do nothing. But we need not be silent for our own sakes. Leave the story, please.”
I led Mashrrv toward the opening of the cave, there to absorb as much warmth as possible. When we were comfortable, I said, “Tell me of your sight of the parable. How came you to be here for it?”
Mashrrv flicked her tongue, uncomfortable with our possible proximity to the ears of others. I nuzzled her with my nose, a reminder that our voices would not be stilled. “The interpretation upon which I drew is standard,” she said slowly, thinking her way through it. “Destroying the flower over and over again will not diminish it, for it returns each season. Accommodation, with the flower here and you there, allows both to thrive.”
“Such a lesson we impart to the young.”
“But it was said the parable warns that we cannot defeat our enemies,” she continued. “In this, it opposed the wishes of our village.”
“Of the leaders of the village.”
“But if the young do not learn of the storyways, how will the leaders themselves grow differently?” Her tail thumped against the wall of the cave, and she made a gurgling sound of mirth. “So I asked them if they were at war with flowers,” she said. “And after some consternation, they confined me within. Storyteller…I’m hungry.”
I shared my morsels with Mashrrv, while the light brightened, and faded, and died. We drew what warmth we could, and curled up together, still hungry. Our captors had seen the glowing inscription on the wall, perhaps, and had condemned us to silence, condemning our words as well. I touched my hand to Mashrrv’s neck and felt the life coursing, but slower than it should have coursed. The strength of her voice had concealed her true weakness. Deprived of warmth, of light, and now of food, she was falling into that ultimate torpidity. Long ago our ancestors had survived the seasons of chills through such torpor, but they had done so on bodies filled with nutrients in preparation for that deep slumber. For us, our hunger remained, the ache of stone on raw bone.
She would not awaken, come the next light.
* * *
Two lights have passed and Mashrrv remains still, her life coursing so feebly that this time I scarcely could find it. When I touched her neck, I thought to hear a sound from her, but perhaps it was the settling of the stone around us, no more.
And so I resumed my task. Tinte remains, and ought be used. I have inscribed on these walls the Tale of Mashrrv and the Storyteller, the lines of words coming to a close on the wall above where I sit holding Mashrrv, sharing with her what little warmth remains. Presently my hand will move, and inscribe a final word, and will then fall to my side as I curl around her and sigh the very last of my words with the very last of my strength. One day, perhaps, the Tale will be found, and perhaps read, so that the readers will know that we clung to our ways and our truth—and perhaps the power of our truth will give them strength in their own times of troubles…for leaders cannot lead when no one will follow.
“Oh, Mashrrv,” I will whisper, and, gently rocking her, lay my face across her body, and bring my last story to an end.
May 15, 2017
Nancy L. Conyers has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles and lived in Shanghai from 2004-2009. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, The Citron Review, Alluvium, Tiferet, and Hupdaditty, and contributed the last chapter to Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child, by Telaina Eriksen. Honey Lou is adapted from a novel she is writing entitled A Walk in the Mist. Her website is www.nancylconyers.com
Honey Lou Parker was a native Texan with tumbleweed flowing through her veins. Honey had bottled blond hair, a ballsy laugh, and she truly believed in the Texas truism, the higher the hair, the closer to God. She was big, in all manner and form: her hair was big, her mouth was big, and her body took up the whole width of a Shanghai sidewalk. When she walked, her enormous breasts and generous backside undulated in opposite directions, giving her the effect of a human tsunami. Honey’s calling card, though, was her beautiful, flawless skin. It was porcelain white with nary a pore or wrinkle and no matter where Honey went, people complimented her on her perfect skin. They kept their eyes on her face, as much as they kept their eyes on her substantial girth.
When Lisa first arrived in Shanghai, the first thing Honey said to her was, “Lisa, darlin,’ it’s not real important to learn the language.” Honey had been in Shanghai for almost three years and she’d only managed to learn to say hello, goodbye and thank you in Mandarin, all with a bad accent. When she said xie xie, thank you, Honey, in all her Texan splendor, would say shay shay, shay shay and she was damn proud of her self for it.
“They oughta learn how to speak English,” Lisa heard Honey say one day to the posse Honey always travelled with when she passed by as they were sitting outside of Starbucks, the only store foreigners recognized at what passed for a mall in Jin Qiao. “They oughta learn how to speak English. I mean I’m not having my taxes pay for some wetback to fill up a seat in our school system, and then you’re going to tell me they don’t have to speak English? Not on my nickel, they’re not.” She was talking about the Mexicans in Texas.
“Honey Lou, when you’re right, you’re right, and, sweetheart, you are right on this one, right girls?” said Sheralee Watson. The posse nodded in unison. The posse were all tai tais from Texas—housewives of the Texas oil barons who believed they were lording over Shanghai, all of whom hated Shanghai for what it wasn’t, and couldn’t see Shanghai for what it was. Like Chinese women who travelled together and linked arms to create their friendspace, the posse always travelled in a pack. Instead of linking arms, the posse was armed with iPhones covered by bejeweled cases of the Texas flag that Honey had gotten made for them in Yu Yuan.
“So, ladies, how much Chinese have y’all learned?” Lisa asked as she walked past their table. The question was out of her mouth before her mind could tell herself not to start something. Honey whipped her head around and fixed Lisa with her Texas stink eye.
“Well, Lisa Downey, I’ll be.”
“Hey, Honey. Ladies.” Lisa nodded in their direction.
“How much Chinese have we learned? Now, Linda darlin’, that’s a whole different story, a whole different ballgame,” Honey sputtered.
“Why’s that, Honey?”
“It’s just different, is all.”
“Why? I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Well, well,” Honey was flustered. She wasn’t used to people challenging her. In the three years Lisa had known her, she’d never seen Honey Lou flustered. She ran the posse and she ran the Expat Women’s Club like a Chinese warlord—often wrong, never in doubt. She was enjoying seeing Honey Lou scramble. Most people, when they’re flustered, get red in the face and splotchy necks, but Honey’s skin became brighter and glowed like a Texas click beetle.
“We’re in China, Honey, so if I follow your logic, then shouldn’t we learn to speak Chinese?”
“We are not here illegally, Lisa Downey, we are rightfully here.” Honey had quickly gotten her footing back. “And, furthermore, we do not want to live here, we’re here because our husbands have come here for work. Legally, I might add. And we are here giving people jobs, not taking jobs away from them, for God’s sake! We are putting food on their tables, not taking food away from them.”
“Honey, how is someone in Dallas who speaks Spanish taking food off your table, other than clearing off your large plates?” Every single one of the posse were tapping away on their iPhones, pretending like they weren’t listening.
“Oh for God’s sake, Lisa, it was just an expression. Let’s not spoil our morning with this. It’s just not the same situation, is all.” Just then a bell tinkled.
“Well, I’ll be, saved by the bell,” Honey Lou looked at her iPhone and tapped the screen with her long, fake fingernail. “That’s my signal, girls. I’ve got to go get my facial.” Her large body rippled wildly as she stood up. She winked at Lisa and said, “The good Lord works in mysterious and wondrous ways, wouldn’t you say, darlin’?”
Because Honey had never learned how to speak Mandarin, she never learned that there are no secrets in China, and Honey had a dirty little secret she was sure nobody knew about. The secret to Honey’s facials, the secret to her beautiful skin was that she ate soup. Placenta soup. Human placenta soup. Placenta soup that came from aborted babies. Aborted girl babies.
Before Honey arrived in Shanghai she believed in the sanctity of two things—the flag of Texas and the goodness of her God. Now, she also believed in the power of those girl babies’ placentas. She told herself it was better for that soup to slide down her throat than for those babies to be strewn on the side of the road somewhere, no better than a stray dog.
Yes, the good Lord did work in mysterious and wondrous ways. He gave Honey the ability to cast her born again eyes downward when the weekly delivery of special treasure soup was delivered to her kitchen door, and the ability to cast her eyes upward in a heavenly thanks as the luscious liquid continued to work its wonders on Honey’s luminescent skin.
The good Lord also gave Honey’s housekeeper a big mouth. Honey’s housekeeper told every other housekeeper in Honey’s neighborhood about the soup and those housekeepers told other housekeepers, who told the drivers, who told the security guards, who told their wives. Some of the housekeepers who worked for Mandarin speaking foreign women told the expat women and those women told their friends. It didn’t take long before the only secret about Honey’s facials was that Honey was the only one who thought nobody knew.
A few weeks after Lisa saw Honey at Starbucks, she heard Honey in Yu Yuan buying embroidered pictures. She turned around and watched from a distance as Honey repeated shay shay, shay shay, and she listened and laughed to herself as the other people in the small stall shrieked, Waah, na ge laowai hen pang! “Wow, that foreigner is really fat!” Honey just kept smiling at them, and nodding her head. Shay shay, shay shay.
Lisa walked over to the stall where Honey was transacting her purchase.
“Lisa darlin’, good to see you,” Honey said and gave her an air kiss on each cheek. “Look at these gorgeous embroideries I just bought.”
“They are gorgeous, Honey. How much did you pay for them?”
“Oh lord, they were a steal, 500rmb.”
“You ought to learn how to speak Mandarin, Honey,” Lisa told her.
“Why would you say that?”
“Because you’ll get a better price if you bargain in Mandarin.”
“I’ve never heard such a thing.”
“It’s true. Have you ever tried to bargain in Mandarin?”
“Lisa, are you going to start this all over again? I thought we finished with all that.”
“Honey, darlin’, I’m trying to help you. Those pictures you just bought…guess what? I got them for 100 rmb each.”
“You did not!”
“Yes I did and it’s because I bargained in Mandarin. If you do that they’ll give you a better price.”
“Oh for God’s sake.”
“It’s true.” Lisa turned around to the shopkeepers and said, Ru guo ta hui shuo Putonghua, ni men hui gei ta hen hao de jia qian, dui ma? “If she spoke Mandarin you would give her a good price, right?”
“Dui de!” Right, they all yelled.
“Ni men pian le ta,” Lisa told them. You cheated her.
Hahaha. They gave Lisa that sick bu hao yisi smile.
The shopkeepers weren’t the only ones who were cheating Honey. Her husband, Harlan, was too. What a cliché he was, a balding, pot-bellied, white foreigner with a bad comb over and a beautiful, young Chinese girlfriend.
Lisa watched one night as a couple of stunning girls went up to Harlan and his friends in Xintiandi. Soon the waitress was pulling another table up, serving drinks and before you know it, Harlan was walking off hand-in-hand with one of the girls. If Honey were a real friend, Lisa would have told her what she’d seen, but she wasn’t a true friend and there was something in her that enjoyed watching the whole situation unfold, something base in her that took perverse pleasure in knowing that Harlan had his girl in an apartment in the same apartment complex Lisa and Sheila lived in, away from the expat compound, and in knowing that Harlan knew Lisa knew. Lisa wondered if Honey knew and if that were the reason why Harlan and Honey quickly left Shanghai the following fall. She also wondered where in the goodness of God’s good Texas Honey was going to buy her girl baby placenta soup.
‘This again,’ Shelagh said.
I looked up from the newspaper.
She was standing at the dresser, holding the wooden box that contained every letter and card she had given me since we’d met in 1950: two decades of birthdays and Christmases and nameless occasions, remembered in her jagged handwriting. Sitting in her palm was my carved jade grasshopper.
‘What about it?’ I turned a page of the newspaper so my voice wouldn’t be the only sound. We’d almost finished packing up the house. The walls and floors were bare and loud with echoes, filling the space we’d cleared.
Shelagh eyed the grasshopper carefully, as she had when she had first seen it twelve years before, on the day we moved here, to the George Street townhouse from her rooms in the teaching quarters. That was the year my brother died. I suspected Shelagh had held off buying a house until Wei had passed, in case he insisted on living with us. I never asked her. I knew she would deny it.
‘It’s from the old days,’ I said. ‘Put it away.’
The words quelled her curiosity. They always did. The old days were only revisited late at night, in bed in the dark, when we couldn’t see each other’s faces, when the wine we’d drunk was enough to guarantee a fresh pretence in the morning.
Now, once again, I cringed at the sight of the grasshopper – death-green and obnoxious – in the hand of the woman who had unknowingly allowed me to forgive myself for how I’d come to own it.
‘We’re bringing it with us, I suppose,’ she said.
I was annoyed at her dogged insistence on our still being we, in spite of everything I’d done over the years to threaten it. Just as quickly I was hit by the breath-stopping possibility of leaving the grasshopper behind – of tucking it into a bag with all the other things we didn’t need: books we would never read (or had read too many times), photographs we didn’t remember taking, a porcelain dog with a shadow where its ears had been. But I couldn’t imagine doing it. I couldn’t let myself off the hook.
Shelagh was turning the jade between her thumb and middle finger.
‘Yes, we ought to keep it,’ I said. ‘It might be worth something.’
‘Oh, Lovey, you kept all this rubbish as well.’ She put the grasshopper down and began sifting almost reverently through the cards and letters in the wooden box, as if they were relics.
‘It isn’t rubbish,’ I said.
She looked at me, and it was as if all the sour, ruined parts of our life had fallen away. Her hopeless faith in me had lasted too long now to be dashed. It was part of us, a fact of us, like the strands of her hair twined with mine between the tines of our combs.
We were set to move house the next day. The boxes and bags were lined up like messy monoliths in the hallway. All that remained on our bed were two bare pillows, flattened and stained; the summer duvet without its cover, and the clothes we planned to wear for the invasion of removal men.
I was dreading it. If the decision had been mine we’d have stayed in George Street til we died, but Shelagh’s tenure at Wadham was over and her heart was set on retiring to the country. She was almost seventy years old, which surprised us every time it was mentioned. The years had thickened her but her eyes were still quick behind her purple-rimmed spectacles.
With no help at all from me, she had found and bought a cottage in a village called Alkerton. It was fifteen minutes by car out of town: far enough to make a point but close enough that her friends could visit whenever they liked. I was dreading that, as well.
Those same friends – Christine and Jenny – would join us later for a final supper at the townhouse. I shored myself up for the onslaught as I watched Shelagh put the letters away. She closed the lid of the wooden box and picked up the jade grasshopper again.
‘Promise you’ll tell me where it came from one day,’ she said.
‘You’d think badly of me.’
She gave a blithe laugh that startled me. It didn’t suit her. She was usually so staunch.
‘I’ve known you twenty years, Lovey,’ she said. ‘I’ve thought badly of you for at least ten of them, non-contiguously.’
Lovey. No one knew except for us that it was my name – my birth name – that she was saying, blurred, in those syllables: Lanfang.
I had been Kuo Lanfang until 1950, when my brother and I arrived in England. I changed my name to ‘Pamela’, inspired by a colleague in Hong Kong. My brother took to calling himself ‘Wayne’ after an actor, but he couldn’t pronounce it properly and it still came out as Wei. It didn’t matter. He rarely left the boarding house. He didn’t need a name.
I wondered, as I often did, what Shelagh thought of me now, two decades on from the day she’d approached me at a market in Summertown. She had addressed me in Mandarin. I had scowled in return.
‘Why do you presume I understand you?’ I had said, in English. I was bold back then, and brave. ‘Maybe I’m Cantonese.’
‘Maybe you are,’ she said with a narrow smile, in Cantonese.
‘Or Fujianese,’ I said.
‘Yes, maybe,’ she said, in Hokkien. ‘It’s hard to tell.’
And then I returned her smile, but warily. Although I was proud and forthright – thirty-eight years old, displaced and defensive – I was still shell-shocked by my surroundings and my new life. The grim boarding house lay down a backstreet in Jericho where the city touched the boggy meadow. For work I cleaned toilets at Worcester College. My wages went towards rent and Wei’s liquor. I’d worn the same clothes since we arrived five months earlier. Even still, I caught the eye of Dr Shelagh Murray, research fellow in Sinology at the Department of Oriental Studies. It was either fate or wholly random. Maybe both.
I soon forgot how it was to be that version of Pamela Kuo: fierce and determined – an animal that had just missed the trap when the two sides snapped shut. These days I’m weak and bloated by anger turned in on itself and left to fester. It’s shameful, really, what I’ve become.
It was dark by the time Jenny and Christine arrived. From my old armchair beached in the middle of the empty living room I watched them bustle around Shelagh in the kitchen. When Christine embraced her from behind, the swath of her dreadlocked grey hair swayed against her wide back. Shelagh’s bare feet spread comfortably on the lino. The three of them were made of the same stuff, with their strident minds and grammar-school accents.
‘You won’t forget us, will you?’ Christine laid a long kiss on Shelagh’s cheek.
‘Of course she won’t,’ Jenny blustered. ‘It’s lonely out in the sticks. She’ll be back.’
Shelagh shifted and began to toss salad in a dented old pan we were leaving behind. I couldn’t read the expression on her face.
‘Doesn’t it look strange with everything taken down and packed away?’ Jenny gazed around as she came through into the living room. She stopped when she saw me. She stiffened, as if she wanted to turn back. Courtesy made her pause.
‘Supper’s ready, I think,’ she said to me without a smile. ‘If you’re joining us.’
I had known Jenny and Christine for as long as I’d known Shelagh. The first few years, before a double toll of death took my brother and Shelagh’s teenaged son, we’d all rubbed along quite well. Later, when I withdrew into my guilt, they treated me as an irritating afterthought: a curious case study that now served only to take up shelf space. And, of course, under everything ran a dirty thread of blame: I’d been with Nicky when he died. The sailing trip was my idea. I had watched as he was dragged lifeless, heavy and grey onto the sand.
When I joined them in the kitchen they were talking about a Women’s Lib rally in London.
‘I’ll go if we’re all set up at the new place.’ Shelagh laid the pan down on the table. Jenny and Christine were holding chopsticks instead of knives and forks, now wrapped and packed away. Christine caught my eye and snapped her chopsticks together. I granted her a small smile.
‘I don’t suppose you’ll be going, will you, Pam?’ Jenny said.
Christine sat up straighter. ‘Why not?’ The flicker of camaraderie had disappeared from her eyes.
‘I’ve better things to do.’
Jenny darkened. ‘Better than joining the cause?’
I looked at Shelagh, who raised her eyebrows, waiting for me to speak.
‘I’m not sure what help I can be,’ I said.
‘The more of us who march, the better,’ said Christine. ‘You won’t start a revolution sitting at home.’
I shook my head. ‘I’ve had enough of revolutions.’
‘What do you mean?’ Jenny said.
I willed Shelagh to wade in and help me but she didn’t.
‘What I mean is that I’m tired of them,’ I said.
‘How can you be tired of revolution?’ Christine said. ‘That makes no sense to me, as a concept.’
I looked her straight in the eye. ‘If it weren’t just a concept, perhaps you’d understand.’
‘If you’d been born in a revolution,’ I said. ‘Named after one. Fought in one. Escaped from one.’
Christine chewed and swallowed, then wiped the corner of her mouth with her thumb.
‘Gosh, Pam. I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say.’
‘Tell us more,’ Jenny said with an amiable hint of challenge that annoyed me.
‘I’d rather not.’
‘Come on,’ said Christine. ‘We’re old friends, aren’t we?’
Shelagh touched my foot with hers under the table. I kicked it away.
‘It’ll do you good to get out,’ Jenny said to me. ‘You need some focus.’
‘Do you think?’
‘You’re withering away.’
‘You are, Pam.’
‘How do you know what I need?’
For once I didn’t care about offending them. I was too angry at Shelagh for not stepping in.
Jenny laid her hand on my wrist in a show of concern.
‘I know you suffer with your moods,’ she said. ‘It can’t be easy, but shutting yourself away won’t help in the long run.’
I hardened with embarrassment. Shelagh had talked with them about me – about my failings and inadequacies: how I held her back, how I made her life a misery. She’d complained to them. I’d been grist to their mill, fodder for their analyses. I had been tested and found wanting. Surely they’d advised Shelagh: Leave her. Move on. Make a fresh start. It’s not too late.
I stood up and turned to go.
‘Love –’ Shelagh said.
I shook my head. Without looking at any of them I went into the hallway and made for the stairs.
‘Who’s that?’ Commander T’an barked.
‘My brother,’ Wei said.
‘Is he part of the squadron?’
‘Then why is he here?’
I stepped out from Wei’s shadow. ‘I’m loyal to Sun Tienying, Sir.’
My brother elbowed me but I stood firm.
In the blue beam of the flashlight, Commander T’an looked me up and down. I tensed but I needn’t have worried. With my inch-long hair and overalls I passed easily for a boy. The commander gave a nod.
As we lined up to march, the stutter of an engine grew louder and louder until it passed us.
‘It’s Sun!’ Wei whispered to me.
I strained for a glimpse of the general. It was close to midnight but the summer moon was high and bright. There, standing tall in the back of the truck, was Sun Tienying, staring straight ahead at the stone gates of the mausoleum. The truck guttered to a stop.
‘Han Tanpao!’ he yelled.
Brigade Commander Han stood to attention. His men bristled in preparation.
‘Take Yüling,’ Sun barked. ‘T’an Wenchiang! Take your troop to P’u-hsiangyu.’
‘Sir!’ T’an saluted.
And then there was a rattle of mortar that set the ground rumbling. Wei cowered behind me. I seized his wrist.
We took off running after Commander T’an and the others. The engineering corps had blown the stone gates open. Four trucks sat squat at either side, ready to speed away with the loot.
As we clambered over the rubble I saw Brigade Commander Han lead his troop off towards the dark path that led to Yüling. His torch beam lit a row of stone animals stretching off into the distance to the emperors’ tombs.
‘This way!’ Commander T’an cried.
We set off after him in the opposite direction.
In the moonlight it was just possible to see an open courtyard of low red-roofed pavilions as we crossed the bridge into the P’u-hsiangyu compound.
T’an pointed to one of the buildings.
‘The Dowager’s tomb,’ he said. ‘Commanders Liu, T’ao, Huang – take what you want. The rest of you, hold back. You can have what’s left.’
I was about to follow the others when my brother tugged my arm. I pulled away.
‘This isn’t the time to be scared,’ I hissed at him. The others were already ten paces ahead.
‘I’m not scared,’ he hissed back. ‘I have a better plan.’
‘We don’t want the dregs,’ he said, dragging me across the courtyard. ‘We didn’t come all the way out here for second dibs.’
I thought about the journey – hours in the back of a truck, sweltering and sweating, all the way from Peking.
‘There’s another tomb here,’ Wei said. ‘I saw it on T’an’s map.’
‘Whose tomb? The emperor’s?’
‘No. The Eastern Empress.’
He nodded. ‘There’ll be more loot in Tzu-Hsi’s for the others, but there’s bound to be something in here as well. And it’s all ours, if we can get to it.’
We had arrived at the wooden door. Wei pulled his gun from the holster and began to drive the butt into the door. It was strange to see him armed. He was too bold and obvious, as if he were only playing at being a soldier.
I looked back. Liu and his men were long gone. The door to Tzu-Hsi’s tomb was a black gap where they’d stormed it.
I pushed my brother out of the way and seized my own gun. Bracing myself, I fired three shots at close range around the lock, ignoring the burn of the backfire at my wrist.
I looked at Wei, who glared at me. I pushed past him and went into the mausoleum.
Inside the air was thick with the stink of old scrolls and incense.
Wei flashed his torch around. The beam threw its bluish light onto a doorway. The burial chamber.
‘Go and look,’ he said.
‘Come as well.’
‘No. I’ll stay here.’
The torch beam was giddy; Wei’s hand was shaking.
‘Are you afraid?’ I said.
‘Stop wasting time. Go and look.’
‘This was your idea. Why should I do the dirty work?’
‘It was your idea as much as mine,’ he said. ‘Don’t you want something to show for it?’
‘Who can we show? We can’t go back home after this.’
His face was ghoulish in the torchlight. He was clenching his jaw.
Then, he lifted his chin in the direction of the burial chamber.
‘Get in there and look. I’ll stand guard in case we’re disturbed.’
He had always been a coward. The only reason he joined Sun’s ragged band of fighters was to aggravate our father. He only conceded to me tagging along when I promised to act as his shield. As it turned out, I relished the warlord life. The liberties it gave me were the sort Wei had never needed to seek.
I walked into the dense purple air. The catafalque was too long for me to see where it ended, despite the torch beam. I knelt and looked at the grave goods lined up around its skirting.
Wei directed me from the doorway: ‘Take whatever you can carry.’
I reached for a tumble of jade carvings, gathered like a floret of grapes. My hand slowed above them and I was mesmerised, imagining the Empress at court in her jangling headdress, draped with brocade, surrounded by simpering eunuchs, the deep, metallic hum of the palace gongs.
I took up the closest piece of jade: a mottled grasshopper with long, sheathed legs carved close to its body, like leaves on an ear of corn. I slid it into my pocket.
‘Is there gold?’ Wei asked. He was growing agitated.
‘No. Only stones.’
‘Look on the corpse. There’s sure to be something.’
‘Shine the beam further, then. I can’t see.’
He lifted the torch. Light feathered out across the catafalque, showing the rounded shape of a body. I inched closer, caught between curiosity and unease.
Just as I was nearing the rise of the Empress’s head I heard a fast rally of footsteps approaching, echoing on the stone. As I turned I saw one of our troop-mates, Ning Hsieh, barrelling into the chamber. When he caught his breath he cried out:
‘There’s a pearl!’
‘Where?’ Wei said.
‘In her mouth! There has to be! They found one in Tzu-hsi’s. A black pearl! Commander Liu has taken it, but I want this one.’
‘No!’ My brother seized Ning’s arm to hold him back. ‘It’s mine.’
The older boy yanked himself free and loped over to the catafalque. His face was covered in dust except for a pale smudge where he had wiped his brow.
Suddenly I heard more footsteps. Heavier this time. More dangerous. A wash of panic sent me over to Wei. I pulled him along with me into the anteroom. Before the torch fell from his hand I saw Ning Hsieh crouching on the Empress’s body as if she were carrion, prying her jaws apart and pulling the pearl from her mouth.
I pushed Wei down into a corner just as the commanders came crashing through, shouting, scoring the darkness with their flashlights.
They fell upon Ning Hsieh, roaring Traitor! Thief!
The boy screeched and tried to twist out of their grip but they held him fast. They carried him out, still twisting madly, like an animal, through the passageway.
The flashlight fell upon me and my brother where we crouched. A white shard of fear shot through me. I could smell the bright reek of our sweat.
Commander Huang hauled us out to the mausoleum steps.
‘It wasn’t me!’ Wei was frantic with terror. ‘I promise, Sir. It was Ning Hsieh! Only Ning Hsieh!’
‘And you?’ Commander Huang knocked my shoulder with his rifle.
I stood firm. ‘You saw who it was, Sir.’
The commander narrowed his eyes. Before he could speak, Commanders Liu and T’ao came up with their men. All of them were laden with canvas sacks of loot.
‘What’s going on?’ T’ao barked.
‘This lot were thieving,’ Huang said. ‘They stormed the other tomb without our say-so.’
The moon was brighter than the flashlights but T’ao trained his beam on the three of us nevertheless. With a yelp, Ning Hsieh made to dash away. Commander Liu launched himself onto the boy, wrestled him to the ground, then stood up and drove his boot into his throat to hold him down. He reached for his holster.
In an instant, the odd injustice of it reared up at me. Before I could stop myself I stepped forward.
‘We’re all thieving, aren’t we?’ I said.
Liu looked up. Huang and T’ao bristled to attention. Behind them, the men fell to silence.
‘There’s no difference,’ I said, spurred by the shock of my own boldness. ‘We’re all taking what doesn’t belong to us.’
Liu’s brow creased with the onset of fury. Behind me I heard my brother whimpering. Under Liu’s boot, Ning Hsieh was weeping – fast, toothless breaths.
‘Who are you, anyway?’ Liu said to me.
As I pressed my hands to my sides to brace myself I felt the imprint of the jade grasshopper against my hip, lurking in the pocket where I’d hidden it.
‘I’m a thief like the rest of you,’ I said. ‘If you’re going to shoot Ning, you’d better shoot us all.’
‘Very well,’ Liu said sharply. ‘You can help me. Take out your gun. You have one, don’t you? Come on. You can see Ning off first. Then that snivelling pig over there.’
He jutted his chin in my brother’s direction. Wei was stock-still, shivering, face lined with tears. Commanders T’ao and Huang glanced at each other. Their men – five altogether – were shifting in various stances of confusion and dismay.
‘I refuse,’ I said.
‘Then I’ll do it myself,’ he sneered. ‘I’ll save you for last, so you can watch.’
Liu unhitched his gun from its holster. He looked down at Ning Hsieh.
In the same dreadful moment, he cocked it and took aim at the boy, and I pulled out my own pistol and held it up. There were two fierce cracks. As the dull agony of backfire shuddered up my arm I saw Commander Liu fall backwards, stricken; below him Ning Hsieh’s chest plumped out and burst in a muddle of blood.
All I remember from the fracas that followed was the smoke and the noise and my own roaring pulse as I ran to the wilderness beyond. I ran and I ran, stopping only when I was sure there was nobody behind me. I rested, bent double with my palms on my knees, hauling my breath up in big gasps to calm myself.
I looked back at the red gabled roofs of the gravesite. A figure was approaching. I tensed and made to take off, but as it came closer I saw it was Wei. I waited for him to catch me up then set to running again. I put my hand in my pocket and circled the little jade grasshopper with my fingers.
Get rid of it, I said to myself. Get rid of it, I said with each thud my feet made on the ground. Throw it away. It isn’t yours. It will haunt you.
But a smaller, more persistent voice said: Keep it.
The jade grew warm in my hand.
The voices skirmished in my head, and I thought of the Empress’s face giving way as Ning Hsieh pulled the pearl from her mouth.
Keep it. It will haunt you.
Just before dawn on our first day at the cottage in Alkerton, I dreamed of Nick. Over the years he had come back to me in different forms, changing in synchronicity with the reshaping of my guilt and grief. In the weeks directly following his death I dreamed about his body. I dreamed I was holding him, shaking him, sucking the sedge from his lungs to revive him. I never could. As time passed he grew distant, and I would dream of seeing him on the other side of a room, across a river, in a car driving off in the other direction. And then, for a long while, I didn’t dream of him at all.
That morning in Alkerton I brought him back to life. In the dream we were on the seashore. I had pulled him up from the shallows. His head was in my lap. I slid the slime-jewelled seaweed from his brow and hooked my thumb into his mouth to dig out the black sand that was choking him. He opened his eyes and began to breathe.
I woke up wet and dappled with gooseflesh.
Shelagh shifted beside me, turned, and settled again.
The warm light was unfamiliar. I got out of bed and went to the window. I put my face into the gap where the curtains met. At the end of the garden was a border full of daffodils. Behind it, silver birches tossed like streamers in the wind.
And there, crouching on the sill – Shelagh must have put it there – was the grasshopper. The sunlight struggled through the dense storm-cloud patterns of the stone. I followed the line of its carapace with the edge of my finger. My instinct was to clasp it in my hand so I wouldn’t have to see it, then drop it into the back of a drawer. But then, as I looked at it, I thought of something Shelagh used to say to Nicky when he wanted a bandage for a grazed knee or a cut: Let the air at it. It’ll molder otherwise.
But it hurts, Nick would whine, and Shelagh would brush his brown hair from his forehead and say Yes, it hurts.
I heard her yawn.
‘Is it morning?’ she said. ‘What time is it?’
‘It isn’t too late.’
‘Come and sleep a while longer, then,’ she said, lifting the covers up for me.
‘Are you well, Lovey?’ She pushed her head into the crook of my neck.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes – I think so.’
Xiao Jun looked at his reflection in the mirror shard and smiled. Hao kan, good looking, he said to himself. The green army uniform was tight in all the right places—across his chest and broad shoulders—and accentuated his muscular physique. His hair was razor sharp buzz-cut, flat across the top of his head and the cap was perched at just the right angle. His general and his captain would be pleased.
Xiao Jun was one of the elite, one of the 10,000 chosen ones of the People’s Liberation Army, who would march into Hong Kong at the stroke of midnight on July 1st 1997. China was showing its full face to the world for the first time and only the fittest, most handsome Mandarin speaking boys were allowed to cross that border and pull Hong Kong back into China’s iron-fisted embrace.
Cupping his hand in front of his mouth and covering his nose, Xiao Jun blew into it, inhaled, then put a piece of cantaloupe gum under his tongue. He loved the sweet taste of the gum and wasn’t aware that it didn’t mask the ever-present smell of sour garlic emanating from his pores. He put his white gloves in his jacket pocket, following orders not to get them dirty or put them on until five minutes before midnight on June 30th, took one last look at himself, took one long, last look around his bedroom, and went downstairs to the courtyard to say good bye to his parents.
Lao Chen, his father, was squatting on a small stool in the courtyard, smoking. Su Qing, his mother, was busying herself hanging clothes she had just washed by hand. They had both been awake all night thinking about the good luck that had befallen their family by Xiao Jun being chosen to go to Hong Kong. That luck came with a price, though. Xiao Jun would not be allowed contact with his family for the first three years of his duty in Hong Kong. No phone calls, no visits home for the Spring Festival. No contact at all. Lao Chen and Su Qing knew they were lucky to have two children and especially to have two sons. Fortune was not supposed to come twice, but it was bestowed on Lao Chen and Su Qing by the birth of their second son. They’d never said it to each other, but he was their favorite. While they were bursting with pride they did not know how they could stand a Spring Festival without Xiao Jun at the table.
“You are the handsomest of the handsome,” his mother told him as she fiddled with his collar.
“Mama, I will really miss you and Baba.”
“Pay attention to your captain. You need to be good, you’re a man now,” she told her nineteen year-old son sternly then slapped his chiseled chest.
Lao Chen nodded in agreement and grunted, flicked his cigarette onto the concrete and stood up. Out on the street they heard the roar of an engine, a horn honking, and someone yelling loudly, “lai lai lai.”
His parents walked with Xiao Jun to the street where an army-convoy truck had pulled up onto the sidewalk. Besides the driver, just one other soldier was inside. He and Xiao Jun were the only two chosen to march into Hong Kong from Si Yang, a city of two million, small by Chinese standards. “Lai lai lai,” the driver repeated, beckoning him with an impatient wagging of his cigarette stained fingers when he saw Xiao Jun. Neighbors were hanging out of their windows, milling about on the street, waiting, watching. They were envious, and jealous that Xiao Jun had been chosen, but felt fortunate to know him. Everyone knew that the soldiers who were going to Hong Kong were the best of the best. In a country of over 1.3 billion people, if you were acquainted with just one of the soldiers who were deemed fit enough in mind, body, and love of the Motherland to take back Hong Kong, you felt special, very special indeed. You also knew you could rely on his guanxi forever.
Xiao Jun hopped into the back of the truck and gave a small wave to his parents who stood side-by-side, immobile. This was a proud, proud moment—Xiao Jun was bringing honor to his family, to the hometown, to the province and to his country, but they felt numb as they heard neighbor after neighbor call out, “Gong xi! Gong xi!” They watched the truck bounce down the street and as it rounded the corner Su Qing’s heart lurched when Xiao Jun turned and stiffly saluted.
Su Qing had first felt her heart begin to change at sixteen, when she was sent away from Nanjing during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t just that she closed her heart down to help herself not feel the horror of what was happening to her—of being ripped from her home, her family, her school and being sent to do menial labor in the countryside with people she didn’t know who automatically hated her because she was a city girl from Nanjing. It was that after two years of standing in infected waters, shoveling mud from the river to the riverbank, freezing and wet in the winter, sweltering hot and wet in the summer, she could feel the physical changes beginning to take place in her body, feel her heart begin to weaken as it began to periodically beat faster. There were times when she would almost faint standing in the water, but Lao Chen, then called Xiao Chen, would sense it, would move closer, and try to appear as if he were working, and steady her from behind. He would put the blade of the shovel against her feet under the water and let her lean against the handle, steadying her until she was ready to start shoveling again. He knew she wasn’t getting enough sustenance. Every day they would see someone fall over and never get up—dead from malnutrition and over-work. If they had a palm-sized bowl of rice once a day they felt lucky, but Xiao Chen knew Su Qing needed more, so he began to go out late at night, and pull leaves from what few trees were left. He would boil the leaves and make Su Qing drink the broth. She was sent down to the countryside to serve the people but Xiao Chen was serving her. It seemed to Su Qing that this must be what love is. It also seemed to revive her and provide enough nourishment to get her through the days. He continued doing this for the eight long years they shoveled side by side, trusting no one, pretending they believed in what was happening around them, doing whatever they had to do to survive. When it was all over they married. The only thing they served at their wedding banquet was meat.
The truck smelled of gas fumes. By the time they reached Kunshan, an hour away, Xiao Jun was nauseous. In Kunshan two more soldiers climbed in. Xiao Jun searched their faces for wisdom and saw none. In Wuxi, another two were added. As they trundled down the highway, bouncing, fumes wafting, Xiao Jun, who was not prone to realizations, wondered if any of them knew what they were getting into. They passed village after village of their countrymen going about their daily business plowing in the fields, sitting at small roadside stands selling fruits, noodles, or house wares. People would see the army truck, look at the boys in the back and call out, “Comrades, you’ve worked hard!” In return, Xiao Jun and his fellow soldiers would give the requisite reply, “Serve the people!” and salute. As the afternoon turned to dusk, the roadside stands folded up and the people the soldiers were serving went home to their families. Lights twinkling in the houses pained Xiao Jun. He could see families hunched over steaming bowls of freshly cooked food, eating and laughing together. We are all so young and far away now from our hometowns. I will cry one thousand tears into my soup before my work is done, he thought to himself. Who will serve me? Who will serve us?
It took 23 hours to get to the army base in Shenzhen, the holding place before the march into Hong Kong began. By the time Xiao Jun and the others from all over China arrived they were exhausted. They spent the next four days going over drills and maneuvers and exercises, reading the words of Deng Xiaoping, and marching in formation. They were all restless, excited and afraid, and they no longer casually slung their arms over each other’s shoulders when they walked and talked, smiled easily or laughed heartily at each other. This was oddly comforting to Xiao Jun—it helped him realize the others were as scared as he was. He heard some of them late at night sobbing under their covers when they thought their comrades were asleep. No contact with their families for three years was enough to make any man cry. Why did no one tell me the army would be like prison, Xiao Jun wondered. When they weren’t on duty, they had to sit on their cots, in full uniform, shoes removed, in a Buddha-like position, legs crossed, spines straight, hands clasped, not moving. “This will teach you discipline,” their general had told them.
Xiao Jun had always believed in ming yun, the intersection fate, destiny and free will. Even his name, Xiao Jun, Little Army, had dictated his future from the day he was born. He knew it was his destiny to march with the People’s Liberation Army into Hong Kong to take it back for the Motherland and to give his parents the mianzi, the face, they deserved, but to Xiao Jun, sometimes it felt like punishment for a crime he never committed.
At five minutes to midnight, on June 30th, Xiao Jun and his fellow soldiers were standing in formation in open convoy trucks, pristine white gloves on, hands perfectly placed on the top of the rail, the way they’d practiced umpteen times, waiting for the stroke of midnight to begin the turnover and the raising of the red flag of the Motherland over Hong Kong. Xiao Jun was more proud and more frightened than he’d ever been in his life. He knew his family would be crowded around the TV set with their friends and neighbors watching this momentous occasion and he wanted them to be proud of him. He stood a little straighter and hoped the camera would capture him, but not too closely. He wanted his image beamed to his hometown but felt if his parents saw his eyes closely they would be able to sense that he was afraid.
Xiao Jun’s being selected for the handover of Hong Kong back to China had given his parents great mianzi and face was the only thing his parents had at this point in their lives. They were part of the large number of “left behinds,” people who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, who received no schooling for ten years when Chairman Mao closed down the schools, and were forced to sweep away the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.
The problem was that Xiao Jun’s parents couldn’t adjust to the Four News: New Customs, New Culture, New Habits, and New Ideas. They had no idea what road to travel in the ever-changing new China, and no skills, training or education to rely on, so their only hope was for their two sons to give them mianzi. Xiao Jun wanted his parents mianzi to burn brighter than anyone’s and he didn’t want his eyes to betray him. Mianzi was the only gift Xiao Jun could present to his parents to enable them to hold their heads up, so he held his head a little higher as he grasped the slippery railing under his white gloves.
The others were frightened too—Xiao Jun could see it in the way their eyes darted around although their heads were perfectly still. They had been told over and over that the Hong Kong people would be afraid of them, but no one had said anything about their own fear. Xiao Jun gripped the rail tightly. His white gloves were soaking wet—not from the fine mist of rain that was falling, but from the inside out, with his anticipation and fear. He was an engaging boy with a quick easy smile and an uncomplicated sense of his small town self. The five years that lay ahead for him in Hong Kong were unchartered and unknown.
“Wave!” their captain barked as the procession began. In unison, Xiao Jun and his compatriots drew up their left hands and gave a friendly wave, just as they had practiced each day in Shenzhen. As the first strains of the March of the Volunteers began to play over the microphones rigged up to the cab of each truck in the convoy, Xiao Jun pushed his chest out further and silently sang to himself, “Arise, all ye who refuse to be slaves!”