Archive for August, 2009

Apparitions (3)

August 27, 2009

There are some, I am told, who never see the dead, though I am as yet unable to believe it. We go to sleep with them as with an ex-lover, for familiar, wordless embrace, and when we wake the parting is unhurried, a gradual readjustment towards morning. Myself, I admit that in my first days in the city I was no more attuned to them than the blind is to a mirror, yet over the course of several weeks I’ve come to absorb, like a mirror, without thought or comment, the weight of Mule’s departed.

Their habit of kneeling before me is an embarrassing display of prayer, or of supplication—I can’t tell the distinction between their offer of relief and the seeking of it, overwhelmed by the nauseating sensation of stepping into a void whenever my feet pass through their figures. They cup their hands to their mouths, a gesture made more curious for the workings of their throats as though they are chewing and swallowing air. Until this morning, I was not clear on why this gesture seemed so suited to them; when I came across an illustration of a band of Buddhist monks called the hui he shang in Professor Yu’s book of ancient folk tales, I was electrified. The hui he shang have the ability to subsist on nothing but air and water during times of distress. That the figures who accost me daily resemble these vigorous monks cannot be coincidence—the monks are literally the “gray monks”—and that I finally recognize them, that I’ve discovered the connection between themselves and me, is illuminating. It is a necessary goal, then, for them to seek out nourishment in the air. Indeed the air in Mule City has a thick, oppressive quality. We are a half mile from the river, and with the sediments being disturbed by preparations for the dam, with various mechanisms of cranes, shovels, and scaffolding clouding the horizon, my patients (as I now think of them) suffocate in this contaminated air. I see their suffering constantly. Here, they press hands to mouths not to eat the air but to keep from eating it, and because of this starvation, they are dying.

The saying goes, If not me, then somebody else. Our duties towards man and spirit must remain constant, our resolve, steadfast. Only our bodies are subject to change, from new skin to old, from a perspective of clarity to one of fog, only the corporeal embodiments with which these duties are performed can be altered—but when breath is no longer needed after our bodies break, what remains is the insubstantial essence of us who were mere things, and the essence, mutated into another form perhaps but no less sentient, needs looking after. If not me, then somebody else. My experiences from the past few weeks in this city, whose quiet yet energetic design once lured monks and monkeys alike to its riverbanks, has forced me to emend the saying: If not me, then surely me.

When I was a year old, my father pulled our family up the side of Golden-Haired Mountain, a region known for its mudslides that ran in yellow strands into the river, and at the peak, he sat us down in a gazebo and waited for rescue from the typhoon that was rounding out the southeast. We waited four days, during which the three children, hungry but not yet comprehending our fate, would suck rainwater from grass blades. We did not know that we were already dead, because the water sustained us, kept the weight of our bodies steady. It was the most believable of illusions. When the ground split open beneath us on the fifth day of the storm, my mother and my two brothers clung to one side of the divide, to the melting mud, while the man who’d led them there watched helplessly from the other side, clutching the third son, me, safe, alive, and alive for many more years afterward. The second life that he created in the unfamiliar landscape of Mule City had been a diminished one, made fussy and distracted by having to raise me. Having always sensed the depth of his self-lacerations, I never thought to ask him about his past, not even about the life he’d shared with my mother before I’d been born. But on the day he died, he finally relieved himself of guilt. We had an unusually frank discussion that morning—about our week on the mountain, about how many of the last pills to feed him, about my future after university. Today I think about this conversation every time I help my patients, every time one comes limping toward me with its hands cupped to its mouth or pressed together in prayer. Their first lives—and their second, their third, and so on—require firm guidance. To deny the dead, I repeat daily, is to deny life itself.

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Explanation here. And (1), then (2).

On “Apparitions”

August 12, 2009

I’ve started a little blog exercise: posting revisions of a piece of fiction that I recently started. I used to be a whiz at revision. Something got lost. I am relearning. Of course the whole enterprise will be interesting to nobody but myself. Apologies in advance. I will intersperse these posts with quotes from good, real writing, like Jonathan Tel’s The Beijing of Possibilities (run, don’t walk).

The thing being posted here is called “Apparitions” for now. I have two posts so far (here and here). The first line that starts the thing belongs to Lucas Green, who gave me permission to use it. I will remove it at the next round because I’ve grown much too attached to it—it’s his, not mine. Take a look at his own pieces (here and here) that flow quite beautifully from it. I didn’t fully read his first version until I’d finished my second “Apparitions” post, having only peeked at his before this, fingers covering most of the screen (I didn’t want to be overly influenced by somebody else’s sensitivity and sensibility), and was surprised to find mention of a father at the end of it. I wonder if all who take up this sentence will eventually be led to this figure. This, I think, would be most decent and lovely.

Since my experiment is about revision, I invite constructive comments from all three of my readers. Thank you for reading.

Apparitions (2)

August 10, 2009

There are some, I am told, who never see the dead, though I am as yet unable to believe it.* We go to sleep with them as with an ex-lover, for familiar, wordless embrace, and when we wake, understanding that another rendezvous will soon occur, the parting is unhurried, a gradual readjustment towards day. Myself, I admit that in my first hours in the city I was no more attuned to them than a mirror is to the blind, yet over the course of several weeks I came to absorb, like a mirror, without thought or comment, the weight of Mule’s departed. The saying goes, If not me, then somebody else. In my interactions with them in my work for Dr. Yu, I have emended the saying to something suited to my experiences: If not me, then surely me.

Once, I may have thought them a nuisance. Their habit of appearing at one’s feet like dogs is an embarrassing display of prayer and occurs during unexpected moments. To them this interaction is a form of affection, I think, while one experiences only the nauseating sensation of stepping into a void as one’s feet pass through their supplicating figures. Their insides, vacuumed of any organs by this stage, work towards an empty goal, but their hands are always pressing water to their mouths, their jaws working themselves as though water were to be chewed and swallowed. I’m not clear yet on why this nourishment is important to them, though yesterday, while watering Dr. Yu’s dying plants on his sill, I saw suddenly how water could be considered food even to those who are no longer alive. It is a nourishment that deserves some attention. My mother, a rice farmer from Sichuan Province, once told me a story about a neighbor who had pulled his family up the side of Golden-Haired Mountain, a region famous for its mudslides that ran in muddy yellow strands into the river; at the peak, he sat his family down and waited for the typhoon rounding out the southeast to reach them; when it did, after a period of three days during which it rained lightly and the children, not yet comprehending their fate, would suck water from grass blades, the ground on which they stood split open. The mother and the two sons clung to one side of the divide, to the melting mud, while the man who’d led them there watched helplessly from the other side, safe, alive, and alive for many more years afterward. Later, long after my own mother died of cancer and the fascination with the story of the mountain had left me, I found out more to the story: the father in the family was my father, and the new life he began as a diminished, unkempt figure in the wet yellow landscape of Mule City would be a lonely and self-lacerating one. My father had always been a silent figure to me; I saw then how his grimness had formed, necessarily, around a deep well of guilt. The morning he himself died, about a year after my mother, he was finally emptied of any trace of this guilt. We had a long discussion that morning—about his past, about how many of the last pills to feed him, about my future—and today I think about that conversation every time I help Dr. Yu’s patients, every time one comes limping toward me with its hands cupped to its mouth or pressed together in prayer. To deny the dead, I repeat daily, is to deny life itself.

Apparitions (1)

August 5, 2009

There are some, I am told, who never see the dead, though I am as yet unable to believe it.* We go to sleep with them as with an ex-lover, for familiar, wordless embrace, and when we wake, understanding that another rendezvous will soon take place, the parting is unhurried, a readjustment towards day. Myself, I admit that I am no more attuned to them than a mirror is to the blind, yet over the course of several weeks in this city, I have absorbed, like a mirror, without thought or comment, the weight of Mule’s departed.

*

Read the rest of this entry »

Sheet music

August 5, 2009

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Consequences VII

August 2, 2009

I offer the seventh post in an online game of Consequences (inspired by Hydragenic‘s wonderful experiment), wherein eleven writers each write a 250-word narrative around the theme of an abandoned landscape, and must start with the last line of the previous post. Our series was kicked off by Sam J. Miller, followed by Jade Park, Jane Voodikon, Lisa Silverman, Anna Shapiro, and Mark Krotov. The next writer is the indomitable Alexander Chee.

*

After all, she hadn’t signed up for solitude, had she—here the old poet abruptly shut his mouth, and the echo of his halted verse drifted down the river to where a group of monks, a moment ago lost in the scale of their temple, waited for him to resume, it was his poetry that delivered the shapes of their rooms into the rooms in their heads, for example when he praised the chrysanthemum flower they meditated on the east wing and when he addressed the river they meditated on the south gate, always did they patiently adjust to his moods, as now. Then the old poet raised his eyes to the moon, trying to recall a train of thought. His wife, the better poet, had lived with him on this river, and though calling to the monks had punctuated the hours of their days, husband and wife had been utterly alone, he drinking wine and fishing, she creating verse. Now, on the first anniversary of her death, he was reciting her line about the loud solitude of poetry, realizing, with her voice in his throat, that the river had never belonged to her at all—yes, there was the thought. He stood up in his boat to contemplate a sudden fold in the river. “Wife!” he cried. Upon this drunken word, his last as he fell in, the startled monks meditated, their worn hands clasped tight. The silence was full.

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