Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In June 2019 he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of National Taiwan Normal University. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Blood (story: Part Two of Two)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異by Lloyd Haft)

The woman standing next to her was not Chinese, but a member of one of the shaoshu minzu, the indigenous peoples which despite many centuries of Chinese immigration continue to dwell in areas of the Southern and Southwestern provinces. This woman, perhaps in her thirties, was wearing a beautiful print cotton dress, tomato-red with saffron-yellow trim, with wide sleeves and a long skirt.
Woven yarn buttons stood in a row along the front side of her right shoulder. Her broad light-green sash matched the turban-like headcloth of emerald green. Beneath the turban, her forehead was encircled by a woven band hung with polished stones and pieces of silver. Hanging from her shoulder in a many-colored sling, a baby was asleep on her left hip.
She looked at the blonde Foreigner with a broad smile, showing a gold tooth on one side of her mouth: ‘Come on, get up; I’ll help you. I have some medicine for you. Come on!’
        The Foreigner wondered if she could possibly stand up. She was just glad she had not had to vomit so far. But the hand of the shaoshu woman was warm.
        ‘Come on. I saw you getting down like this and I thought wow, I said look at her, she looks like she’s not feeling so good! Right?’
        ‘Right,’ said the Foreigner, slowly getting up.
        ‘Why aren’t you feeling right? Did you eat some of the duck soup? That’s usually real good for the stomach!’
        The Foreigner turned carefully in the direction of the dead ducks on the pile. Now she saw what pain, discomfort and the throng had hidden so far: that there was a tent nearby, and under the tent were huge kettles where women were cooking, and tables with people sitting on stools. The ducks were slaughtered on site; the blood was first collected in the big jug she had seen and then used as an ingredient in the soup-with-noodles that the people were eating.
        ‘No, I didn’t eat any soup.’
        ‘But you speak fantastic Chinese! Better than me, I’m not kidding! Where did you learn it?’
        ‘In Holland.’
        ‘In Honan? Did you go to college in Honan Province?’
        ‘No, not Ho-nan. Hol-land. In Europe.’
        ‘Wowww! So you’ve come all the way from Europe! But you speak great Chinese! I want to take lessons from you! When can we start? Tonight? Can you come to my house and teach me? And the kids too! From now on we’re all going to call you Teacher!’
They both laughed. The Foreigner knew now that she was not going to be sick.
        ‘How many kids do you have, Teacher?’
        ‘I don’t have children.’
        ‘What? You’re telling me you don’t have kids? But you’re such a beautiful girl, and such a good Teacher! Did your husband want to wait with that for a while? Here in China a lot of the young ones do that too, now.’
        ‘I don’t have a husband.’
The mouth of the shaoshu woman fell open. For a good while she looked the Foreigner in the eyes without speaking. Her own eyes glowed and grew moist. ‘You know what – I know a man you can marry. No, really, I know a real good one for you. My nephew, in the district capital town. He’s a great guy! Actually he was already married, but his Little One got sick and died, they hadn’t even been together for a full year. He has a carpenter’s business in the city, and now he’s also part owner of a restaurant. He’s doing real well.
‘He’s an honest man, he doesn’t drink, and with him you’ll never have any problems with other women and all that. I guarantee you. If it ever happens, you can come around and chop off my right hand, I swear!
        ‘You know what it is – he wanted to go to Chengdu, or Guilin, to a teachers’ college. He was always good in school, he liked to read books. But then, you know, all those things happened, and he couldn’t finish his education. You know that, don’t you – our country has been through some hard times.’
        ‘Yes, I know. Yes, we know that.’
‘But you know...he’s done a lot of reading, and he’s good at languages...Chinese, and of course our own language, but he also speaks some Tibetan. He could never be happy with just any old “black-haired baby from down home,” you know what I mean? But once he sees you, with your eyes...he’ll fall head over heels in love with you, I guarantee you! Should I go to the post office right now and call him up, tell him to come out here for a day or two, to meet you? And then you can stay at my place for a couple of days too, that’ll be fantastic for the kids, and we’ll all have a great time together!’
Was she serious? You never knew for sure, in China. In a way, the craziness of the idea made it all the more probable that the shaoshu woman really meant it. Crazy, or was it...shrewd and worldly-wise? Was the idea of getting the nephew to marry the Foreigner a desperate attempt to get one member of the family overseas, settled in the safe and stable and prosperous West, after which one by one the rest of the family, now legally defined as relatives of the Foreigner, could emigrate?
There was a good chance that was the idea. But it might be even worse: a trick to lure her into some off-beat corner in the vicinity where a couple of local bumpkins could rob her and rape her. She had heard plenty of stories about what could happen here in the Southwest.
        On the other hand, did this woman look suspicious? With those wide-open glistening eyes, with that voice like a thrilled little girl shrieking with joy sitting on a Shetland pony at the circus?
         ‘You know what,’ the Foreigner said: ‘I’d really love to meet your family. But let’s do it some other time. I’m just passing through here today, I have to take the bus through to C –  . But the bus has had an accident’ – the shaoshu woman nodded eagerly; the whole town already knew it – ‘and I was just looking around this market till we could get started again. But if you write down your address for me, maybe another time I can come to visit you, if I’m in this area.’
        The woman burst out in a thundering laugh. ‘Oh, sure! Write it down, she says! Me, write! Don’t I wish I could! No, really, I can’t write. None of us could, back home. I was just a “black-haired baby from down home,” I didn’t know from nothing. And my husband, he was in the transport business, started when he was eleven...those carrying-poles, you know, and wheelbarrows, you name it, pushcarts, and those concrete slabs that you pull down the road with a set of wheels under them...Lord, he was a “beast of burden” from the time he was a kid. Had to, just to get something to eat.
‘Later on, we started the shop, selling medicine. And we could make a living, but who had time to go to school? And our kids, sure, the law said they were supposed to go to school, but we needed them to help at home and in the shop! They came around to see us, the folks from the district government, the inspectors, why the kids didn’t show up and so on, but we treated them to a nice meal and all, spent some money on them, and so it all blew over.
         ‘Now, take my sister and her family, my nephew and them, that I was telling you about – that’s a whole nother story. But okay, what do you want? Her husband’s uncle had a job with the government, at least, until he got into political trouble, anyway what I’m saying is, in the beginning they often did have money...But okay, I’m just saying, I can’t read and write.’
        ‘Well then,’ said the Foreigner, ‘you know what we can do? We can find a place to sit down, and you just tell me what the address is, and how to get there, and I’ll write it down.’
        ‘Okay! But then first I have to go back to my booth and tell my sidekick. We’re selling medicine here today. You just wait here, I’ll be right back!’
        The Foreigner nodded agreement. The shaoshu woman turned around and with svelte, accustomed movements made her way through the sunlit anemones, the seahorses, the improbable ancient forms of the surrounding human sea. The baby on her hip, bulging in the sling like a fish in a net, swam, shone, slid along, invincible in her pocket of silence among the larger corals, louder shapes.
        Finally the Foreigner had time to take her bearings. Nearby, from under the spreading tent with its ducks and kettles, clouds of steam and smoke rose. By her revived curiosity she could tell she was less nauseous now, she would be all right though in a little while, she knew, she would feel a need to sleep, and maybe to cry.
A little farther away, above the bobbing human heads she saw the top of the bus. The bus was still stopped. She could go sit under the tent with the shaoshu woman and keep her eye on the bus from there.
        ‘Teacher! Here I am!’
        And indeed, there she was again. Her cheeks seemed to glow still redder, her eyes to burn still brighter than before. She was holding something in her right hand while the left stroked the baby’s sleeping body.
        ‘I brought some medicine for you! This will fix you up right away; this brand is famous all over China. It’s called “The Wonder of Yunnan.” Here, take it! Keep the whole bottle in case you need it again.’
        She handed the Foreigner a small plastic bottle of white powder. Its cap was a cork sealed with wax. Running around the bottle, held in place by a layer of transparent tape, was a label. The Foreigner read:

‘Wonder of Yunnan’ for Internal and External Use

1.      For the treatment of cuts, stabs or gunshot wounds, and of bleeding caused by these or other forms of external injury;
2.      For the treatment of burns, swellings, infections, or poisoning;
3.      For the alleviation of female complaints of a monthly recurrent nature; and
4.      For the cure of sore throat, flu, intestinal cramps, chronic stomach pain and other internal discomforts.

‘Really, Teacher, there’s hardly anything that “Wonder of Yunnan” won’t cure. I could tell you the stories, just from our own practice. Just keep the whole bottle. But you should take some right now, for your stomach.’
        The Foreigner was not keen on Chinese wonder drugs. The philosophy behind them – to jolt your body with radically powerful doses so that you wouldn’t have to miss even half a day of work, and could keep fulfilling all your social obligations – was contrary to everything she had grown up with. Another thing was that in China you could never be sure what was actually in the bottle.
        ‘Thank you so much!’ she said with the histrionic Chinese enthusiasm that she had learned to imitate perfectly. ‘It’s really too good of you to give me the whole bottle! But I’ll keep it; that’s a good idea. Should we sit down now for just a minute, so you can tell me where you live? How about right over there, under the tent?’
        ‘Great! Then you can eat some of the soup, too. It’ll be good for your system, and we can mix the medicine with some soup. You shouldn’t take “Wonder of Yunnan” dry.’
The Foreigner put the medicine flask in her pants pocket and followed the shaoshu woman as she led the way expertly between what moved and what stood still, what walked on feet and what stumbled on hooves, what loomed in shadow and what spoke in light.
       When they were almost back to the tent, they walked for a few yards along a shallow ditch. Trickling slowly along in it as it dried and mixed itself with particles of dust and dirt, was blood. At the source of the little stream stood the big earthen jug. The jug was smeared on the outside with blood, but fragrant steam was rising from within it. Standing at a table beside it, two older Chinese women in loose blue cotton suits were hatcheting various parts of ducks and throwing the chopped-up pieces into the jug.
When the Foreigner and her companion arrived, the two women took their time to smile in greeting. One laid her cleaver down; the other, blushing, averted her eyes and went on working at a slower pace. The jug was filled with boiling water. Beside it on the ground stood two big empty pails of the kind that water-bearers carry with a pole over their shoulder.
‘Look,’ the shaoshu woman said, ‘that’s what my husband did. That kind of work. Those pails, with a pole.’ She turned to the Chinese women and said: ‘This Teacher comes from over the ocean, but she speaks incredibly good Chinese!’
The woman who was staring at the Foreigner nodded earnestly: ‘Then she must really be smart, and diligent. There aren’t many of them that can speak our language.’ The other woman stayed hidden in her work and in her slight, shy smile.
        ‘She’d like to try your soup. Is that okay?’
        ‘Wonderful! Wait a second, I’ll set a place for you.’
The quieter woman grabbed the talker by the arm, laid her head on her shoulder, whispered something and then went back to her chopping. The more talkative woman took something out of her pocket and offered it to the Foreigner. ‘Do you want a piece of candy, to start off with? They make this right here in town.’
The Foreigner took the candy, wrapped in brown paper, and started to open it. ‘Oh, thank you; you people are all so nice to me!’
       ‘Why, you speak Chinese better than we do! Your pronunciation sounds just like the television announcers from Beijing! Come on, I’ll fix up a place for you.’
The Foreigner and the shaoshu woman followed her. Suddenly the shy woman said, in a gentle but surprisingly elegant, almost singing voice: ‘We hope you’ll really enjoy the soup!’ She did not look up to watch the Foreigner’s reaction but brought down her cleaver in a graceful sweep that cut two necks in half.
Seated on a stool at the long, low table between fast-eating Chinese, with the shaoshu woman beside her, the Foreigner realized she actually was hungry. The talking and listening, the endless onrush of new impressions had taken her mind off her discomfort and left her with a tired sense of assent and relief. Chicken soup, her mother had always said: if you’re not feeling well, eat chicken soup.
She had already thought of her mother a few minutes ago, walking alongside the rivulet of blood on the ground. Against the background of the soup’s fragrance, the wayward course of the little red stream had reminded her of a thin red vein that had lain across the white of her mother’s eye, which she had often stared at as a child.
‘Teacher, you really should take some medicine. The soup has healing herbs in it, but with “Wonder of Yunnan” it’ll be even better!’
        ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m going to take it just now. I’m feeling better already; it did me a lot of good to talk to you. But you were going to tell me your address, just a second, I’ll get out my pen.’
‘Ma’am!’ – it was the familiar voice of the young man, now just behind her. ‘The bus is getting ready to hit the road again!’
        She turned around. The boy was standing there with his aunt. She nodded to them: ‘Thank both of you! You seem to be my guardian angels today. Did you also have some of this soup?’
        ‘No, we were just walking around. But we saw you sitting here and I thought: hope she doesn’t miss the bus and get stuck here!’
        ‘Thanks, I’ll be right there. Tell the driver I’ll be there in two more minutes.’
        When she turned around, the shaoshu woman’s face was twisted with dismay.
‘Teacher, you can’t just leave! You were going to come stay with us!’
        ‘I’m sorry. This time I really do have to leave. I have appointments that were hard to make, and I have to keep them. But just tell me exactly where...’
        ‘No, Teacher, listen...there’s something else that I still wanted to say. Teacher, it’s like – ’
‘Go ahead. What is it?’
        ‘Teacher, that’s a very beautiful ring you’re wearing.’
        ‘Isn’t it though? Yes, I’ve always liked it.’
        The woman looked at her with the rigid eyes of obsession, focused not on her but on a point behind her head, and said: ‘I want that ring. I’ll pay any price you ask.’
‘Oh,! No, I couldn’t do that! I really don’t want to sell it. It’s an heirloom. It was my grandmother’s.’
        ‘Sure, you’re thinking: she’s just a “black-haired baby” from the middle of nowhere in China, she can’t pay me a decent price for it. But I mean every word: I’ll pay any price. I don’t care if we have to sell the whole shop, I don’t care if I have to go back and sit there again, seven days and nights a week in a shed full of unmarried girls embroidering slippers for the tourists, I don’t care period, I want that ring!’
        ‘Ma’am, are you coming? The driver wants to get started!’ A few yards away, the bus was moving in their direction, slowly cleaving its way through the surrounding throng, with two policemen in front of it haranguing and bullying the pedestrians. The front door of the bus was open, and the young man stood on the bottom step gesticulating in her direction. Soon the big crawling vehicle would pass by the tent.
‘I’m really very sorry’ the Foreigner said as she stood up, ‘but I’m just not going to sell it. But thanks very, very m – ’
        ‘ – Now you just listen here,’ the woman said in a very low tone. She had stood up too, and now she was holding firmly onto the Foreigner’s elbow. ‘I’m not finished yet. You listen to me...’
        ‘I’m sorry, I really have to go!’
        With incredible suddenness the woman let go of the elbow, grabbed her baby out of the sling with both hands, and held it up close to the Foreigner’s bosom: ‘I’ll give you my child for it!’
                The bus was coming. The little body, wrapped in loose folds of saffron-yellow cloth, felt so warm. The child had slept through everything so far; now, lifting its fast-kicking legs, it began to cry. The knees knocked softly and warm against the Foreigner’s breast.
        ‘Listen, Teacher. With you she’ll be in good hands; she’ll be much better off than with me. Take her, come on! Look, you can tell she already loves you. She’s already yours!’
        Through her tears, the sobbing child looked straight into the Foreigner’s eyes while a gob of green snot came oozing out of her left nostril.
        The Foreigner thought: if I so much as reach out and touch her, if I hold her in my arms for one single second...
        ‘Ma’am! Come on! We’re leaving!’
        ‘Come on, Teacher, it’s high time you became somebody’s mother! And then you can send me a letter, my nephew can read it to me, with pictures, of what a happy life she has over there with you!’
        Sure, thought the Foreigner. I can send you a letter from my nice happy home in Rotterdam that I’m just about to break up.
How much did she owe for the bowl of soup? Now she would never have time to finish it, but while she reached into her purse like an automaton, she heard the voice of her mother saying what she had always said: a paying guest is always welcome.
It took her a couple of seconds to run to the end of the table where the two women were still chopping up carcasses, to lay down two ten-kuai notes while shouting thanks, to wave in answer to the glossy-eyed gazes of thanks, surprise and warmth, and to leap onto the stair of the bus as onto a life raft.
Shouting and pushing, the young man blazed her a trail past the standing passengers down the aisle and back to her original seat. ‘The foreign lady! Let her through! The foreign lady!’ The Chinese woman who meanwhile had been sitting on that seat got up immediately without a word, with baby, full shopping bags and all. The Foreigner was too tired to protest. With a faint nod of gratitude she sank onto the seat.
Slowly but steadily, the bus rode on. The window was open again, and the Foreigner, slumping with her head against the back rest, watched passively while the endless procession of human faces slid by a few inches outside the window.
        Between the bobbing faces of Chinese men in Army caps, Chinese girls with red hair ribbons, and Tibetan women with broad-rimmed black hats, she suddenly discerned the green turban of the shaoshu woman nearing the bus up ahead. And the bald head of the baby, the girl, riding now in the woman’s arms.
A few seconds and a few yards further, she could see that the shaoshu woman was holding the baby’s arm up and waving it in a gesture of farewell.
        The distance narrowed. Suddenly the Foreigner felt one of her own hands moving toward the other, grasping the ring, beginning to take it off. It had never come off smoothly; getting it over the knuckle was never easy, but her mother had always said: don’t force it, keep calm and it will come.
A few more seconds and the baby would be within her reach. The Foreigner kept working the ring, trying to turn it. The shaoshu woman, her eyes full of tears, held her cheek against the baby’s face and said for her: ‘Laoshi zaijian, Laoshi zaijian’ – farewell, Teacher.
Just when the window was exactly in between them, the ring came loose. Without a word, the Foreigner held out the ring through the moving window.
The gesture was not understood. ‘Laoshi zaij...’
        The moment was passing fast; already mother and child were slipping behind. They would be unable to follow the bus through the immobilizing human mass around them.
        There was one more possibility. The Foreigner stood up and tried, leaning over the back rest, to get the attention of the old woman sitting behind her.
‘Auntie’ turned out to be sleeping again, but the young man jabbed her awake with his elbow: ‘Auntie, Auntie!’ He pointed to the Foreigner’s arm extending in her direction.
        Gei ta,’ the Foreigner said, pointing at the woman outside: ‘give this ring to her. Gei ta gei ta...’
        The eyes of the old woman were big, blue, and without a glint of comprehension. With a deep sigh she grabbed the handle of the window, slammed it definitively shut, turned around and fell asleep again.
        At her vantage point in the bus, facing slantwise behind from above street level, the Foreigner watched while the moment passed by, while other human heads came to replace those of the previous waves, equally bright in the sun or dark in the growing shadows of evening, turning even while they appeared into flecks of light, flashing specks in the churning wake of her mind.
The bus lurched heavily around a corner, onto a street that seemed quieter, with fewer houses but still with stalls, passing pedestrians, wheelbarrows, venders. In the shadow of a group of people standing around a busy vender, a few yards away, a mother was holding her toddler daughter by the arms while the child, squatting in the street with her pants down, urinated. From between the supple bending legs of the child a little stream emerged, lengthening and widening in the same devious way as the ducks’ blood, as the vein traversing Mother’s eye.
A river – so long, so dark, so small when seen from the air. That was the way it had looked, seven years ago, on her vacation trip to America with her boyfriend. They had called it their ‘honeymoon.’ On the flight back to Amsterdam, while the northern route took them along the Canadian coast, they had passed the mouth of a wide river. Through patches of cloud, they could still see land, water and mountains in a slowly turning vast tableau of light, darkness and distance. When something dark seemed to be moving within the clouds nearer by, she had asked her boyfriend: ‘Could that still be birds, at this height?’ 
‘No,’ he had said. ‘Where we are now, even the birds can’t come.’
        When she finally sat down, the bus was gradually coming into the open, riding faster though still tooting all the while, finding its way back into the rhythm of going on, getting on with the journey.
Almost as tangibly as a blanket, the stored-up fatigue of the whole afternoon fell over her like a neglected pet plumping down on its mistress. As best she could, she crawled away into the back rest and folded her arms around her head, if only to hide her tears, to tuck herself in as best she could without the helping hands of a mother. Her head hurt so much.

[A Dutch version of this story, ‘Bloed,’ was published in De gids 155:1 (January 1992), pp. 36-51.]

Blood (story: Part One of Two)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異by Lloyd Haft)

She wished the half-open window of the bus would quit rattling. She already had a bad enough headache – not quite a full-blooded migraine – and it didn’t help her nausea that the bus kept on standing here, immobilized since more than twenty minutes ago, in the heart of the teeming market town X – . Since leaving Y – , two and a half hours ago, so much time had been lost: a detour at A – , a fantastically delayed switch of drivers at M – . Were they really going to reach C – by sunset? She certainly hoped so. This was her second trip to China, and although the material side of things had improved since eight years ago – it was now 1987 – she knew China well enough not to look forward to spending the night in some rural village in the Southwestern province of S – .
        And she had reached the age where deprivation is no longer a welcome adventure. As a twenty-year-old Foreign Student at Peking University, she had still been able to smile when she got up in the morning, went to the communal wc and found the floor covered with a third of an inch of water, no paper next to the toilet, and the flush mechanism not working. But now, holding a Master’s in sinology and working as China correspondent of a Rotterdam daily, she preferred sleeping in a bed without bugs.
        China was not the only thing on her mind. Just a couple of hours before she left on this trip, her boyfriend had announced that he was seeing another, younger woman and was planning to rent a room for himself in The Hague in addition to their apartment in Rotterdam. She felt like a heroine for not canceling this trip. But three weeks alone in China, two of them in the out-of-the-way Southwestern districts, had taken their toll on her well-being. The constant moving around had given her insomnia, and for days now, her digestion had been off.
        And now this bus, standing still in this heat. Ignoring the pain in her head for a moment, she thanked God for two things: that she was sitting on the shadow side of the bus while it stood in the blazing sun, and that the background music had somehow dropped out. The bus was so crowded that the standing passengers more or less collapsed in your lap, but after all, this was China. The other passengers talked so loud you would think they were trying to get somebody’s attention on the other side of an ocean. There was a lot of very stenchy smoking going on. Mothers crammed oily cold peanut-butter-covered noodles into the mouths of their crying children, or used their bare fingers to wipe puke from an open tiny mouth. Amidst all the din, incredibly, others sat or stood fast asleep.
It had started right after the bus turned right. This road in itself was nothing unusual – unpaved, dusty, full of deep ruts. But every few days there was an open-air market here. Like today. It looked as if half the population of the province had turned out for the event. And all on their feet: people toting bags, with patched denim bags slung over their shoulder, with half-rusted pails that jangled from the ends of long carrying poles, with a whole pig trussed to a thick stick that they carried together with a neighbor, with a sleeping baby in a sling, or with a white-haired Grandma with impossibly small feet dating from footbinding days, whom they pushed along in a wheelbarrow.
        More than twenty minutes ago, the bus had turned off onto this humanity-filled market street. The pedestrians, even the ones who looked around them enough to be aware that a big motorized vehicle was coming, ignored the bus’s approach or were immobilized by the human crush around them. The driver, like all drivers on all Chinese streets, tooted the horn so continously that the sound of the horn merely faded into the general hubbub. A few more minutes went by, and when there was still no sign of the pedestrians making way, the driver finally lost his patience. Slowly but determinedly, he let the bus start advancing.
The first few yards went fine, but then somebody walking with a bicycle suddenly tried to dash across in front of the moving bus. A sound of impacted metal. Shrieking brakes. A vast dizzying lurch. Again the bus stood still.
The driver threw the motor into neutral and flew out the front door. What happened next was invisible from inside. Within seconds, oral reports raced through to the end of the bus: the pedestrian was unhurt but the rear wheel of his bicycle had been wrecked. Other reports circulated outside: there was a Foreign Woman in the bus. From the other side of the half-open rattling window, people pointed at her face, her hair: look, a blonde white woman!
        She was too weak to smile back, and her nausea was really getting bad. And the driver wasn’t coming back, the bus wasn’t moving. She felt an overwhelming need to rest her head, to lean against anything whatsoever, just for a moment. She already knew the back rest of her seat was broken: it was stuck permanently in the forward position. But if she just shoved the window a little farther down, she could put her arm against it and lay her head in her hand...
        The window had two handles. One was right next to her seat; the other was closest to the passenger behind her – a stocky older woman with white hair in a bun, sitting straight up and sleeping through it all. Her fleshy, warty arms lay curled loosely around a clutch of useful items: a blue thermos flask, a venerable brown sweater, a child’s shiny pink silk jacket, a folded-up wooden stool. Sitting beside her was a youth with a pimpled face. He was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and green Army pants. 
The young man saw that the Foreigner wanted to close the window, but he could not easily reach around the big sleeping woman with her piled-up lap. He flashed a well-meaning smile at the Foreigner and pounded the sleeping woman’s elbow several times with the butt of his hand, calling ‘Auntie, Auntie!’
The woman’s eyes opened. They were blue!
‘Aaaaahh?’ she asked half-awake.
‘Shut the window shut the window!’ said the young man very fast, smiling at no one in particular, tense as if almost in panic, pointing with repeated jolts of his finger in the vague direction of the window.
In a single flowing but amazingly swift sequence, the older woman gathered up the items on her lap with one arm, raised the other hand and slammed the whole window shut with one decisive tug on the handle next to her, returned her arm to its original relaxed position, closed her eyes, and went back to sleep.
        The Foreigner nodded thanks to the young man. O please, she thought, please don’t let him start talking to me, don’t let him know I speak Chinese, don’t make me speak Chinese right now, Lord, I feel so sick! Meanwhile the young man returned her smile in silence, his own tense smile more than ever resembling a grimace.
        When she felt she had satisfied the demands of elementary propriety, she turned around, laid the back of her hand against the window, and carefully nestled her head into the palm. But the window was still rattling, and her head rattled along. Of all things that might have relieved her headache a tiny bit, this was the last. And now in addition to the near-unbearable noise of the bus, the passengers, and the surrounding crowd, a new sound entered her awareness: the intense rhythmic tapping of her ring against the glass.
It was a silver ring with a cornelian cameo, an heirloom that she had been given at her graduation from college. It had belonged to her grandmother, who had received it as a gift from her first husband shortly before he died.
        The tapping began anew every time she just seemed to have found a more comfortable position for her head. The noise in itself was not louder or more unpleasant than that of the voices, the motor, the window. But it brought along thoughts, of what her mother had said while giving her the ring: when the time comes, you’ll give it to a daughter of your own! But she didn’t have a daughter. Would the cameo be damaged by the constant hammering against the pane?
       Finally she gave up and sat up straight. She was just wondering how much longer she could stand it when there seemed to be a sudden new commotion in the front of the bus. The constant talking continued, but people seemed to look at each other more emphatically, with more focus. A few stood up from their seats and seemed to be trying to get off the bus.
‘Police...police...’ the rumor swept the bus; ‘they can’t agree on whose fault it was; they’ve called the District Police Office, but the man with the bike was injured, we can’t move till the police get here...’
        At this point, in a Western country there might have been a mutiny, but as usual, the Chinese passengers made the best of it. Quite a few stood up now and went out to
examine the wares of the street sellers, to try to sell something of their own, or to find a place to relieve themselves.
        Whatever residual optimism the Foreigner might have had was gone now. That a minor traffic incident had led to a 30-minute delay – okay, such things happen. But now there would be an additional wait – who knew for who long? – until the police arrived, and after that, until all parties had had their histrionic fill of sounding off for the benefit of the surrounding audience of down-home failures, unemployed dropouts and illiterate mothers for whom the whole drama was a wonderful amusement, the longer-lasting the better.
She decided to get out. A little walking might be the right thing for her head, and in any case, the air outside the bus would be more breathable. And right now, doing anything at all would be better than nothing.   
She stood up and was plunged into dizziness. The pain felt like a too-heavy steel disk jammed slantwise through her brain. Now that she was on her feet, she noticed a couple of hazy patches appearing in the right half of her field of vision. She half saw, half felt that the young woman who had been sitting on the aisle seat next to her was gone now. Others were elbowing their way down the crowded aisle, in both directions.
        Three minutes later, she had succeeded in getting off the bus. She had thought it was crowded and noisy in the bus, but outside, she was in a whole new world where new standards applied. While she stepped down to the ground, an image flooded her mind: she was a diver, descending onto the bottom of the sea, but the sea had dried up and was now baking in the sun, while the countless plants, ferns, fossils, starfish, sea horses – even if they were now dry, solid, fully concrete – still swayed as if underwater, sometimes suddenly shifting position. People and things moved abruptly but slightly, vaguely but inevitably, as if obeying unseen shudderings of the planet beneath them.
The moment her foot touched the bottom, she was barked painfully in the shin by a strange new aquatic specimen suddenly looming up out of the swirling sea of humanity: a stocky girl with long braids and expressionless eyes, pushing a horribly squeaking wheelbarrow with two piglets in it. To the lurching of the wheelbarrow, the animals added their own squirms, grapples, grunts. Their noise blended into the rasping of the wheel, piercing back and forth through the steel disk which remained stuck in the Foreigner’s skull.
No one apologized; no one noticed the Foreigner while she bent down to rub her shin, holding the other hand against her hurting head. Animate forms drifted past her bending body, their hands gripped tightly around handlebars or children, suitcases with wheels, open slouch bags with live chickens in them. A man plodded by with a television set under one arm and under the other a sleeping baby.
        Cautiously the Foreigner returned to vertical position while letting herself be moved slowly in the irresistible direction of the overall motion. It was an effort to walk, but it gave her a sense of renewed strength, and the spectacle of the Chinese, passionately losing themselves in their habitual chase for colorful odds and ends, was a soothing distraction from her dizziness and pain.
When she had trudged along for three or four minutes, the great stream of motion brought her past tanzi: the booths and tables of street-sellers, full of their wares. A small rickety table wobbled and shook as passersby inspected its freight: plaster busts of Beethoven, Mozart and Einstein. Two yards further on loomed a counter improvised from shoved-together wooden crates, the top filled with medicines: dark liquids in bottles, bundles of stalks and herbs wrapped in newspaper, pills in tiny glass bottles sealed with corks and wax.
        While she stood looking at the medicines, a voice behind her said in Chinese: ‘That stuff’s good for you, that brown bottle on the left. You can rub it on your leg where it hurts. It really works!’ She turned around: there, smiling wide as the sky, was the boy who had been sitting in the seat behind her. He was holding the white-haired woman by the hand. So they had seen her, observed her, followed her out of the bus and beyond.
        She smiled, nodded a wordless greeting.
        ‘You’re taking a walk,’ the young man said, still smiling and looking her straight in the eyes. His cheeks were red with the thrill of looking a blonde foreign woman in the face.
        ‘Yes,’ she said; ‘you too!’ Who was the famous Western writer who had pointed out the Chinese custom of ‘stating the obvious’? She could not remember.
        ‘Go ahead; buy some medicine! That brown bottle is good for your leg. For your head too!’ 
        What is this, she thought; how does he know I have a headache? But he went on: ‘Take your time. It looks like we won’t be leaving for a while, with that fighting and all...’
        ‘Didn’t you see them when you got out? Fighting.’
‘They were really going at it. This woman was slugging him with her fist, I mean the guy with the bike. And cussing him out: that she had seen it all, it was all his fault and he should just shut up, and all. But then this other guy got mad at the woman and started grabbing onto her, and somebody else hit him in the mouth, and...’
‘No!’ the old woman suddenly cried. The look of horror in her amazingly blue eyes was addressed to no one. ‘Oh no, they shouldn’t fight, I don’t want anybody to fight. I don’t understand why one human being should hurt another, oh Heavens, they beat my husband up so terribly and he was always so good to me, he never did a thing wrong and they say he’s dead but I know he’s alive, I saw him that time in the alley, I’m just going to see my granddaughter, my little treasure, why should they start fighting again when I’m just going to – ’
        ‘Auntie, Auntie, take it easy!’ the young man said while he threw his arms around her. ‘Take it easy, it’s okay!’ Even while he was pronouncing the words, it was as if he and his aunt sank away again, swallowed up again by the unsteady irresistible pulse of the wordless sea of humanity.
        The Foreigner tried to stand still for a moment and get her bearings, but again she was borne along, moved along in the ungraspable yet warm surf of souls foregathering in a moment of sun.
        She went along, came along, joined in the coming. Past a bicycle with a baby up front and a net full of turnips behind. Past an old woman pushing a cart full of garlic stems, stopping every few moments to clear her throat and spit on the ground. An old man with one leg, a beggar, sitting on a piece of canvas with a green Army cap to shield him from the sun, and on the ground next to him a metal rice box, empty but for a couple of coins and a yellow-and-red tourist badge with a profile of Chairman Mao.       
And so she came along, was led along, prepared, let further and further in to where her eyes suddenly stayed wide open, gazing at what stood in front of her, white, gleaming in the sun like a pillar risen from an ocean: an enormous earthen jug, taller than her waist and half a yard wide, filled to the brim with blood.
        She felt sick, urgently, but even as her eyes – still hazy with the sense of an overhanging piece of steel weighing thwart across her forehead – scoured the ground for a place to puke, it was as if her spirit was awakened, positively freed by the sudden fresh rush of pain. Beyond the reach of migraine, of nausea, she moved in a subtle dimension of unassailable peace. While she watched a cockroach edging its way past a cigarette butt long since trodden and smashed into the grit of the road, she hovered on a secret plane of thankfulness, proud to be conscious, to be thinking: I’m much too happy, much too privileged to let a moment of discomfort detract from this life, this, day, this hour that I am here.
For indeed she was here, now, in China, surrounded by flecks of living color as they moved gleaming through the sunlight of this late afternoon, every fleck a soul joining in the dance that was about her. Their blaring chatter was a psalm, a song of praise for her, reaching through fear and pain all the way to her ears with a message of assurance, a knowledge of her strange glory, the unassimilable beauty of her being.
        But she really did feel sick now. Seeing she was not going to find a decent place to throw up, she began to sink to her knees where she was. Her mind went back to the earthen jug and just under its rim, its silent surface of blood.
        Hadn’t she read somewhere that the ancient Chinese used bowls of water as mirrors? Could you see your face mirrored in a jug of blood? At the thought, she began to retch, yet the very strangeness of the thought fascinated, distracted her, led away from pain. A mirror, blood as a mirror...wasn’t that a literary allusion?
Something smacked down nearby with a dull thud. Resting on her hands and knees, she lifted her head and looked. Someone had just thrown a duck, with a bloody cut-through throat, onto a big pile of dead ducks that all had the same cut-through throat, the same bloodmarked head hanging half loose from the same limp dead body. She did not dare to look at the eyes.
Nor had she dared, six years ago in Leiden when she and her boyfriend had just moved into a home of their own, to look at the eyes. It was a beautiful, ample apartment they had found – the spacious, light-filled ground floor of a remodeled eighteenth-century house. But on one of those long shared summer days, an afternoon with a quiet drizzle falling, she was standing just inside the glass back door listening to a Haydn piano trio and looking through the rain traces on the windowpane at the trees and shrubs in the garden, when somewhere out of nowhere a baby bird, a starling, flew up against the glass with a hard knock and fell onto the stone patio.
        She had rushed to the animal’s aid; several times she had walked coatless into the rain and tried to use two twigs to turn over the little body, at intervals twisting with terrible palpitations, and set it right again so that the spasmodic movements that the wings still made might still turn again into flight before the upstairs neighbors’ cat should arrive. After the first time, she had never looked again at the eyes. 
It was hopeless. In the end she had laid the dead body in the garden close to the roots of the saxifrage. She had gone back in, put on the other side of the music, and together with her boyfriend drunk a glass of wine that led to another, and to a long  session of love on the floor by the window.
        That had been their first home.
But now she felt somebody pulling on her elbow. ‘Come on, I’ll help you’ said a woman’s voice, in Chinese with a strange accent.

[to be continued]

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fleetest of All Known Things (story)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

Like all Chinese, Liao Rubin spent her vacations doing useful career-related things that might enable her eventually to work at a harder, better-paid job. That, and going back to her native Taiwan to visit her widowed mother, who at 88 was still going strong in a Buddhist care facility.
        She had just told me these things as we met, two tourists standing in line to buy tickets to the Jiansheng Temple. I was surprised that she had never visited the temple before. True, she was unmarried, and the temple’s main attraction was its image of the Mother Keeper of the Birth Book, Zhusheng Niangniang, who helps worthy wives to become pregnant. But it was not so far from where her mother lived, in the mountainous Chiayi region with its wide sunny exposures fragrant with tea plantations.
        ‘No,’ Rubin said, ‘the sun doesn’t bother me at all. Actually I can never get enough of it. That’s one of the things about Taiwan that I still do like. My mother keeps urging me to take early retirement and come back here to live.’
        She taught Chinese language and culture at a college in Washington State where tall evergreen trees outnumbered the people and cars but it rained or near-rained every day.
        ‘It was never really my idea to go into this field,’ she said. ‘I actually wanted to be a nun. Our whole family is Catholic. But my father wanted me to study and teach literature. He said: you should share yourself with the whole world, not just with God.’
        ‘Isn’t that the same thing, sort of?’
        ‘You know...that’s an interesting idea. I’ve never really had time to think about that’ she said, but by now we were already coming up to the ticket window and she was reaching into her handbag. When she took her coin purse out, an empty flashbulb pack came out with it and dropped to the floor. As she bent down to pick it up, I looked at her legs, slender and bright beneath her knee-length blue cotton dress. She was wearing white pumps with narrow heels that made her totter slightly as she stood up again.
        We walked through the turnstile into the temple. From the incense seller, she bought a single stick. ‘I don’t really believe in this stuff, but I have a niece in Kaohsiung that’s hoping to have a child soon, and I promised to “send up incense” for her.’
        She stepped up to the stone vat, lit her own incense from the big communal punk stick, and held it close to her chest for a couple of moments with her eyes closed. I thought I saw just the slightest vestige of the traditional non-Christian three bows that precede placing the incense stick into the vat.
        As the bluish pungent smoke curled upward from her own stick and the shorter older ones that stood beside it in the vat, she started rummaging in her handbag again. I was about to walk over and examine the image of the Mother but three Cantonese-speaking girls, cameras already raised, blocked my way.
        ‘Oh, this is so-o-o-o stupid!’ said Rubin. ‘I didn’t take any flashbulbs with me. Do you have one or two that I could just buy from you?’
        ‘No, I don’t even have a camera with me.’
        ‘Well, isn’t that a shame! I wanted to teach a course next year on female goddess cults, and I wanted to show my students what the images look like from close by.’
        ‘Maybe there’s a souvenir shop where you could buy some postcards.’
        ‘But I like to make my own slides, and make nice big prints for the students. O, gee...’ Holding her camera limply in one hand, she watched the Cantonese girls as they flashed off one shot after another. ‘Well, maybe I could stand up close to somebody else while they’re taking a picture, and when their flash goes off, I could take my picture at the same time!’
        You can’t be serious, I thought. Do you have any idea how perfectly timed that would have to be, to get the same flash to work for two people?
        ‘It wouldn’t work,’ I said. ‘You’d have to co-ordinate the time perfectly. The light only lasts for a split second.’
        She kept looking at the Cantonese girls as they moved off into the corner and began leafing through the little free prayer booklets. Had she even heard what I said? I looked at my watch. I had an appointment in Taichung City for later this afternoon, and I was hoping to go back on a bus that left thirty-one minutes from now.
        ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I think I’m just going to have to go outside and see if I can buy some flashbulbs. I couldn’t live with myself if I came all the way here and didn’t even get any pictures. I don’t think I would have to buy a new ticket to come back in.’
        Even if you did, I thought...but I knew that for them, no amount of money was ever too trivial to worry about, to become an issue, to disrupt plans and call things off.
        ‘Okay, good luck!’
        She walked back to the entrance, said a few words to the ticket-taker girl, and disappeared from sight.
        I stepped up to the image of the Mother. It was one of the Dark type – a plausible human form in dirty or smoke-blackened golden robes, with an opened book in one hand and a writing brush in the other. Red pom-poms hung around the head, shading the face and making it even darker. As so often, it was hard to tell whether the loose, almost formless facial features indicated benevolence or apathy, patience or absence. The darkness of the image and the dim of the surroundings amplified, justified, lent verity to each other.
        A flashbulb exploded into light close behind my right shoulder. Instantly my whole body half-leapt with a spasm of instinctual rejection, cramping against the sudden excess of brilliance. As always, for a few moments afterward I was blinded, seeing less in the light’s wake than I had in the accustomed darkness which had awaited it.
        Other flashes came, accompanied by voices in Hokkien, Hakka, Japanese. But they came and went, adding nothing, altering nothing. I too, carrying camera nor incense – I would add nothing, alter nothing here.
        And yet...that was not true. I would remember this place at this moment as no one else would ever remember it. Someday, though it be decades away in a far land, I would think back to this backward corner, this dimness that had come to house an image, a hope. And I would see it again, perhaps would see it all the better for having no two-dimensional picture, no caricature framed in the glare of a man-made bulb.
But Rubin – did she really believe she could share in the flash of a passerby less meditative, more practical in the ways of this world than herself? It was possible. Her Oriental deference to her father had driven the nun that she was into hiding, making that early essential image live on, not as the visible shape of her adulthood but as an underground stream nourishing other lives, still hopeful shoots. Beneath the teacher, the propounder of culture, the well-spoken lady teetering on stylish half-high heels, I wondered if her feet ever stood quite steady on the planet’s surface.
I turned around and started for the exit. Rubin had not come back. Had she been detoured, drawn, charmed back into the aura of her forebears’ eternal window-shopping, bargain-talking, gift-buying, snack-eating? Would she price flashbulbs at a dozen shops before returning to the first one and pleading for a discount? Maybe in the end, seeing they were more expensive here than in the city, she would decide after all not to buy them, and instead to try her fantastically unrealistic idea of taking her picture while somebody else’s flash went off.
        If so, I thought as I headed for the bus stop, it would be a lesson. Not to teach but to learn: that in this world even light, fleetest of all known things, is subject to time: is measured, meted, doled, dispensed by the days, the hours, the moments: those shutters that so narrowly allow it in its passing.