3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE
Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”
“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”
“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”
—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4
[after Cao Naiqian, author of
There’s Nothing I Can Do
When I Think of You Late at Night]
“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me.
She had moved us back to Mule City when her role on a television show ended after twenty years.
The job had ended because she quit.
She had been encouraged to give up the lurid costume production in favor of a contemporary drama, which would start filming over the summer. In the former, the story was steeped in the mythological history about a polyandrous empress; in the latter, a story about domestic affairs would have her weeping from one scene to the next and wed to only one man.
“I am not a weak woman,” she said into the camera.
In her last scene for the costume production, she had improvised this line. Her husbands in the show wept for real, and the camera continued rolling. In many scenes with these husbands, she had worn almost nothing, slips of silk covering her breasts and pelvis. The Radical Empress was the name of the show, and she had starred in it starting at the age of fourteen. When she became pregnant with me with only eight episodes aired, she was so loved by her fans that the writers used the pregnancy to their advantage: a child empress, with so many husbands, should indeed become pregnant by the age of fifteen. Who among these fans didn’t have a grandmother or great-grandmother who’d given birth to children at younger than fifteen?
Who among these fans hadn’t fucked like an empress at younger than fifteen?
The baby—me—appeared for only five episodes. Then I was kidnapped by a dastardly enemy. The real reason I had to leave the show was that I objected to being passed around among such scrawny pairs of arms, longing vociferously for Mother’s plump arms. Twenty years later, a young woman joined Mother in her final scene on the show. It was not me but somebody who was supposed to be me—the kidnapped baby returned to her home, to her mother’s bosom, to her throne.
We left for Mule City soon after, where she’d been born and where her father had promised her a bit of land. Two of the husbands from the show followed her there, and sat themselves on this bit of land until she let them in through the door. But she let in no others, especially if they were strangers.
In Shanghai, I hadn’t been allowed out the door without a chaperone, but here in Mule City Mother let me be. One day, I was walking along a road running parallel to the river when I tripped over myself and knocked my head on the ground. I lay still, panting. I felt my eyes close, yet I continued to see the shifting sky above me. Voices from the show, in all their operatic flourishes, clouded my ears, and then, quite clearly, came a memory of my conception.
“No!” Mother had said.
“No!” Mother had said.
I couldn’t have remembered this, but I did remember. And now that I did remember, I was unable to forget.
Mother was not a weak woman, it was true. Mother was not a weak woman, it was true.
“I have only two yuan on me,” I said to Zhen Cun. . . .
[Note after the jump.]