Archive for February, 2010

The stranger (4)

February 10, 2010

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

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. . . .

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .

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.

5.

“I have only two yuan on me,” I said to Zhen Cun[1]. . . .

_________________

[Note after the jump.]

Read the rest of this entry »

Dream

February 4, 2010

1.

On the morning of my friend’s wedding, it occurs to me to ask the groom, my friend, an ex, what time the ceremony will take place. Three o’clock, he says. Plenty of time, then, I think, to find an appropriate dress. He helpfully brings out dresses from his closet, but I reject them all, upset that they are just very long sweatshirts.

2.

Later, in the hallway of his apartment complex, I run into three old friends from high school: Milly lives with her husband on the second floor, Ning just moved in with her husband on the first floor, and Casey and her husband have been living on the first floor for a year. None of them knew of the others’ presence until I mention it. A moment before I awaken from the dream, I consider writing a story about this chance meeting of a group of childhood friends living in the same apartment complex, in which a comical, violent territorial war ensues.

3.

In the center of the apartment complex is a concrete courtyard. I was not drawn to this center during the dream, but now, awake, sobered from the effects of encountering these lost friends in one setting, I will my dream self to walk toward it. The apartments overlooking the courtyard are set apart by green rails. It is not a friendly environment, but neither is it totally unfriendly—let’s say indifferent, quiet, and cast in a curiously coppery-green industrial sheen. Yet the suggestion of thriving young families is strong.

4.

Some of this mood is drawn from Etsuko’s memories in A Pale View of Hills. I tried reading the novel in its entirety last night, its haunted, haunting women having raised the hairs on the back of my neck since the end of the first chapter—a spot-on spot, mind, for inserting that bit of surreal detail into an otherwise straightforward story—but I fell asleep at the proper hour of 2:00 a.m., when dreams, when the construction of one’s own life, are at their most creative and complete.

The stranger (3)

February 2, 2010

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

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. . . .

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun,[1] her voice startled as though she’d only just noted the loss.

“What does it look like?” I asked.

“Red, with a gold clasp and a short strap. I had once spilled some ink on it—unused to pens, my hand had waved the things around uncapped, I must have been about to write a letter, carrying so many pens at once, and then one of them which had been leaking for some time spilled ink all over the purse so that a blue stain spread throughout the leather like veins.”

“I’ve always disliked pens myself.”

“Oh, I don’t dislike them, I’m just ill acquainted with them. I do all my writing by pencil, the kind you have to sharpen, not the mechanical ones that click out a sliver of lead, no, I prefer sharpened pencils for the pause they provide me in the course of writing, that is once the point becomes blunt or in some cases breaks off, I have room to breathe once more, I mean there is really nothing quite like breathing in the fumes of a sharpened pencil to wake yourself up, to open up a line in what you’ve written to enhance the imagery further. A pen, on the other hand, offers no traction, literal or metaphorical, on the paper. I am a poet.”

“You work with words and paper, and need to discover the relationship between the two.”

“Why, yes. You see exactly how I mean. Now this purse, my neighbor had given it to me for my birthday last year, dear Mr. Shu Pao-ming, who never forgot the day, though I had long ago stopped anticipating it myself. A red purse! At my age—no. I tossed it aside, and didn’t think about it again until yesterday, when Mr. Shu died, was found dead, or had expired is how the police put it, in a very curious location in his apartment. Now if you were to ask me to guess where an expired body would be found in an apartment, I would guess, and I’ve watched enough soap operas to have an idea, the bedroom or the bathroom or the kitchen, even the balcony, or perhaps the roof, but in Mr. Shu’s case, he was a musician, you see, or used to be, he was found inside his cello case[2]. It wasn’t murder, mind, nobody forced him inside the case, nobody broke his body into bits and pieces to fit him in there. He had wedged himself inside all on his own. He was a little man, I mean he had been a little man, generous in voice and in heart but so very little in body, and every night he had curled up inside the cello case and gone right to sleep. It turned out that one night the lock on the case accidentally clicked into place, and he couldn’t let himself out. Now, Mr. Shu and I got along well enough—he was prone to giving me gifts, like a pet, and I was prone to accepting them, old as I am and surrounded by things that belonged in the past—but if I didn’t see him, I didn’t give him a thought. There were days, even weeks, when I wouldn’t encounter him, or hear one note out of that beautiful cello, and not once would I wonder about the absence or the silence, I was too busy with the absence or silence inside my words. Can you understand how that is?”

“I think so. I’m sorry about your neighbor.”

“This morning I took the purse from the closet and examined it a long time, and I can tell you now exactly where the the pen’s ink first hit, the direction of the braiding of the strap, the clasp’s weight, all without having to look at the thing, though really, now, I’d rather be looking at the thing. This man had lain dying in the apartment beside mine, separated from me by a mere wall that you could knock down with one punch, and I had sat at my desk, duped by strings of silent words into believing that I was a poet.”

She said nothing for some time. Her eyes were finally dry, and she massaged her hands slowly, rubbing Mr. Shu into her life. How she had lost her purse I was no longer curious about, but I was oddly moved instead by the fate of Mr. Shu. If she was now letting him in, embracing his gifts as she should have, or believed she should have, when he’d been alive, then I felt like letting him in as well.[3]

4.

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .

__________________

[Notes after the jump.]

Read the rest of this entry »