Debbie Lim was born in Sydney. Her poetry chapbook Beastly Eye was published by Vagabond Press (2012) Her poems have been widely anthologised, including regularly appearing in the Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc.). She was commended in the UK National Poetry Competition in 2013. In 2016 she moved with her family to southern Germany for 2 years where she started to translate from German into English.
The Blind Boy of Hameln
It’s been quiet since you left, but sometimes
it comes back: that fangled tune you played.
I remember how on a slow June day it crept
between church bells, beneath sunlight,
into the lonely chapel of my ear.
I don’t recall your jigsaw look (how could I?)
but felt the pleasurable dirt give way
to stones beneath my feet. Then the wind
whittled up and tossed away your song.
As usual, I fell back with the crows
at the edge of town. But if I had eyes to hear
I would have followed your stippled notes –
flowing and bidden (like a river, rats or children)
to that place erosion goes.
What it means to sleep
Every night this little death into which
we fall gladly, palms soft and open,
our bodies rolling into the abyss.
Later we might rise above the roofs,
hear the cold crowns of trees breathing,
and hover a while in the chill.
Some nights we barely make it to the ceiling;
gaze down on ourselves as warm artefact,
two victims of Pompeii. But mostly we hope
to lie undisturbed, fully gone from this world
till next morning, when we wake to find
our toenails grown long, our faces suddenly old.
Ailsa Liu is an artist working across electronic music, performance, installation, fiction and poetry. Her work can be found in UNSWeetened and Westside Jr. She writes strangely humorous uncomfortable stories, on death and semi-autobiographical experiences, of liminal spaces and their feelings of loneliness and anticipation and anxiety as generative spaces. She is a member of Finishing School and All Girl Electronic. She is currently studying Fine Arts/ Arts at UNSW.
Rapid fire intonation, wishes build to an incessant knock.
Trace symbolic slashes with the knife over
offerings of gluten cake and roast pork.
Melted red wax drips down candles, hardens on white sheets.
She shapes words with her lips and tongue so that the incense might linger a while longer.
There’s always one in the family that keeps to the way.
They don’t accept my whys,
Sidestep with shrugs.
Too shameful to have forgot.
Chatter instead about miles run
and stock market falls.
She tells you,
speaks to you, your chronology so that you can trace yourself back.
Your aunt in eighties fashion denim vests, only remembers that you tried to bite her.
Second aunt, you’ve accidentally written out of history.
She’s here speaking to you, wearing a searching hurt.
You’re not sure how these pieces fit together
Sharp pops, choking smoke.
There lie the men, seven generations removed from you.
Only smirks at the silence for the absent women–at least there’s one or two.
They lie on rented land,
the greenery fence-posted by concrete,
two stairways from the traffic.
Baby roasted pork, skull split
bound with red string woven tightly,
cherries for eyes, crisp to the crackling.
We carry away the offerings in our bellies.
I, point my camera, videoing away from the horseshoe grave mounds
as I direct myself away from red papered explosions.
The corners of the screen warps as if I were walking drunk.
I won’t be able to find my way back.
For tepid colas fizzled flat
the children carried a tree-formed dragon to each entryway.
Hands sticky with fresh sap,
animate the leaping head.
Blessings punctuated with firecrackers,
money offerings held in a jaw of green grasses.
At rest, my cousin proclaimed languorously,
wiping sweat with slender fingers.
Ten dollars for a pleasant evening stroll.
What a steal.
We pitched that tree-formed dragon to a fiery death,
extinguished in the river.
Dad used to swim there, catch shellfish between his toes.
Now ringed by concreted, raindrops fall sideways
to disturb the surface of green scum.
What Kate misses the most these days is the ‘vintage inspired’ smock dress she bought from ASOS. It had the appearance of being made up of several different cuts of material, like a patchwork, but it was actually all just one piece of fabric, a simulated bricolage of floral prints in pink, indigo, blue – but predominantly red, so she wore it to the Lunar New Year gathering the last time she went home. The waistline sat a bit higher than in a regular dress – just below her bust – which had a welcome obfuscating effect on the rest of her body, transforming the slack geography of her torso into a floaty hypothetical world, inscrutable to tactless relatives. She could wear the dress with black tights in cold weather, with Doc Martens, with flats, with high heels; its lightness was ideal for both the dry heat of Australia and the humidity of Singapore. And: it had pockets.
Sometimes, even now, she reaches into her wardrobe to find it – perhaps, all this time, it was just a prank between the wardrobe and the washing machine – and she won’t find it, won’t find it in her jungle of a clothes rack either, or in the laundry hamper, and she’ll feel the tight hand of grief, followed by a swipe of admonishment. They’re just clothes.
It happened in the year that Kate turned thirty. She had just returned from her second ever Booty Burn class, glazed with sweat and embarrassment. When she peeled off her crop top and workout pants she discovered that the elastic had scored red lines into her skin, as if she were an animal in a butcher’s diagram. After taking a shower and wriggling into sweatpants and t-shirt, she bundled up the crop top and workout pants together with the rest of the clothes in the laundry hamper (separating the ‘vintage inspired’ smock dress into its own mesh bag), piled everything into the washing machine, and clicked the dial to a gentle warm cycle.
It’s not that the women at the Booty Burn class were mean or snobby – no, nothing like that. It’s not that they were intimidating – although, Kate was intimidated: by thighs that were tauter and longer than hers, neatly parcelled abdomens, shapely curled brackets of collarbones. And sitting there on the polished studio floor before class began, trying to tell herself that these women weren’t trying to be thin and beautiful at her, she realised that the itching nervous silence wasn’t just emanating from her. During the class, the women lunged, flexed, curled, stretched – gazes fixed and earnest – balanced on private cliffs of worry, projected back to them in the mirrored studio wall.
And it’s not like Vanessa, the Booty Burn instructor, was mean or snobby either. She was younger than most of the women in the class, probably only a few years out of high school. She looked the part of a fitness instructor, with her turquoise workout pants and white singlet knotted at the midriff, but her voice was light, rising above the frantic fitness music not with volume but more in the way of the glassy notes of a harp. She kept saying things like honour your body, and breathe through it, and if it’s available to you, take it to a jump.
This last phrase Kate found interesting. If it’s available to you, peel your heels off the floor. If it’s available to you, extend your legs to a full plank. If this is not available to you today, come down to your forearms or knees. She wondered if she could begin to think of her daily efforts as dependent on the shifting availabilities of her body. She massaged the red lines intersecting her torso and tried to love and understand and honour her body into something less conspicuous, something to carry without apology.
She was still pondering this idea when the washing machine carolled its end-of-cycle song. She slid the laundry basket from the shelf, unfolded its legs, set it down beside the machine. The countdown display was blinking 00.00. She lifted the lid.
Would she have heard it, if she’d listened closely?
Perhaps, as it accelerated towards the final spin, the machine groaned with less effort than usual; perhaps, the timbre of its hum was mischievously lighter. Perhaps, as the last pirouettes forfeited momentum, a careful listener would have noticed the absence of damp clothes slapping against the drum.
Or perhaps, the crucial moment occurred at some other time, in-between the washing machine’s bright waking-up notes and the inhale of the lifted lid. Maybe as water filled the chamber, maybe as the agitator made its first twists, maybe as the suds were purged before the rinse cycle. Maybe it happened gradually – first one sock, then a pair of briefs, then a singlet, then a blouse. Pantyhose slurped up like a noodle, one leg at a time; the last percussive grasp of a zipper, a button, the Working With Children ID badge she neglected to unfasten from her work shirt.
Or perhaps there was no way of knowing, no way of catching on before it was too late. Perhaps it was a Schrödinger-esque paradox: the clothes were simultaneously swirling like fish in the gut of the machine, and they were swirling somewhere else.
It was unclear who should have been in charge of investigating the anomaly. At first, people were phoning the police, suspecting theft or trickery. Manufacturers’ helplines swelled with calls. Newsfeeds rippled with perplexed status updates, snapshots of washing machines standing empty and gapemouthed. And then – once the trend became clear – videos captured on mobile phones.
It was always the case, even with the frontloaders, that you could never discern the exact moment when the clothes disappeared.
By the time the Physics department of the University of Sydney became the official hub of investigative efforts, a whole day had elapsed. No one could replicate the results of the previous day. Clothes went in, clothes came out. No matter the variation: warm or cold water, spin or no spin, Whirlpool, LG, Fisher & Paykel. The anomaly was limited to that single day, in this single country. The opportunity to study the anomaly was gone.
Her tartan shawl. Her Totoro socks.
Four pairs of her favourite underwear, a discontinued boyleg style from Target, with the lace waistbands that didn’t pinch the skin around her stomach and hips.
A green tunic top that flared slightly into a handkerchief hemline, long enough to cover her bottom.
A flesh-coloured bra with cups that were just the right shape and height that they could nestle invisibly underneath a spaghetti-strap top.
A pair of jeggings that she acquired before jeggings became popular – more like denim tights – that forewent the insulting fake pockets and were thick enough to hide underwear seams.
A black office skirt. A grey t-shirt.
A hoodie with thumbholes in the sleeves.
A dress printed with bees.
Denim shorts made soft by years of wear.
A week after the anomaly she was back at Booty Burn class, constantly pulling down on her tank top in case her panty lines were showing (another thing she didn’t have to worry about with those boyleg briefs surrendered to the anomaly).
Before the class started, there was some chatter amongst the women about their missing laundry. Miranda had lost all of her good bed linen. Amy, her most comfortable pair of maternity trousers. The navy blue formal shirt with square gold buttons that Karen bought for her husband. Glenda’s daughter’s favourite Star Wars pyjamas. At Heidi’s children’s school, the principal had relaxed the dress rules for students on account of all the school uniforms that vanished in the wash. ‘It’s the same at my kids’ school,’ said Una, and then burst into tears, because, ‘It’ll cost so much to replace those uniforms. Even the secondhand ones aren’t cheap. And they just grow out of them. They just grow out of them.’ Francine, luckily, did her washing on a weekday, but, ‘My boyfriend couldn’t resist giving it a go, and now he has to replace all his jocks.’
Kate listened, but could not bring herself to join in. It was somehow not available to her, to speak, standing there in her hurriedly purchased workout pants, stiff and new. Though she was sure these women would understand – they would – the strange heartbreak of it all.
The day after the anomaly, her mother had called from Singapore. ‘Katie, did you read the email I sent you? Don’t wash your clothes, okay? Did you read the email?’
Yes, she did, but it was too late – and besides, the anomaly was over. People were doing their laundry just fine now.
‘Okay, but be careful! Don’t wash anything important. Try putting a few things first, like towels, but not your good ones, just one or two things at a time like that, okay? Do you need me to send clothes? If you want, I send clothes? Do you have enough panties? Don’t buy, I can send things.’
She told her mother that the clothes she missed the most were irreplaceable. Like the dress she wore at Lunar New Year, remember.
‘Ah, don’t worry – you’ll find other dresses.’
At work, Kate’s breath would stall in her throat if she saw a child scrunch away their jacket or lunchbox or favourite stuffed toy into their backpack. Something about the darkness of the backpack’s depths, the finality of the zipper’s joined teeth. As if one could now never be sure whether a vessel can be trusted to guard the things that it holds.
‘Bellybutton to spine,’ Vanessa reminded the class. ‘Work from your core.’
There were theories, of course. A dirty alliance between whitegoods manufacturers and the fashion industry. A bizarre punishment meted out by the Water Corporation to people who activated their sprinklers on the wrong days. A stunt engineered by Facebook, maybe even by Mark Zuckerberg himself.
The academics tasked with the investigation examined all the available footage, made house visits, placed pushpins on maps. But what was the true scope of data that they were meant to collect? What else could possibly be relevant? Should they have looked at the position of the moon on the date of the anomaly, or the UV index? Wind conditions? Multiply the date by pi? Should they have hunted for a butterfly on the exact opposite side of the globe, reprogramming the universe with the binary beats of its wings?
The Prime Minister made an awkward lunge for relatability – the day of the anomaly was laundry day in his household, too – but all he got for his trouble was public interest in who does the laundry at The Lodge, and how did the PM divide household chores before he moved into The Lodge, and has the PM ever done a load of laundry himself?
Certain corners of the internet nurtured a theory that it was all a feminist conspiracy, some petulant and humiliating revenge against hardworking husbands and fathers. Their workshirts and footy jerseys were hostages to an organised temper tantrum, and they’ll turn up in time once the wives and girlfriends unknot their knickers and accept that this is just the way things are, not being sexist or anything, but women are just better at stuff like this; ’course, bit of a mixed message, the women hiding their own clothes too, but maybe it’s a ploy to update their wardrobes, you know how they are.
You’ll find other dresses. But what Kate’s mother doesn’t appreciate is that Kate’s wardrobe is full of other dresses – dresses that Kate has grown out of but can’t let go of, dresses that changed size or shape in the wash, dresses worn only once. Dresses with elastic waists that constantly wriggle up underneath her breasts, dresses with straps that fall off her shoulders, dresses that exact an overbearing grip on her upper arms. Dresses with gaping V-necks, dresses rendered tacky from pilling, dresses with vexed button holes. Dresses that haven’t kept their promises. Dresses that, like ex-lovers, she feels foolish for ever feeling worthy of.
Is it a memory, or a nightmare? Kate, eight years old, walking home from school, to the block of HDB flats where her family lived. Someone’s bamboo washing pole had dislodged from the socket; there were clothes flattened on the footpath, as if a whole family had just melted there. ‘Not ours, please not ours,’ Kate murmured, getting closer and closer, heart sinking with each garment she recognised – her mother’s oversized Garfield sleep tee, her father’s polo shirt with the tiny palm tree print, Kate’s orange corduroy pinafore. There were two uncles playing chess on the void deck, and plenty more kids arriving home from school, so she tried to appear nonchalant as she approached the fallen pole, coming to kneel before the crumpled clothes. The clothes were dry on their exposed faces but still damp in the creases. Her mind bloomed with What Ifs:
What if the clothes have been lying here all day?
What if the pole hit someone on the way down?
What if it made a loud noise when it landed?
What if everyone came out to look at it? The grandma on the fourth floor who tended sagging pot plants? The bristly uncle who always scolded children for running? The slick-bunned businesswoman whose high-heel clip echoed through the complex as she took the elevator to level three and walked up the stairwell to level four? The twin boys who lived directly above Kate’s home who were always screaming?
What if they gathered around the fallen pole? Sifted through the clothes like they were suspiciously low-priced goods in a discount bin, picking up this garment and that garment between pinched fingers? Or what if they just walked around it, tsk-tsk-ing under their breaths? Or maybe they approached it as Kate did – not mine, please not mine – and, doused with relief at the sight of an unfamiliar shirt, a dress of the wrong size, continued briskly on their way?
Kate bundled up all the clothes and smuggled them back to the apartment. She left the pole for her father to fetch later. And she doesn’t remember ever wearing the orange pinafore after that.
It was common, following the anomaly, for people to replace their toploaders with frontloaders, just for that extra imagined security of having a window to one’s laundry. Large cardboard boxes began to appear at the childcare centre, donated by parents, and Kate and her co-workers would help the children repurpose the boxes into trucks and forts and spaceships. One child insisted that her cardboard box be turned into a washing machine.
‘Are you sure?’ Kate asked the child. ‘This box can be anything, you know. It can be a ship. A robot. A castle.’
‘Definitely a washing machine.’ The child, Sasha, gave a firm nod.
So Kate used a Stanley knife to cut a round hole in the box, and another circle around that to create a door that could pop outwards, and a smaller flap in the top corner for the powder dispenser. She attached milk bottle lids with split pins to form the dials. Sasha drew on a digital display with a felt-tip marker, and also an energy rating of five stars.
‘Shall we test it out? Should we wash some clothes?’ Kate asked once Sasha announced that it was finished.
‘I want to be clothes,’ Sasha said.
So Kate opened the door and Sasha climbed in. She pivoted around so that she was looking at Kate through the window, squatting on her haunches. Kate closed the door and poised her hand over the dials. ‘Do you want a warm wash or a cold wash?’
‘Delicate or heavy duty?’
‘Okay, I’m pressing the start button,’ Kate said. ‘What sound does a washing machine make when it’s filling up with water?’
‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,’ went Sasha. ‘Shhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh.’
In her own time, Sasha morphed the sound into a whom-whom-whom-whom-whom–whom-whom and shuffled around so she was side-on to the window. She placed her palms on the box floor and dipped her head and rolled over in a tight somersault, over and over again, an ecstatic blur of hair and overalls and limbs.
Over the hour of playtime, other children took turns inside Sasha’s machine. They’d climb in one, two, even three at a time, tumbling over and around each other to the hum of their kaleidoscopic onomatopoeia. The bottlecap dials began to control other things, like speed or noise or gravity or smell. Kate let herself recede into the background of their play. She watched the washing machine become another thing, and another thing, and another thing, the children’s imaginations as agile as their bodies. A washing machine can be a ticket booth. A time travel machine. An aeroplane.
A hovercraft. A bank vault.
An aquarium. An escape pod.
A doomsday weapon.
A teleportation device.
Today is washing day. Today is the fiftieth washing day since the anomaly. Kate opens the cane lid of the laundry hamper. She hooks the clasps of her bras and tucks them into a mesh bag. She checks her pockets for tissues. She turns her printed shirts inside-out. She un-concertinas her socks. She sprays the armpits of her work shirts with stain remover. She closes the lid. Wakes up the machine. Twists the dial to a gentle wash.
The countdown displays 0.51.
Entreats her approval with a steady blink.
What if, on this fiftieth time, she were to climb into the washing machine? Inhale bellybutton to spine, dip one leg first and then the other, wrap her torso around the agitator, reach up to jostle the lid until it tips shut? What if, today, it is finally available to her to do so – to make herself into the necessary shape, to be the perfect fit?
But what Kate does, instead, is push the start button. She takes the laundry basket from the shelf and hugs it to her hip. The washing machine hisses, accumulating water, seeming to grow with intensity, resolution, like an aeroplane preparing to ascend.
One minute drops from the countdown, and then another, and then another.
Kate grips the basket, and cannot turn away.
Brian Castro is the author of eleven novels, a volume of essays and a poetic cookbook. His novels include the multi award-winning Double-Wolf and Shanghai Dancing. He was the 2014 winner of the Patrick White Award for Literature and the 2018 Mascara Avant-Garde Award for fiction.
So I shall begin in pencil, where everything can be erased and the handwriting improved with the body’s shaping, so that lightness, craft and humble shavings should not last beyond the moment of creation, the smell of wood, some graphite, scenting the lone forests of perennial disappearance, the forever of lost time.
Henry David Thoreau: “I am a pencil.”
Janna Malamud Smith: “My Father Is A Book.”
Nadine Gordimer: “A serious person should try to write posthumously.”
My father was a tension highball – bourbon and temper – a genius for striving – never giving up – though all of giving up was necessary for me, giving up on marriages, futures, how old am I! Crushed by appearance. But let the real seduce the real – those beautiful women of the imagination and their first deaths, when I got it all wrong emotionally, not hearing the silence of the icebergs and their subliminal creaking. I found out pretty quickly that there was no woman for all seasons.
But hey, I understand cool. Phlegmatic is my humour. Epistolary my manner. Do you read me? Probably not, these shuddering wings of butterflies leaving only powder on the page which one blows as drying pounce over ink, but there is nothing afterwards, as though I am being dreamt.
I would like to slip into reading again like an old familiar slipper after all these years at the factory in Hobbesian boots, one leg in fear, the other in contract. But how long will it last? How long before the scribbling itch returns and speeds past, overtaking the slow train of thought only to come to grief at the level-crossing?
When he thinks of death he is overcome by an inconsolable loneliness. Irreversible oblivion is relieved by living expression, which is fake, as fatuous as saying: “Tomorrow I died.”
Such irrational tenses are nevertheless possible and not only in language. The future is already done if you know how to practise this solitary exercise.
Sitting up late Sunday night:
How I love its beauty and revolving charms!
Each loaded chamber a lessening option.
Meditate on its weight, the heft of its cross-hatched handle,
smell of fine oil.
Well, no one writes to the colonel of desire.
I guess if there’s a war on, you don’t feel lonely.
In a recurring dream I forget that I am on my own and then I wake and am on my own and what a reprieve!
Geoffrey Blainey said we had to limit Asian immigration because if you walk down the main street of Cabramatta they are all spitting.
On more than a dozen occasions, in outer-suburban railway stations, blond or shaven-headed young men hawk and spit very close to me until I am of no doubt they mean to spit at me. I presume someone spits for someone to watch the spitting. Perhaps it is a sign of solidarity. An epidemiology of semiology. But it is not a football field where everyone spits together out of physical effort. Politics and sport do not mix. Some senators, all of whom can’t play football, should turn themselves black by injecting melanotan. Then they would know where they really stand when someone spits on them.
Apophlegm: Choked with the flegma and humour of his sins he shouted: “Apathy forthwith!” to relieve his chill Blaineys.
I was given a Japanese calligraphy chest, circa mid-nineteenth century, probably carried on and off American ships led by Commodore Perry in 1853. Someone had carved an anchor on its side. Such barbed weights must have been intriguing, quite like briefcases.
It is a dark wooden chest no larger than a US Army ordnance grenade box.
But what smells it harbours!
Old lives, multiple secrets, aged coffin-wood.
In the top section there is a secret compartment in which you can lift out a tray from the whole.
Beneath is not another chamber but a very shallow section, only deep enough for secreting a special letter from an envoy or a lover. A fragrant missive perhaps, hidden from prying eyes but which can only be identified by scent. Or maybe poison, if you lick the envelope.
There are always these chambers of the heart made shallow by time, undiscoverable for their deep meaning. No longer secret, unsophisticated in the technological age, they become the logic of memory in its reinvestment of story.
But how frivolous are books without the engagement of the writer in total desperation?
One needs to put oneself on the line; go out and get hurt; lose one’s lover and all one’s money. Then tell me you’re trying to write.
Nous travaillons à la recherche de la réalité plutôt que de chercher la sagesse.
La réalité est un but idiot. Elle s’arrête tout court. Éphémère, elle n’est qu’une illusion de la vérité, c’est à dire, la mort.
Unknown: “She who thinks like a cryptic crossword is the lover of my dreams.”
One has to go figure.
Grace Yee was born in Hong Kong and grew up in New Zealand and Australia. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in various journals, including Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Heat, Going Down Swinging and Hecate. She lives in Melbourne, where she teaches creative writing at universities.
the mission: by miss w, fourth generation chinese new zealander
each day it began with the morning poo
baba’s coffee steaming kitchen tiles
greased with the splatter of wok-fried food
baby sister dribbling marmite in her highchair
while burning toast smoked the kitchen sepia
baba would hand out the cadbury’s
after we’d tied our tattered shoes
and slid into the backseat of the rusty fusty toyota
by the time we got to school our eyes were wide as walnuts
stay out of the sun our wan-faced mother would warn
but I knew I had to be brown
it was the colour of everyone-and-everything-in-the-world-that-wasn’t-white
as pretty as miss hong kong
in summer my mother stomped around the house
in bare feet. she didn’t pad, she stomped.
she stomped because she hated the heat, the house
and raising children in the heat in the house.
she stomped because god had given her a gambling man
and a job frying fish six days a week.
at night when all was done for the day, my mother would sit
on our second-hand hemp sofa, tuck her feet sideways
like a mermaid and watch television.
she liked selwyn toogood’s money or the bag
because she wanted to win the sewing machine, and she loved
the annual miss universe pageant because she wanted to win
that too. she would ask my ogling dad if he thought she
was as pretty as miss hong kong.
I would be sprawled on the floor with a book
not far below her feet. my mother’s feet were the colour of cooked chicken
(though bonier) and the heels were cracked dry and black.
she never had the urge to moisturise
or to do that thing where you slough off the dead skin:
I yearned to pull at the crusty bits myself,
sure that if I could yank the skin off
I would find my real mother underneath.
but we were forbidden to touch any part of her body.
(my little brother stroked a toe one day, and for his trouble
received a kick and a blood nose).
when my mother dressed up to go out
she would spend hours setting her hair and powdering her face
and she’d put her feet in pretty sandals. that her crusty black heels
were on show didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.
I think they were her parting shot,
a way of saying as she left a place: ‘yes, I do look nice, don’t I?
but look how hard I have to work for it’
Dorothy Tse is the author of four short story collections in Chinese, including So Black and A Dictionary of Two Cities. Her collection, Snow and Shadow, translated by Nicky Harman, was long-listed for The University of Rochester’s 2015 Best Translated Book Award. A recipient of the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature and Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award, Tse is a co-founder of the Hong Kong literary magazine Fleurs de lettres. She currently teaches literature and writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.
translated by Natascha Bruce
By the time the men arrived, the sky was a swathe of bruise-dark purple, a red and blue concoction that seeped through the air like melting stage make-up. I leaned from a second-floor window and spied on them as they swaggered up the main street. They wore baggy, factory-issue windbreakers that puffed in the wind, like balloons ready to take flight. But when they reached the front door, their trapped shadows leaked away, leaving them more like deflated dolls.
They did not remove their shoes, which were caked in dust and mud. Instead, they marched straight inside, treading all over my wife’s well-swept floor and throwing themselves onto the sofa, and the chairs that circled the dining table (and, in one case, onto Lily’s wooden rocking horse), asking what I had to eat. I fetched a pear tart from the kitchen and, as I sliced through it with a wheel cutter, made sure to turn and watch them. Just as expected, they were immersed in their own gloomy worlds and failed to notice my wife’s masterpiece. I couldn’t help feeling sad for her, and her meticulous efforts; of course such a refined gesture was wasted, with guests as boorish as these.
My wife had made the tart the night before, kneading flour and water into a soft skin and pressing it into a circle, then laying on slices of pear in a spiral, working out from the centre. When she put it in the oven to cook, the crust rippled like waves and the pears glistened like molten gold.
‘There aren’t many moments in life as moving as this,’ I said to her, watching the transformation through the oven door. She was standing beside me and giggled behind her hand, elbowing me in the arm as though I’d made a joke.
The men devoured the tart in an instant, scraping down to the bottom of the dish and coming face-to-face with my pathetic reflection in its stainless-steel surface. I thought back to the last time my wife made one, and felt its lingering sweetness welling in my throat. She and Lily would probably be on the train by now, far outside the city. Now only the men were in the flat, with their chewing and belching, their periodic hearty slaps at something or the other, and their constantly jiggling legs. I moved to a far corner of the living room to escape them, sitting down on a low stool near the entrance to the kitchen.
I’d never been fond of these manly get-togethers. Inviting them over had been my wife’s idea. A few days holiday were coming up, and she’d put a hand over mine and asked about my plans. I had the idea of building a model castle with Lily (I’d bought a set and hidden it away under the bed). There was also a strip light in the kitchen that hung down at one end, and it was high time I fixed it. But my wife didn’t seem to be paying attention – she went to stretch out on the sofa, closed her eyes, and let out a soft, contented sigh.
‘The thing is, I’ve bought train tickets. I’ve decided to take Lily away for a couple of days, to a faraway guesthouse, and let you have a bit of freedom. Why don’t you invite your friends round?’
And, of course, those ‘friends’ she mentioned were the men I worked with in the furniture factory, fixing and inlaying wood. I didn’t have anybody else.
Several years before, in order to live with my wife in the city centre, I’d had to leave the little flat that I shared with my parents in District M, where we relied on one another for everything. At the time, Lily was still inside what I used to think of as my wife’s black aquarium. I would spread my fingers across her rounded belly, and feel the faint, rippling motions of a lonely aquatic creature. Perhaps another description could have been a train without a view? When I left, watching from the train as the icy night swallowed row upon row of squeezed-together houses, I suddenly realised that I didn’t recognise a single person in the fluorescent-lit carriage. My wife and I had known each other less than six months; she was fast asleep against the darkened window-glass, and her illuminated face took on the contours of a stranger, shaking with the rhythm of the train. I placed my hand on the high swell of her stomach and tried to imagine the child’s face, but Lily didn’t have a face yet, or a name. On public transport, nothing is more permitted than feeling like a stranger. I thought I’d miss the familiar people from back home, but the train entered a tunnel and my parents’ voices were crushed by the roar of the engine. Even I changed, turning into the flickers of light and shadow projected into the carriage from outside.
Starting a new life was easier than I imagined. I brought only one suitcase and moved into the flat where my wife had been living all along. Everything was already there. Light fixtures with cloth umbrella shades hung from the ceiling, casting a golden glow over the ripe peaches on the dining table. She had crocheted antimacassars, which extended like cobwebs along the length of her sofa, and there was a thriving tropical plant, grown to the same height as me. A coat pattern she was making spread across the work table in the living room (she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, but had been drawing up patterns for other designers ever since art school). Pulling back the sunflower-print shower curtain and soaking in the tiny bathtub, I had the feeling that I’d become another part of the house. In her orderly space, I had come alive.
But after moving into my new home, I was much farther from the furniture factory, which was on the outskirts of District M. To get to work on time, I had to wake up at the crack of dawn, when even the dust motes were still asleep, and join the flow of commuters feeding into the sea of drab city faces. And once I became a regular passenger, there ceased to be anything charming about trains. In those years, the crush of passengers was rife with resentments, especially between locals and the many others who came from elsewhere. A good number of times, a muttered comment sparked an on-board fist fight. Nothing ever went quite so far as the poison gas attacks reported in other cities, but suspected bombs turned up at the station on more than one occasion. Eventually, they were all dismissed as pranks, but there were always a couple of skulls or shoulders trampled in the preceding panic.
On days off, I chose to stay at home as much as possible. I read, or fixed furniture, or simply stayed in bed with my wife until Lily pushed through our door, clutching her book of fairytales. She’d climb up and burrow her way in between our lazy bodies, demanding that we go through those crazy stories yet again: a mother who sold her own child to support her desperate craving for cabbage; a daughter who disguised herself in animal skins to escape the lascivious affections of her father; a blue-bearded monster who killed his wives and kept the corpses locked in a secret room.
Once in a while, I’d go with my wife to meet her friends and, to my surprise, did not dislike these gatherings. My wife refused to believe that I’d never really socialised before, because her friends always showered me with praise for my impeccable manners. She didn’t know it was precisely because I had no history in those situations – I didn’t have to act like ‘myself’, so I simply played the role of her husband.
My wife didn’t have the kind of girlfriends who were always heading out to the beauty salon or comparing latest shoe styles, but all sorts of people seemed to feel especially drawn to her. The building’s cleaning lady, for example, who was always taking her aside to share pieces of neighbourhood gossip. Or the man who came to fix the water pipes, who could recognise her from miles away and would wave enthusiastic greetings, even though he’d only been around once in months. Or the solitary old lady who used to sit out on the main street in her wheelchair, taking in the sun, still as a statue; at the sight of my wife, her head would dip and her fingers would suddenly spring to life, rapidly wheeling the chair towards her. My wife never told me what she heard, when she stooped down and pressed her ear to the old lady’s mouth. She’d just smile, firmly gripping the Chinese pear the lady had pressed into her hands. In the evening, once we were home, she’d slide its sweet, juicy flesh into my mouth like a secret, one slice at a time.
As for me, standing behind my wife, all I wanted was to make my presence as unobtrusive as a shadow. With a smile fixed to my face, I carefully remembered the names of all her friends, spoke very little, nodded at the appropriate moments and, every so often, made sure to place morsels of food in her bowl. In this way, it was easy enough to win everyone’s affection.
‘How come you don’t have friends of your own?’ my wife would ask me, and I never had an answer. I had my wife – and later, Lily – and because of my wife I had all her friends, in a way, and this was enough for me. But when she asked the question, my contentment made me doubly ashamed. I didn’t mind not having a social circle of my own. Wasn’t it just further proof that my reclusive character was unsuited for mainstream society? Before my marriage, in an attempt to keep up ‘appropriate’ levels of interaction, I sometimes dragged myself along to the staff socials organised by the factory, or joined my parents on low-cost outings with the local community centre. Afterwards, I was always exhausted, filled with shame and frustration at the thought of my chameleon-like facial expressions, and all the things I’d said but not meant. At the same time, I found it reassuring to have made the effort, as though I’d fulfilled a duty to act like a human being. Once I was married, I attached myself to the goodwill around my wife, like a cold shadow hitched to a warm human body, and found myself winning the approval of others without any struggle at all.
The men all lived near the factory, and to reach the city centre they had to endure the torture of the train ride. I’ve already explained what it was like – they liked to stress that, were it not for our great friendship, they would never put themselves through such torment on a day off. But I didn’t believe they would ever have let their dislike for the journey stand in their way. What they declared to be our ‘friendship’ could have been the reason, but there were other possible factors: the exciting buzz of the city, or the table laden with food that my wife prepared for every gathering, accompanied by an endless stream of beer. Perhaps even more to the point, they had bellies chock-full of complaints, and they needed to get far enough away from their own homes to vent in peace.
In the furniture factory, I never went near these men. I worked silently and alone, by a window with a view onto a line of cotton trees. If you walked deeper into the factory, passing through the angry sound of hammers banging against wood and steel, you’d see the irate, exhausted eyes of the men, turned a dull grey by the swirling sawdust. But now, enthusiastically recounting their misfortunes from the comforts of my home, their eyes emitted vivid beams of light. Sometimes, their faces would take on the expressions of dictators, lining up their personal tragedies like obedient citizens. Naturally, they would conclude that their wives were the eyes of every storm, or else their wives’ parents, or those foreigners who kept coming in to find work, or the tropical climate, or the pollen that filled the streets in springtime. If it hadn’t been for them, the men would have been bolder, and lived entirely different lives.
Listening to their endless, meandering talk, it was hard not to let my mind wander. I’d slip away down a little forked alley, walking further and further along, losing myself in my thoughts. In this sense, I had to be thankful for their boorish, oblivious natures, because it meant they were unlikely to notice that my attention was elsewhere. I suspected that even they ended up lost in their own chatter; lost in forests they had planted themselves. Then there’d be a few words that struck them like sharp stones, shocking them back to consciousness. Their faces flushed and their ears went hot, and they worked themselves into such aggressive, emotional states that I felt like a wild animal tamer, with a duty to calm them down. I’d keep their drinks topped up and bring more food from the kitchen.
On this occasion, I brought out the last of the comfort food: the chicken my wife had roasted the previous night. Such a beautiful bird, wings clamped tightly against its glistening body. Its head inclined slightly towards me, with its crest angrily sticking up. The eyes had been shut all morning, but somehow were now wide open and staring fixedly at me, as though sizing me up. I caught sight of my face reflected in the television screen; you couldn’t have called it a warm face, but I watched it crack into a winning smile. This was something I’d learned from experience: a facial expression is like any other domesticated life form, knowing when to nod and wag its tail, or when to burst out laughing.
I was surprised to see this same smile reciprocated on the men’s faces. Usually, they kept up an uninterrupted litany of grumbles and debates, only stopping after a string of reminders that the last train was due. That day, however, they lost interest in talking ahead of schedule, and had no appetite for the food left on the table. But they seemed to have no intention of leaving. I looked away from them, towards the door to the kitchen, thinking of the strip light hanging down at one end, wishing I could go in and fix it. But the men pinned me with their stares. Their silent smiles were like so many nails, keeping my buttocks tacked to my seat. Not knowing what to do, I turned to watch the sky changing colour through the window. At first, a big group of black jellyfish-like creatures seemed to be swimming through it, slowly devouring all other colours, but gradually I realised it was the other way around: the other colours were vomiting the black, and this was why it looked so mottled and fractious. And in front of that ominous roll of blackness, faces were pressing in on me, their hands reaching for my arms, clasping me in a brotherly embrace. One of them patted my back and said, ‘Don’t keep your feelings stuffed in your guts, how are things with the wife lately? If there’s something going on, you should tell us.’ Then he poured the second half of a bottle of beer into my glass, filling it to the brim, and cheerily told me that they weren’t leaving until I confessed the truth.
I took a sip of beer and, as the bubbles dissolved pleasurably in my mouth, wondered whether this was a rite of passage, and they were welcoming me as one of the guys. But all I could do was shake my head, because what could I tell them about my wife? That late every evening, once our kid was in bed, we huddled under the same sheet, tired but happy, discussing the menu for the next day’s dinner? That I liked to go food shopping in the market after work, examining the shape of an aubergine or an onion, contentedly imagining the delicious aroma once it arrived in her hands? That I would bury my head between her thighs and stick out my tongue, tasting her sweet, seaweed flavour? None of those things were suitable for sharing. Not because they were too private, but because they were too close to happiness. Pain and misfortune are the only gifts suitable for friends; only shared tragedy builds friendships. Perhaps because they’d had too much to drink, the men’s eyes glowed red and they encircled me like a pack of starving dogs, eager to gnaw on the bones of my hidden sadness. But what did I have to feed them?
There was nothing in my present life that I could really complain about. I couldn’t imagine doing any job other than working in the furniture factory. I loved the scents of the different kinds of wood, and how each had its own distinctive grain – to the point that, every time we shipped out a finished chair or bedframe or, most of all, big wooden farmer’s table, I felt a pang of regret. And my blissfully-happy marriage was surely some mysterious gift of fate, because until I was thirty-eight years old, I’d never even been in love.
It all started with the complimentary ticket to a Christmas party that came attached to my family’s new air conditioner, giving the address as a three-star hotel in the city centre. The moment my father solemnly pressed it into my hand, I knew there was no getting out of this assignment (we weren’t a well-off family and unexpected gifts were bright spots in our lives, certainly not things to be turned down). But when I stepped into the hotel ballroom, which was festooned with streamers and balloons, with my face freshly shaved, dressed in my only white shirt, I immediately regretted that I’d come. I walked into the crowd of men and women I’d never met before, and felt their chatter and laughter weighing against my chest, leaving me unable to breathe. I kept walking straight ahead, my eyes trained on the back of the room, where there was a row of long tables covered in white tablecloths. The tables were laden with all kinds of little delicacies – light glinted off the grease of flaky pastry rolls and the grooves of the fresh cream swirled on top of tiny cakes, and this was my salvation. I marched single-mindedly towards them and piled my plate high. Then, selecting an out-of-the-way corner, I settled into an unoccupied chair and promised myself that I could leave once I had eaten all my food.
I must have been too concentrated on the cakes, because until she whipped out a shiny silver fork, I didn’t notice my wife (although at that stage she was still just some unknown woman). She sat down in front of me and exclaimed: ‘This dessert’s all gone! You don’t mind if I have some of yours, do you?’
As though conducting a symphony, she held her shiny fork poised over the mini donuts on my plate (believe it or not, I’d taken two of every kind). I nodded immediately; I’m sure I blushed. She grinned, revealing a row of widely-spaced teeth. It thrilled me to discover that the gaps between her teeth were much bigger than other people’s; dark and mysterious, like tunnels waiting to be entered.
Her curtains were the gauzy, translucent kind that let light flood in, dispersing the last, muddled dreams of the early morning. I thought she was still in bed, but when I reached for her my fingers clutched at air. I staggered out of the bedroom, calling wildly through the unfamiliar flat, the events of the night before as uncertain as my footsteps. Back then, I didn’t even know her name. I followed the hallway, peering into another room, which led to another room, whose walls seemed to block the way to another. Confused, I walked back along the hall. The woman seemed to have vanished, until her face pressed against my shoulder, appearing as suddenly as a snake darting from a cave. ‘Where have you been hiding?’ I asked, and she smiled but said nothing, curling a hand round to pass me a cup of ink-black coffee and a mini donut dusted with icing sugar.
Her mini donut was much better than the ones in the hotel, just as she had promised. I still remember that morning, and the way we walked out onto the street hand in hand, mouths covered in icing sugar, inviting mockery from passers-by. But I had passed by the kitchen, and there had been no trace of cooking on the gleaming counter tops. I never said anything, but my wife’s ‘disappearance’ wasn’t a one-off occurrence; in her flat, the same thing happened again and again. Was there some kind of secret passage, where she could hide without making any sound? Any time I raised these kinds of questions, she would tap me lightly on the forehead and joke about my over-active imagination.
It’s true that it was just a small, two-bedroom flat. Walking out of the master bedroom, I was confronted by the gloomy hallway. The first room on the right was Lily’s – if I opened the door, I’d see her dolls and wooden building blocks strewn across the floor. To the left was the bathroom, and straight ahead was where we ate dinner every evening, which linked to the living room, which doubled as my wife’s studio. The kitchen was to the left of the living room, and at the back of the kitchen was a door. The door seemed like it must lead somewhere, but when I opened it, all I saw was a headless dressmaker’s mannequin, draped with a coat that hadn’t yet had its sleeves sewn on, a few boxes stuffed with my wife’s yarn and fabrics, stacked on top of one another, and some of her older projects. And if I shoved all this to one side, there was just a murky white wall, pressing in on me.
Before we married, my wife’s flat was like our private express train of snatched pleasures, and I never had the chance to explore it properly. She gave me a tour after I moved in – ‘This used to open out onto an illegal balcony with a view of the street,’ she told me, ‘but it had to be dismantled a few years ago.’ So why did she fail to mention the door? Later, while cleaning the flat, I discovered that, in the hallway, diagonally across from Lily’s room, there was another door; one that I’d never noticed before. It had always been concealed in the shadows, but with the light from Lily’s room spilling into the corridor, I could see its outline. Even in the light, it wasn’t an ordinary door. It looked as though it was afraid and trying to hide itself in the wall, like an enormous creature covered in camouflage. There was no handle and, no matter how I pushed, it wouldn’t budge. I gently stroked the surface, but it refused to respond. The gap between the door and doorframe was too narrow for my fingers to fit.
My wife shook her head when I mentioned it, asking what crazy thing I was talking about now. I brought her over to look but she played it down, saying it was probably just part of the decoration, because a door wouldn’t have anywhere to lead to. Did she think I was some kind of joke? She put her headphones back on, clearly in the middle of listening to something, and burst into hearty laughter. I stared at the black gaps between her teeth, now on full display, but had no way of guessing what they were hiding.
After Lily was born, I often carried her into the hallway and stood in front of the door, pointing at it, saying, ‘Look, Lily, don’t you want to go and play behind the door?’ I would take her hand and try to make her press it into the edges, but she always shook free and threw her arms around my neck, closing her eyes and burying her face in my shoulder. Once, I was firmer about it and forced her fingers into the crack, hoping they’d be able reach past the accumulated dust, but she wailed loudly, as though she’d touched something dangerous. She didn’t stop until my wife ran over, asking what had happened, brow furrowed with concern, and carried her away.
Perhaps my wife was right, and the door was just a figment of my imagination. Maybe it was a repeat of another door, one I’d seen in middle school. I had nothing to hide from my wife, but I’d never told her that, once, back then, you could almost have said that I fell in love (possibly, I hadn’t told her because I’d convinced myself I’d forgotten all about it).
Was it the very first day of middle school? I had arrived very early. Because of the sultry weather, or else my aversion to groups, I headed straight for a big, leafy acacia tree. I sat beneath it, enjoying the fresh breeze and imagining my face turning unrecognisable in the shadow, while listening attentively to the voices behind me.
Those two girls must have met before, because they exchanged nicknames and code words that only they could understand, excitedly sharing tales of their fathers being ‘pervy’ – they stretched out the word, making it peeeeervy, as though it had breath and feelings of its own. There was a pattern to their conversation: they took turns to give examples of ‘pervy’ behaviour, and then proceeded to assess it. For example, one girl would tell the other that when her father went downstairs to buy a paper, she’d seen him slipping porn magazines in between the pages. Then the other girl would talk about how her father always took the raised walkways to go home, so that he could ogle the breasts of women below. Sometimes, the fatherly wrongdoings were deemed suitable only for whispers and I couldn’t hear what was said, just the cackles of laughter that followed. After a while, I realised that for them the important thing wasn’t the content of what they were saying, but the exaggerated, mutually-affirming way in which they said it. It brought them closer together.
Once I worked this out, I lost interest and stopped listening. Surveying my surroundings, I saw that the playground had broken up into a series of little cliques. Even the new students had found companions, aside from a few loners who stood off to one side, emanating the wretched air of abandoned animals.
Of course, back then I thought that I was different. For some people, solitude is a choice; for others, it’s something life decides for them. I had actively rejected company, whereas those other students were flawed, and had been squeezed out and abandoned. There was a girl standing by herself, some distance from the other students, grinning in my direction, and I quickly determined that she was one such creature. I had nothing better to do, so looked back at her. A while later, I realised I couldn’t tear my eyes away, and the reason was the wide gaps between her teeth, which made me feel like I knew her. They reminded me of the street market and its row of grinning clowns, lips stretched back so that customers could shoot at their teeth.
When I was younger, there were a few boring streets in District M that would sometimes liven up at night. On the ground, or on makeshift tables, people would lay out random, messy assortments of cheap clothes, toys, household items, and electric appliances. These goods were dusty and dirty, leaving almost no doubt that they were second-hand, but most of the shoppers had no other choice. And thus, despite their sad appearances, the objects still glinted with a desperate kind of life.
For us kids, these rare transformations saw the streets turn into a fairground. A long queue always snaked from the entrance to the space shuttle ride, which charged two dollars to carry children two metres into the air and back again, and crowds clustered around a game of torturing goldfish with a little net. But I only ever had eyes for the wide, flat faces of the clowns. I had an insatiable passion for shooting at their teeth.
Repeated practice meant that my technique was honed to perfection, but even once I could easily have knocked out every single big clown tooth, I always made sure to leave one standing. My father used to accompany me to the market, and refused to let this go; he’d snatch the gun from my hands and shoot out that last tooth himself, winning me the toy bear jackpot but leaving me in tears. He didn’t understand that I couldn’t stand a completely empty mouth, but found a clown with only one tooth left hilarious.
I don’t know why the girl with gaps between her teeth looked at me with such affection, that first day of school. When the scratchy speaker-system voice started repeating orders for us to line up, the clown-girl followed me, and we walked together into the rank of students. Contrary to what I’d first thought, she wasn’t one of the abandoned creatures. As it turned out, she blended easily with all kinds of groups, and was welcomed by everyone. In my case, on the other hand, she was my only friend for the whole of junior high. Perhaps she thought I was the rejected one, and that was why she befriended me? The thought made me want to run away. But then, at lunchtime, when she invited me to sit with her on the old tyres on the school slope, and we traded side dishes from our lunch boxes, my resolve crumbled. And (I have to admit) when she laughed, showing those black gaps between her teeth, I felt indescribably happy.
After class one day, she suddenly asked whether I wanted to come over to hers. She said her mother had bought a lot of chocolate cake the day before, but there was only her at home and she couldn’t finish it by herself. It was the first time I’d ever been invited to a friend’s house. Embarrassed to tell my parents, I crept home to change my clothes, snuck a few pears out of the fridge and into a plastic bag, and then headed out.
The clown-girl lived on top of a hill, in a peaceful little neighbourhood that I’d never been to before, in what turned out to be a three-storey detached house. She came to the door and graciously accepted my bag of unappetising pears. Then, just like a grown-up, she brewed tea for me and served it in proper tea cups, and placed two slices of chocolate cake on two butterfly-patterned dessert plates. Usually, our interactions felt as natural as breathing, but that day, probably because of the unfamiliar surroundings, I felt awkward. For a long time, we sat side by side on the sofa. I was waiting for her to start eating her cake, so that I could follow suit, but she ignored all the refreshments in favour of meaningless chit-chat. I forget what we talked about; all I remember is that she was wearing a silk nightgown that she must have borrowed (stolen) from her mother’s wardrobe. Sitting beside her, every so often I’d glimpse the gentle swell of her still-growing breasts and, whenever she shifted position, feel the heat from her body waft against mine. I don’t know how much time passed before she announced that she was leaving for a bit, but we still hadn’t touched the cake. I watched her walk away and, for several seconds, was unable to react.
I looked up and realised that I was all alone in a spotlessly-clean living room. The ceiling was much higher than the one in my house, and the walls were covered in fragile glass and ceramics. To start with, I barely dared move for fear the house would rock and all those expensive-looking ornaments would come crashing down. But the girl was away a long time and, eventually, I couldn’t sit any longer and found myself walking out of the room. I passed through a room containing a piano and a collection of other musical instruments that I didn’t recognise, and then a room lined with what looked to be very serious books, and then another that was entirely empty aside from a red rug spread across the floor. And then I saw her, on the stairs to the second floor. I followed and remember very clearly that, when I reached the second floor, she was in a hallway not far from me, facing a wall. I called her name, but she didn’t answer. Instead, she vanished. I went to where she’d been standing, and discovered that it wasn’t a wall, it was a door, but there was no keyhole or handle to turn, just a thin seam where the door met the doorframe. I tried to shove it open, but it didn’t budge. Then I shouted for her again, but the house was silent. The door stood defiantly where it was. I gave it a couple of good, hard kicks, but it made no difference at all.
Disheartened, I went back downstairs. I wanted to return to the living room, but suddenly couldn’t remember where it was. I walked all over the house looking, and kept ending up in the room with the red rug. It was like being trapped inside a maze. When I finally made it to the living room, I was pouring with sweat. I went back to where I’d been sitting, and sat without moving a muscle, not daring to drink the tea or touch the cake. There was no clock, so I had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but the little flowers of hazelnut cream on the cake had collapsed, and the rays of sunlight hitting the wall had moved several inches closer to me. When the girl reappeared, I searched her face, convinced that something must have changed, but said nothing. She pointed to my belly and asked what was going on; I looked down, and saw that my trousers were tented like a mountain over my crotch, and my whole body was shaking.
I don’t quite know why, but that afternoon I found myself telling my boorish guests all about the door. Afterwards, they looked at me with excited, dream-filled eyes. ‘There’s no such thing as unsolvable!’ they said, telling me that the world’s greatest locksmith was among us.
Giving me no time to think it over or object, the men leapt from their seats. They were like frightened cockroaches, scuttling around the hidden crevices of the flat. The only one I could see was in the hallway, in front of my door (although it hardly qualified as mine). He pressed his nose against it, as if trying to detect its scent. He sniffed up and down all four sides, and then cocked his head and looked thoughtful. Not long after, another man came out of the kitchen with my toolbox. One man – and I have no idea when he’d gone out there – climbed in through the living room window. Another emerged from the bedroom I shared with my wife, hurriedly throwing something on the floor. Surely not the full-length nightgown my wife had been wearing the previous night? Yet another had found Lily’s toy wand and was waving it around. The man in front of the door clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention, and loudly proclaimed his assessment. Without a doubt, most of this speech was just for show, because he added a quiet line right at the end, about only being able to open the door if he had a very fine wire or some other little thing, like a hairpin.
By this stage, the men were gathered in front of the door. What was inside? I watched from a distance, undecided as to whether I wanted them to succeed (not, of course, that I had any real say in the matter). The door looked frailer than usual, like it was barely existing. One of the men poked a piece of very fine wire into the crack, and the door emitted a piercing shriek, as though it wasn’t a door being opened, but a living organism being sliced apart. The whole room broke out in goose pimples.
The door opened. The men were delighted; they lined up and marched single-file into that place I’d never managed to reach. When the last man had disappeared through the door, I was alone in the flat once again. But I was still sitting on my stool. Strangely, I felt no urge to go through the door myself, and instead just stayed where I was. A long while later, I finally walked over. Now the opening was right in front of me, but it was hard to summon the will to enter. The door seemed smaller than it was supposed to be, like it would be impossible to fit through without stooping. What’s more, I’d always assumed it was a standard rectangle, but now that I looked more carefully, it was actually a trapezoid, its sides slanted at bizarre angles. I contorted my body into different shapes, trying to barge my way in, but the door kept forcing me out.
I couldn’t work out how the men had done it. From what I remembered, they’d walked in quite naturally. I tried to shout into the door opening, but the moment my voice passed the doorframe it stopped, as though hitting a muffler. Gusts of icy wind kept blowing in from the other side. I tried to stick my head through, hoping to see something, but the view was blocked by some kind of internal structure (almost as though the door was growing on top of another door).
The mists parted, although I couldn’t say when, revealing a crescent moon like a razored eyebrow on an infinite expanse of face. There was beer spilled on the table, its bubbles all gone, glowing with a soporific blue light. Minutes ticked past and not a single man reemerged from the door. What had they found in there? I thought I could hear a distant shrieking. Would my wife and Lily be asleep by now? I was very tired, and somehow ended up passed out on the sofa.
When I woke up, the sun had restored some reality to the world, including to the roast chicken, which had been stripped of most of its meat. What remained was a wingless, legless, olive-shaped skeleton, with its eyes wearily closed. I went the door, and found it returned to its original state. I traced my fingers along the rim. It was shallow, like a door-shaped shadow, or an imitation of a door. I crooked a finger and rapped with my knuckle, and it made a low, husky noise, like a voice coming from deep in someone’s throat.
After the holiday, aside from her prominent suntan, my wife was the same wife she’d been a few days before, and my daughter the same daughter. I shook the box containing the model castle, and Lily shrieked with excitement outside the front door, immediately letting go of my wife’s hand and rushing inside. Without pausing to take off her shoes, she pounced on the box and began tearing it open. At the sight of the fragments of model castle scattered across the floor, my wife gave me a helpless smile, and then announced she’d bought some squid and a bottle of squid ink to make us squid ink risotto for dinner.
The light in the kitchen was fixed, making the plates and bowls in the drying rack sparkle, and my wife looked extremely pleased. At dinnertime, she served us each a plate of the risotto, and placed a big bowl of peach and rocket salad in the centre of the table. As we ate, our mouths turned jet-black. My wife winked, and said: ‘Pretty good to have a couple of days freedom, then?’ Was she hinting at something? I waved the question away, and asked her and Lily about their trip. They looked at one another and smiled but said nothing, as though, inside their inky lips, there was some secret they couldn’t tell me.
Lily lay on the floor by herself, stacking tiny building blocks one on top of the other, completely absorbed in her castle. While my wife was showering, I knelt beside her and whispered, ‘Won’t you tell Daddy what happened while you were away?’ She shook her head, still focused on the construction. I scooped her up and put her on my knees, pressing my face close to hers. ‘First answer your father’s question,’ I said, ‘then you can go back to playing.’ Lily pouted and burst into tears. My wife walked out of the bathroom and took Lily in her arms, kissing her and saying something into her ear, so that the child was all smiles again. How had she done that? She turned to look at me. I expected her to blame me for upsetting Lily, but she just grinned. I saw the gaps between her teeth, black as black, and couldn’t help feeling a stab of resentment.
That evening, I went into the bedroom without waiting for my wife. But before arriving there, I had to pass the unopenable door and, when I did so, I heard a faint breathing sound, like a cry for help.
I wasn’t sleepy, and lay on the bed with my hands behind my head. I thought of how, early the next morning, before the city was awake, I’d have to rejoin the mass of strangers squeezing onto the train. In a city teeming with resentments, who knew what setbacks lay in wait? And in the factory, the air swirling with sawdust, I knew I’d see those men, swaggering past me in their identical windbreakers. I’d lower my gaze and keep on with my work in silence, avoiding their reddened eyes. I loved my work. An advantage to being a carpenter was that you could immerse yourself in voiceless, wordless wood, and a whole day could pass without the need to exchange a single word with anyone.
My wife had not yet come to bed, and Lily had not yet come to kiss me goodnight. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up again. Walking out of the bedroom, I was confronted with the gloomy hallway. The first room on the right was Lily’s – if I opened the door, I’d see her dolls and wooden building blocks strewn across the floor. To the left was the bathroom, and straight ahead was where we ate dinner every evening, which linked to the living room, which doubled as my wife’s studio. The kitchen was to the left of the living room, and at the back of the kitchen was a door. The door seemed like it must lead somewhere, but there was just a murky white wall, pressing in on me. The house was extremely quiet, and I couldn’t find Lily or my wife; it was as though they’d faded into the air. I went back into the hallway and saw the frail door still hiding in the wall, although its outline was blurred. Sitting down with my back against it, I thought I could hear a faint sound coming from the other side. But it could have been the wind rattling a distant window blind, making it chatter like a row of teeth.
Natascha Bruce translates fiction from Chinese. Recent short story translations have appeared in Granta, Words Without Borders, Wasafiri and Asia Literary Review. She was joint-winner of the 2015 Bai Meigui translation competition and recipient of a 2017 PEN Presents translation award. Current book-length projects include Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon (forthcoming from Balestier) and Lake Like A Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (forthcoming from Portobello). She lives in Hong Kong.
Zheng Xiaoqiong (郑小琼) was born in 1980 in Nanchong, Sichuan. In 2001 she left home to work in Dongguan, Guangdong, and began writing poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in various literary journals, including Poetry (《诗刊》), Flower City (《花城》), and People’s Literature (《人民文学》). She has published over ten collections of poetry, including Women Workers, Jute Hill, Zheng Xiaoqiong Selected Poems, Thoroughbred Plant, Rose Manor. Her work has won numerous awards and been translated into many languages, including German, English, French, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish.
The dusky locomotive sobbing drips and drops, among the murky mountains veiled beyond the smog. Passing by the lights on the Beijing-Guangzhou Track, by the villages of slang borne to crops, it reaches the end of the line first.
Splashing millions of shivering migrant workers, hitting their heads, the raindrops refuse to stop.
Trees, villages, retreating mountain slopes, slow toiling labourers. Outside the glass of illusions, weeps a weary, polluted river.
Night penetrates the carriage from the front. Between the tracks in the black rain darkness swells.
I look at the passengers sitting opposite, in their homecoming sartorial splendour, miserable, exhausted, dripping resinous sweat, drop by drop, clear and bitter, rain-washed.
Through the windows, mountains and rivers whistle past, through the stamping marks of rain, heading north.
Bureaucrats are carving up land as collateral for concrete, steel, chemicals, and capital. Trees with broken limbs and hills half hewn are the last ransom. Behind them, a crowd of commoners are raining tears.
Watching the train. Watching rainwater.
Watching the weeping river.
Watching the motley carriage. Hearing the train’s fierce shriek.
In this world, people are mortgaging everything like gamblers.
I’ve pledged my itinerary to the trainline, my painful life to illusory aspirations.
Inside the dictionary is a periodic table from Xia Dynasty to the Republic of China. Across Han, over Tang, onto Song, then Qing, my trip reaches Hunan, into Guizhou … Will the slow train ever arrive at its destination? Rain falling, villages retreating. Time past is buried in the journey of this train, never to be seen again.
Mountain Ghost hides under the concrete floor, among chemicals and pesticides for crops, in the city left behind by warriors once clad in leopard skin, though the bones of the last leopard are long gone. Rivers retreat, and the calamus, and the wormwood. A lotus blooms inside time.
The sun, moon, and stars; the wind, rain, thunder and lightning; the four seasons, the seas of clouds and the infinite skies – all become an arrow. It flies across swamps and wells, meadows and houses, doomed birds, beasts, bugs, fishes, flowers, trees, and vines, aiming for a relatively peaceful destiny.
Goddess of stove and chicken coop, you give birth to the demons and spirits, and the Bodhisattvas and dead souls in folk song and dance.
A sullen bird flies deep into the lake. It comes from the past, with the face of a beast.
It drifts along the Beijing-Guangzhou Track, out of Chuan, into Chu. Bearing an original instinct, it returns to the phoenix form.
The Old World is too distant now, a few reincarnations removed. All that remain are indistinct memories, like the beastly and humanly patterns amid the branches of a chinaberry.
Reaching Chu, she has restored the gaze of her former life.
A sorceress or a witch, in the voodoo vapour, memories of her turned into mountains, rivers, colloquial vernacular. Candles burn up her vertebrae.
Ancient recollections fly from the sky, over the dry sandbanks of Dongting Lake.
Sprinkled with white time, a legend, three tons heavy, slides into water.
A bird, gliding.
Her white wings soar into Chu, into its firmament, its cosmos, sweeping over traces of sorcerous souls in the surf of light.
Everything is breathing, conceiving, burgeoning, birthing.
Reaching Chu, her dark memories reconnect with history, recovering the untouched spells and folk lingo.
Hiding in the mortal world, she’s shrouded her wings over a thousand lives and veiled her beastly face. Remnants of her memories linger in recurring dreams.
Ten thousand mountains sink into the night. Snow is the only noise, whitening the dark.
Oak on the hill rears into a beast. Dripping droplets knock down chinaberry’s fruit.
Beech’s former life was a bright moon. Catalpa dreams of King Chu and floating clouds. Camphor laurel frees itself from a dream and comes to the courtyard. Hawthorn, left behind, lights a lamp on the side road, illuminating hometown and riddles. Autumn falls to the ground and grows into bellflowers. Summer’s chestnut forest partitions between past and future. Elm’s knot is the solid here and now. Thorn-elm casts its longing into the distance.
Arrowroot has endured your sorrow. Last year was just the other side of camphor laurel.
Black locust blooms. Pine mourns someone. The relationship between them seems a dream of mine.
Rain descends beneath the grape trellis. White poplar stands between gleaming train tracks. I dream of Master Zhuang and butterfly.
Must call on the Duke of Zhou, the God of Dreams, to interpret for me: last night I used walnut wood to ward off a surging sea.
Such is a worldly life, from nothing to something, from mortal to mortal. The last magpies slowly gather on pear tree, shiny, chirping, like those innocent days, staying briefly before flying off, leaving a tree of white blossoms, which then fade.
Mao bamboos have endless sentimentality. Their grief turns the nights and days green. Fir forest by the road, established and settled, is waiting for something. The stars and the moon drift like yellow leaves, like a river in a mirror, looking for its way back to the sea.
I wait for a parasol tree. While the bustling has dispersed, I remain, formerly a lonely phoenix.
Hornbeam, unmoving between memories, its face everchanging.
Cypress stands at a grave. From stone verandas to winding paths, dense gingko trees transport October’s light and shadow. Their silver flowers bloom thirteen lives’ solitude. I was a tree for twelve lives before becoming this traveller. I was silent for twelve rounds, and amassed too many words.
O, trees silent like me, have seen through life’s vicissitudes. They are my former or future selves,
If I could stand like them, between here and there,
Peacefully passing each moment.
Under white moonlight, three ice laurels flower in the courtyard. Upon the bluestone slate, Tang Dynasty roofs drip onto Song carved dragons.
Giant stars illuminate Ming rivulets. The everlasting flora flourish and fade like history in red dust. A shabby scholar is reading Qing octopartite essays.
Fish jump, birds sing, flowers bloom, tiger roams the village hills.
Some discuss the past in the Jiaqing Era, and recount Emperor Qianlong’s three visits down the South Bank. Some sit under the pagoda tree in the courtyard, speaking of the harvest and the ghosts and spirits of karma. Time, laden with sadness, condenses into dewdrops on the celosia at dawn, and at night shuffles among the agonised constellations.
Men smoke tobacco and plant crops and vegetables. Peach flowers open bright. Shaved hair falls at ordination.
Women are spinning yarn, weaving satin splendid. Partridges cry mournfully, and the thousand miles of fallen red remain silent.
He rode a donkey, arrived at the capital, read Four Books Five Classics and Chu Songs, studied dynasties, emperors, kings and their courts. Life in the scriptures began to shrink, thin as the donkey’s rib, thin as the gusty wind on the ancient trade road through the fir forest.
Riding the Yellow River and the Long River, riding autumn wind and setting sun, riding trees of dry branches and sorrow.
He rode a shallow strait, a life of capricious easterly wind.
On the theatre stage, people simulate joy and love, good and evil.
It’s collapsed, down in the cold of the snow.
I sit on the forlorn path, watching sunset in dejection, watching time rolling by.
The pagoda tree is still lush. The red toon still blooms. The swallows return to nest on the old beam.
Isabelle Li is a Chinese Australian writer and translator. She has published in various anthologies and literary journals, including The Best Australian Stories, Southerly, and World Literature in China. Her collection of short stories, A Chinese Affair, was published by Margaret River Press in 2016.
Luo Lingyuan was born in 1963 and is a German-Chinese writer. After studying Journalism and Computer Science in Shanghai, she has lived in Berlin since 1990 and published works in German and Chinese including four novels, two short story collections and numerous pieces in literary journals. In 2007 her short story collection Du Fliegst für Meinen Sohn aus dem Fünften Stock [You Fly for My Son from the Fifth Floor] received an Adelbert-von-Chamisso Advancement Award, a prize awarded to works written in German, dealing with ‘cultural change‘. In 2017 she was Writer in Residence in Erfurt.
Photograph: Dirk Skiba
The following is an extract from a short story titled ‘Der Zunge, auf der schwarzes Haar wuchert’. It was originally published in a collection of stories by Luo Lingyuan titled Nachtschwimmen im Rhein (or Nightswimming in the Rhein, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2008). The stories in the collection all centre around relationships between Chinese women and German men. In the extract, the protagonist He Xue attends a Walpurgisnacht party for the first time with her German flatmate.
The tongue which grew black hair
But Regina didn’t forget her. Shortly after eight, she knocks on the door and two hours later they’re in Charlottenburg in a private apartment. The place is huge, if somewhat run-down. At least fifty strangely dressed women have already arrived. Only a few of them are attractive, He Xue thinks. It’s true there are no old hags with hooked noses and evil looks. And few black capes, pointy hats and broomsticks. But He Xue doesn’t find the sexy costumes of these modern witches so appealing either. Many of the women have made up their faces to weird effect: one half colourful, the other with a snake depicted on it. Some are virtually naked, wearing garish masks, lurid wigs and skimpy outfits. One woman has painted eyes onto her breasts, which stare fixedly out.
As soon as a new arrival enters, a glass of sparkling wine is pressed into her hand. He Xue downs hers straight away out of pure self-consciousness and remains standing uncertainly in the foyer. She can’t help thinking about what the Professor has said – that she probably won’t enjoy this kind of a party. She allows her glass to be refilled anyway. In truth, she doesn’t feel like dressing up in costume at all. But she’s helpless against Regina’s insistence and in the end slips on a baggy dark-blue dress, which cloaks her body entirely. The women start dancing the tango en masse. Since dancing isn’t He Xue’s forté, she heaps up a plate with food, finds herself a quiet corner and watches the women. Each time she spots a glimpse of Regina’s blond hair in the crowd, she feels a deep admiration. She is, thinks He Xue, the most stunning woman at the party.
Two women are standing next to her wearing magnificent headdresses. They’ve already had a few drinks. He Xue hears one of them say: ‘Our boss is such a dirty dog. Now he’s getting it on with the cleaning woman. His assistant caught him. Ha! Apparently his thingy looked like a carrot.’
‘If I’d seen him, I’d have made him sweat a little,’ says the other. ‘Surely a pay rise could have come out of it. See the blonde with the eyebrow ring? Hot isn’t she? That’s Regina. I heard she just hooked up with a dentist. If he marries her, she’s set up for life. If …’ The two of them laugh, a strange bleating sound, then head into another room in search of a mirror.
Perplexed, He Xue searches for a trace of her friend. She knows Regina’s boyfriends are always changing. But she’d never mentioned the current one was a dentist. The women have begun Turkish belly dancing. Once more, it’s Regina who’s the star on the dance floor. Arms raised, she writhes like a snake, laughing blithely. Now she has on a tight sky-blue top and long skirt; around her hips is a belt made of tiny gold coins linked together, so that she gives off a bewitching tinkling with every shake of her body. To He Xue, her friend has a regal beauty. She follows her every movement.
Sometime before midnight, the women take up the unlit wooden torches, leave the apartment and head to the nearby Teufelsberg, singing the whole way. The Teufelsberg isn’t very high and nobody’s ever met any spirits there. Actually, it’s not much more than a large mound rising on the western outskirts of the city comprised of rubble from the second World War. But the Berliners, always liking to sets their sights high, come here frequently to go strolling and look out over the vast sea of grey houses.
After climbing for some time through the dark woodland, they finally reach the top. It’s just before midnight and on the flat summit countless other women are already waiting, most of them in similar costumes. From every other direction, crowds disguised as witches are making their way up. More than two, three hundred women, young and middle-aged, have gathered under the bleak sky.
For some moments, He Xue gazes about her. When she turns back, Regina has vanished. She searches nearby but her friend is nowhere to be found. Everyone is jostling towards the centre for some reason unknown to He Xue, so she backs out to the edge.
Precisely at midnight, one woman begins to wail. Then all the women on the mountain start shrieking war cries at the tops of their voices. He Xue retreats further. Suddenly the flames from a bonfire in the middle of the clearing surge up into the sky. The women raise their torches and stamp in a circle, hooting and jeering. The summit, just a moment ago still dark, lights up with blazing sparks and glows over the city. Now the Teufelsberg is a mountain of fire. The women whoop, their voices shrill, encircling a group that’s laughing deliriously. It’s as if each has turned into a primeval creature, has waited the whole year for this mad event. As if on this night a year of compulsory service as normal respectable humans is finally over.
Now everyone has begun to dance in a frenzy. Dresses lift and drop in the firelight, long hair whips and swirls around the fantastic faces of the women. The scene is reminiscent of numberless female demons summoning up a catastrophe. He Xue desperately wishes she had a friend by her side, most of all another woman who was Chinese, with whom she could talk with. Maybe then she wouldn’t be shivering as though she had a bout of malaria.
At this moment she’s discovered by a particularly high-spirited group of revelers. One pushes a burning torch into her hand, another pulls her along and then they encircle her, shrieking the entire time in their eerie voices. They drag her into the centre then lead her closer to the fire. The torch falls from He Xue’s hand and she feels her neck stiffen and grow numb. Only when the women grab her arms and legs and yank her behind the wall of fire, do her eyes start flickering again. Now she sees that the women have stuck the torches into the ground so they form two close rows like a tunnel.
‘A trial by fire for our little Chinese witch!’ someone yells and gives He Xue a bawdy slap on the behind. ‘Run quick through the path of fire and you’ll become pure like us.’ Someone adds: ‘Then you’ll get the witch badge with the green broom.’ He Xue searches for an escape route.
‘Run! Run! We’ll catch you!’ The women at the other end spur her on.
The torches are burning at chest-height. He Xue crouches down and waddles off like a duck. She can’t remember ever having run like this. The women encircling her burst into laughter and clap. When He Xue reaches the other end, she’s surrounded and thrown into the air three times. ‘A cheer for the Chinese witch!’ they cry.
The crippling thought that only a few seconds ago her hair could have ignited into flames inhibits He Xue as she dances. She moves stiffly, like a straw doll among a galloping herd of whinnying horses that’s in danger of at any moment being ripped in two.
As a new candidate is brought over for the trial by fire, everyone rushes back over to where the torches are standing. He Xue uses the opportunity to escape to the sidelines. Two middle-aged women with fake witch noses are approaching. They head over to those dancing, their brooms hoisted. ‘We’ve had incredible luck on the stock market this year. The tech shares went through the roof,’ says one. ‘You should get into the market too.’ The other looks pensively into the flames. ‘So what did you buy? I’ve played around a lot, but …’ Then the women disappear into the mass and He Xue can’t hear them anymore.
In the centre of the dancing crowd now is a girl whose hair is whirling like a hundred delicate snakes. The hem of her dress flutters up and down, like a black pupil dilating and contracting. Out of her mouth comes the call, ‘Ura! Ura!’ He Xue feels dazed watching her dance movements. Just where does she recognise this beauty from? And now this person is dancing towards her. The girl’s eyes display a wildness and then her hand alights, sudden as a spider, on He Xue’s shoulder. It shakes her.
‘He Xue, come on, dance!’
He Xue nearly stumbles over backwards. Until she realises it’s no-one other than Regina who’s come over. But by the time He Xue tries to follow, her friend has already danced away and is nowhere to be seen.
He Xue stands in the dark and thinks she can smell singed hair. She bats at her head with both hands to put out the supposed sparks, then she feels around her hair gingerly. Indeed, she finds what appears to be a hank that has been burnt to a crisp dry cinder. For a long time after, she pulls at the strands on her head until the stench of scorched hair finally disappears.
1. Celebrated on the night of 30 April, Walpurgisnacht is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, who was known to ward away witches and evil spirits. The pagan folk rites of Spring are also celebrated.
2. The name ‘Teufelsberg’ literally translates as ‘devil’s mountain’. Teufelsberg, in the Grunewald district of former West Berlin, is a hill made of rubble dumped after the second World War and covers a Nazi military-technical college that was never completed. During the Cold War, there was a U.S. listening station on the hill, Field Station Berlin.
DEBBIE LIM was born in Sydney. Her poetry chapbook Beastly Eye was published by Vagabond Press (2012) and her poems have been widely anthologised, including regularly appearing in the Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc.). In 2016 she moved with her family to southern Germany for 2 years where she started to translate from German into English.
by Liu Xia. Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern; Introduction by Liao Yiwu; Foreword by Herta Müller
Graywolf Press, 2015
Reviewed by RAVI SHANKAR
On April 1st, 2018—that rare conjunction of Easter Sunday with April Fool’s day in the West—Chinese painter, photographer and poet Liu Xia celebrated her 57th birthday as she has every single year since 2010: under house arrest. Better known as the wife of the late Liu Xiaobo, the dissident Chinese academic who was jailed for the last years of his life after co-authoring Charter 08 (that seminal manifesto meant to emulate Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 by making a public case for basic civil rights, democracy, and freedom in China, and written on the approach of the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters, of which he had once been one), Liu Xia is a formidable and too-little-known literary figure in her own right. All of that changes with the publication of Empty Chairs (Graywolf, 2015), a bilingual translation of her selected poems, translated muscularly from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern and with a foreword by German Nobel Prize Laureate, Herta Müller.
As a poet and activist, Liu Xia is someone whose courageous work in the face of overt repression makes her a kind of 21st century Anna Akhmatova. When her husband, sentenced to 11 years in jail for incitement to subvert state power, won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” he was barred from attending the awards ceremony and instead was represented on stage by an empty chair. Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee, placed that year’s medal and citation on a vacant blue upholstered seat, which then became such a powerful metaphor for the fight against despotism and suppression of freedom everywhere, that Chinese internet censors forbade the posting of photos or even drawings of empty chairs on its social media platforms. But there was never just one empty chair.
As Shayna Bauchner writes for Human Rights Watch, “in her remarks for a 2009 award ceremony honoring her husband, Liu Xia wrote, “I am not a vassal of Liu Xiaobo.” Yes, she has played an inextricable role in the chronicle of her husband’s imprisonment and his global prominence as a face of Chinese dissidence. She has been his artistic collaborator, one of his few visitors in prison, and, with his death, the bearer of his legacy. But no one should lose sight of her singular status as a fiercely independent advocate, an elegiac storyteller, and an enduring survivor of the seven-year isolation imposed on her by the Chinese government. Liu Xia has been held in unlawful house arrest since October 2010 “…detained without charge or trial, she has been stripped of communication with the outside world and denied adequate medical care.” Or as Ye Du, a writer and longstanding friend attested to more succinctly in an interview for The Guardian, “Liu Xia has been physically and mentally destroyed.”
So while her plight has become something of a cause célèbre among writers and intellectuals (recently in November 2017, over 50 international authors, including Chimamanda Adichie, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Tom Stoppard, Louise Erdrich, Stephen Sondheim and George Saunders wrote a letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping appealing to his sense of conscience and compassion to release Liu Xia; unsurprisingly the letter went unanswered and unheeded), her poetry has not been widely read — nor indeed has it been widely available — in the English-speaking world. In part, this might be due to her growing reputation as a visual artist, a sensibility that helps illuminate the stark shape of her poems; but doubtlessly, in large part, it’s also due to the simple fact that she’s a woman. Earlier in her life, she was eclipsed in her marriage by Liu Xiaobo’s fame and persecution; then later in life, she was overtly censored by the State just for having chosen to be with him, even though she insists she is apolitical. In neither case was she given a choice; or a voice.
An early poem “June 2nd, 1989” attests to the nature of her relationship to her husband, who had just been jailed for the first time after the protests at Tiananmen Square. Dedicated to Xiaobo, the poem reads:
This isn’t good weather
I said to myself
standing under the lush sun.
Standing beside you
I patted your head
and your head pricked my palm
making it strange to me.
I didn’t have a chance
to say a word before you became a character
in the news, everyone looking up to you
as I was worn down
at the edge of a crowd.
and watching the sky.
A new myth, maybe, was forming there,
but the sun’s sharp light
blinded me from seeing it.
If one of the techniques of the Chinese Misty Poets was the deployment of hermetic, obscurantist imagery as a response against the Maoist aesthetic of social realism, then one of the remarkable things about Liu Xia’s work is how she manages to reconnect with plain-spoken, vernacular language without losing any of the philosophical complexity or subversive power of her male counterparts. Ezra Pound that early exponent and translator (although, ‘transliterator’ or ‘re-creator’ might be the more apt designation, considering that Pound not only didn’t know the source language, but that his understanding of its very structure was misinformed by Ernest Fenollosa’s unpublished scholarly papers, which formed the basis of his 1915 collection, Cathay) defined an image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” and it’s hard to conjure a better example than in that first stanza.
First, we are struck by the speaker’s interiority; though this is a poem dedicated to a beloved, the poem opens with an internal conversation (“I said to myself”). Next, we realize the oddity of the perspective; someone standing under a lush sun yet nonetheless laments the weather? There’s both emotion and intellect here and the image resonates on both the literal and the figurative plane, especially when we read the next stanza, which introduces the beloved “you”. Unlike the sun, which the speaker stands under, she stands beside her beloved, a telling detail that gets at their love and mutuality. Yet the speaker still doesn’t like the weather from where she stands; she pats her husband’s head in that time-honored conciliatory gesture (far be it for him to comfort her) and feels pricked in return by his head, which suddenly feels foreign.
Ostranenie is the theory of estrangement or de-familiarization developed by the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky. A neologism, it implies both the action of pushing aside and that of making strange; for art, the theory goes, to reach its maximal empathic level, it needs to shift the borders of ordinary perception until the quotidian becomes queer again. Liu Xia’s poem embodies this concept, for the speaker’s beloved’s head, that intimate, well-known corporeal organ, suddenly transforms itself into something that pricks the palm. The subsequent stanza further deepens the connotation of this alienation through a masterful metamorphosis.
I don’t read Mandarin, but I can only trust Ming Di and Jennifer Stern when they write in their translator’s note that they talked “through a way to remain true to impossibly collapsed dichotomies, to a person who we feel like we know but don’t. We have tried to remain true to what we value in the work, to what’s rooted in the gutted and stark political present in China, and in the loving, friendly, funny, insightful and engaged voice.” This book reaps the fruits of that dialogue and to that list of adjectives, I’d also add “dry” and “devastating” for her use of biting understatement. “I didn’t have a chance / to say a word before you became a character / in the news, everyone looking up to you / as I was worn down / at the edge of a crowd / just smoking / and watching the sky.”
This is an Ovidian transformation, for the beloved, whose head the speaker was just rubbing, has suddenly become, through exposure to public consciousness, a character (in all senses of that word), which moves him into proximity with the lush sun and far from her, worn down and receding in the face of the anonymous masses. It’s doubly heart-breaking in that though she’s the one who suffers, she’s nonetheless also the one who has to console him (and in time will have to care-take his memory). The last stanza, alludes to this possibility in brilliantly tying the poem together: “A new myth, maybe, was forming there, / but the sun’s sharp light / blinded me from seeing it.”
I love this provisional quality of Liu Xia’s work. The “maybe” in that moment is like the uncertainties in Marianne Moore. Her soulmate was turning into both newsprint and martyr before her very eyes, and his life (and her own life, though she might not have fully realized it then) had stopped belonging to him. It had become an instrument of the state or a tool for counter-propaganda, but that warm head she has cradled so many nights was changing into something else and she was powerless to stop it. That’s the fundamental heartbreak that infuses so many of these poems, and even though they are starkly quiet verbal artifacts, they nonetheless radiate such volumes of anguish and mortal heat.
Nearly ten years later, Liu Xiaobo was detained for writing an open letter advocating for human rights and then sentenced in 1996 to three more years in prison. During this time, Liu Xia would make routine camp visits, famously announcing to the guards that she wanted “to marry that enemy of the state!” Eventually they did get married, while Liu Xiaobo was still imprisoned, and held their banquet in the prison canteen. Their love story is truly one of the great love stories of our time.
It was during this time that Liu Xia composed some of the poems that constitute the middle section of Empty Chairs and one in particular, “Nobody Sees Me,” expresses an austere existentialism. The poem begins, “Nobody sees me / helpless. / I’m not being cursed. I’m just easily / attracted to unattainable things — / things that reject me, / that are outside what’s real.” The baldness of that declaration, without blame, lacking remorse, is astonishing. It’s a matter-of-fact embrace of the human condition that even Beckett might have admired. The poem continues:
My life steals from me.
I believe in a life that is an absurd
fantasy and is also hyperreal,
a life that hides behind death masks
and looming shadows.
I see a shadow walking on death’s path–
speaks a word.
My life steals from me. Just for that line, readers should be jostling for Liu Xia’s insight. Often in her work, she will bifurcate herself, disassociating mind from body, or spirit from stasis, and she does so again here, seeing in herself “a shadow walking on death’s path.” Her greeting, like her predicament, falls on blind eyes, as the world has turned her into a perpetual Persephone, doomed to be a shade in the underworld. It’s telling, therefore, that the other writers and artists she calls out to and finds kinship with in this book were equally misunderstood and driven to madness in their own time: Van Gogh, Kafka, Nijinsky and Marguerite Duras. “The words emerge from her body without her realizing it,” Marguerite Duras wrote in Summer Rain and she could have been describing Liu Xia, “as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken.”
Indeed, in Empty Chairs, certain tropes and images recur obsessively throughout the book. Cigarettes, dolls and birds populate poem after poem. As the late American poet Richard Hugo advises us in his book Triggering Town, “don’t be afraid to take emotional possession of words,” and Liu Xia takes that advice, which it’s unlikely she ever heard, straight to heart. Seemingly banal, when these motifs recur, something extraordinary starts to happen; the objects begin to take on a powerful symbolic weight that transcends their literal shape in the world. The dolls and cigarettes become totemic while the poems themselves grow more airless and claustrophobic, qualities that evoke the very conditions of living under house arrest. It’s amazing that these images so insistently thread through 30 years of her poetry.
The dolls tie back to Liu Xia’s photography of what she called “ugly babies.” During a period of domestic confinement with her husband, Liu Xia took hundreds of photos of expressive, disfigured dolls that have become representative of the suffering faced by the Chinese people in general. Discovered by French writer Guy Sorman when he was visiting Liu Xia in Beijing, the photographs, captured on a tiny Russian camera and developed by turning her kitchen into a darkroom, toured the world in an exhibit called “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” (taken from the title of one of her poems). It was an exhibition that Liu Xia would never know about, as her contact with the outside world has been effectively cut off.
As Sorman writes about these extraordinary photos, “Nearly all of the photos are taken with this old camera, without lights, in their apartment. And she’s able to build all these dramatic stories and metaphors with [such] limited technical resources. I think it is this contradiction which makes the photos really impressive.” Although Sorman is discussing her photography here, he might as well be analyzing her poems, for the same principles hold true in both cases. I don’t know if Liu Xia has limited technical resources in poetry (I would seriously doubt it, given how well-crafted her work seems to be in translation), but I do know that she intentionally chooses a simplified vocabulary, without any of the lavish opacity or numinous lyricism of her contemporaries, like Xi Chuan or Ouyang Jianghe (whose own selected poems, Notes on the Mosquito and Doubled Shadows respectively, the first translated by Lucas Klein and the second by Austin Woerner, are both well worth reading). In a certain way, her spare, harrowing poems resemble Paul Celan’s love affair with silence, in that the less they say, the more substantial the unsaid becomes. This ultimately is Liu Xia’s masterstroke; condemned by the Chinese state to silence, she uses her silence against them.
The final poem in the collection “How it Stands” crystallizes this stance, practiced over the years into a way of being. In it, as in earlier poems, the speaker is split in half and like the metaphysical poets of the 17th century did, she engages in a dialogue with herself.
Is it a tree?
It’s me, alone.
Is it a winter tree?
It’s always like this, all year round.
Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand.
The Surrealist anthropomorphism is tempered by Buddhist reconciliation in these lines; and the poem is just heart-breaking. Leafless, bird-less, rooted in one spot, the poet provides a vision of a life that no human being should endure. It’s the kind of human rights abuse that trumps any technological or economic progress a country might make. In this final poem in Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs, the barren tree becomes yet another empty chair, another reminder of all of those people around the world without basic freedoms and civil liberties, even when their only crime might be using language or making art. Though the Chinese government would rather crush her and erase her husband’s memories, this vital collection of poems is an indication of the resilience of our human spirit, which cannot be silenced. There’s great sorrow in her work, but also remarkable strength, and with Graywolf’s publication of Empty Chairs, we are given renewed hope that her and her husband’s love story and alarming martyrdom will never be forgotten.
RAVI SHANKAR is author/editor of a dozen books, including most recently The Golden Shovel: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and Autobiography of a Goddess, translations of the 9th century Tamil poet/saint, Andal, and winner of the Muse India Translation Prize. He founded the online journal of arts Drunken Boat, has won a Pushcart Prize and a RISCA artist grant, has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, on NPR, the BBC and PBS, received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and been interviewed and translated into over 10 languages. His The Many Uses of Mint: New and Selected Poems 1997-2017 will be out in Australia with Recent Works Press in 2018.
Mary Jean Chan is a poet and editor from Hong Kong who currently lives in London. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (UK), and came Second in the 2017 National Poetry Competition. Her debut pamphlet, A Hurry of English, was published in 2018 by ignitionpress (Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre), and was recently selected as the 2018 Poetry Book Society Summer Pamphlet Choice. Mary Jean is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic and an editor of Oxford Poetry. Her debut collection will be published by Faber & Faber in 2019.
Spark of wind, gust of neon. The evening swells with the clamour
of voices. A dialect does not recognize the written word, exists if
uttered aloud, sleeps like an emaciated dog when abandoned, tail
wrapped around itself for comfort. That is what my Cantonese is,
a stray canine: I’ll admit – one I care for sporadically. Whenever
mother calls me on the phone and we speak, the dog is brought in.
come home to this body, this unhomeliness
as portrait / sourdough / bitter gourd
like a uniform / a chest-guard / a mask
called girl / boy / anything your mother wants
under a pile of laundry / your own shadow / a sudden mourning
having failed your mother / your lover / to be its true self
where we are meant to survive / my birthmark lingers / joy is more than a crumb