Josh Stenberg – ‘Reentry’
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.
Tyree Campbell – ”That I might sleep…”
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.
Nancy L. Conyers – ‘Honey Lou’
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.
Susie Gordon – ‘The Pearl from her Mouth’
Susie Gordon is a writer and editor whose first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006; her second collection, Harbouring, came out in November 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have also been published in anthologies such as United Verses (2014), Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw, 2013), Middle Kingdom Underground (HAL, 2011), Unshod Quills (2011), Junoesq (2015), and The May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003). As a literary editor, she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
The Pearl from her Mouth
‘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.’
Nancy L. Conyers – ‘Who Will Serve Me?’
NANCY L. CONYERS has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She lived in Shanghai from 2004-2009. She has been published in The Citron Review, Lunch Ticket, The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, Hupdaditty, and contributed the last chapter to Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child, by Telaina Eriksen. Who Will Serve Me? is adapted from a novel she is writing entitled A Walk in the Mist.
Who Will Serve Me?
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!”