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 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.]