Archive for the 'Mule City' Category

Man and ghost stared at each other.

April 13, 2010

Christine Zilka has kindly included me in a literary relay, where ten bloggers each write a 250-word post about a stranger coming into town, and must use the previous writer’s last line as the post’s first line. Because I’m first up and had nobody to steal a last/first line from, I stole the last line from a favorite novella: César Aira’s Ghosts.

The next person in the relay is Jamey Hatley.

*

Man and ghost stared at each other. They stood on the footpath leading to the crest of the mountain, their mutual home, though one lived on the east side of this crest and the other faced west, natural preferences for each, the one enjoying shimmering dawns and the other, velvet sunsets. For ten years, however, neither man nor ghost had encountered anything past his own shadow, the other’s existence having been mere rumor—and how unkind, both realized with regret, was unrelenting rumor, for a ghost, the man saw, was not a fire-breathing beast, and neither, conceded the ghost, was a man a thing of utter ugliness. In fact, one was indistinguishable from the other.

The man wiped a hand on his pants and held it out to the ghost. He had been swimming in the river below, he explained, taking a break from his farm work. The ghost looked down at his own hand, which was stained with poetry’s ink. He had once worked on a farm himself, long ago. Perhaps now was the time to share each other’s gifts. Who, he wondered, shall invite the other into the folds of his mountain, treating him no longer as stranger but, finally, as guest? For a moment, memories of life, rich with earthly scents, overwhelmed the ghost, and his eyes were blinded by the mountain’s sun pinned high above their heads. But when he could see again, really see, the man was gone. The river, he noted, had darkened.

*

[Other contenders for last/first lines, after the jump.]

Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »

The stranger (2)

January 31, 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. Though supplying a name didn’t remove the label of stranger, the old man’s—Zhen Cun—revealed certain intimacies to me, that he’d been born in the spring and hailed from a more moderate climate, perhaps Shanghai, and therefore was left-handed, wore fashionable spectacles while he read, and preferred gelatinous noodles over the thin rice noodles that was the pride of our area, likely he never set foot inside the restaurants clustered on Old Division Street, where bowls tilted forward and back between tables and mouths and soup spilled into laps, where talk was interrupted by spittle wads, toothpicks, empty contemplations of the teacup, and greetings between friends burst into unfailingly explicit digressions about the previous night’s sexual escapade or that morning’s strenuous bowel movement, a guttural world, in other words, of the familiar. No, Zhen Cun’s meals would contain respectful hesitations, lacquered spoons, and caged parakeets twittering in the corner of the restaurant’s most private dining room, which one would reach through a long, dark labyrinth of dimmed hallways that gave one the impression of traveling through the body of a magnificent beast, a dragon, say, in which case the restaurant would be called Golden Dragon and its chef’s special the Triple-Headed Dragon Delight, only instead of the room being located in the belly of the beast, it sat on top of the head, the eyes—grand windows containing the fire color of the room—opening out onto the river.

But that the old man was standing in the street crying like a child also told me that he was much older than I could ever imagine a man to be, though how old I couldn’t decide until I looked into his eyes, or rather until his eyes met mine and told me the rest of the story that his name was unable to reveal. He was staring at his hand, the curled fingers resembling larval segments, the wrist as slender as mine though spotted with rot, the forearm a dark, winter tree branch that extended toward me as though of its own accord, reluctantly, tremblingly, not meant to grab or to startle but to seek relief, or absolution.

3.

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

4.

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

The stranger (1)

January 30, 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, or you will suffer their stories, she said, but when I came across a crying old man one day in the road, I stopped to ask what was distressing him so that, in the attempt to right the wrong in the old man’s world, made little, I guessed, by his declining memory, his scuffling gait, the number of dumplings he could fit into his mouth reduced to two, I could discredit Mother’s warnings about strangers, or at least this warning, one of a handful she dispensed daily and without a break in her speech from other, more pedestrian matters, for instance her announcement for bedtime went something like “Keep your arms at your sides and your legs straight, or whoever’s looking in through the window will think you’re a cripple and then rob you the first chance he gets, good night.” I always thought that to speak in this manner signaled lunacy, and having learned early on at school that lunacy was inherited, I resisted any urge to spout such nonsense myself. This turned out to be easy enough, for when one’s mother was the most famous actress in Mule City, where acolytes, colleagues, and even rivals prayed to her image torn from magazines and taped to their walls, one didn’t have to say a word, or rather one didn’t have a word to say, for she hoarded them all in perpetual rehearsal. She became a jawline to me, a set of wrists and fingers, knees, a waist artfully bent, and slowed down only on three occasions—when she stood on a stage, when she slept, and when she was greeted by strangers.

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

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.

*

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 »

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.

*