It is better to invite one thousand sinners to a party of saints than unleash one neutral man among the good. The opposite of course is not true. Jaguars, ambivalent loners, unlike proud lions, are always restless until they pounce. China. She’s jealous…
When China wants a new religion, the world builds roads. Wild children of the Old Middle Kingdom are pretending to steal their parent’s blessings who want to run free. Do you blame them? They only wanted love and they idolize the unloving mother. They are sad and hard, so they judge.
Meanwhile in the United States, a husband and wife struggle to make it. He is natural born, and she holds the green card. Added up they almost count as two citizens. Their mothers were dead. His died years and years before, and hers only last fall. Each was sort of desperate; the types who meet needs of the others, fast and inaccurate like a tiger trying to eat flying birds. So much so, they almost forgot themselves and like the deluded Chinese of yore, they may have believed they were only ones who had the know how business was done properly in the comfortable indoors.
[I heard the skilled trades were banished to the farmlands (during the Cultural Revolution),] he typed into the cellphone translation App.
[Yes, that is true, but not the whole story] she replied.
Her family, being musical, were spared the ultimate cost. They were said to have some money before it all began so convincingly. He asked how much. She said good salaries. Music teachers of old were respected, until none were. It is unclear how much money made a difference in those days. Her father’s position was said to be like that of a college professor, but mainly he tutored children in their homes. There might have been a folk theater. She, or was it the translation App, at times spoke in unconcise riddles and occasionally a deep profundity appeared randomly and struck her husband’s heart. The Chinese caress omens since other items of value were rare. Now this nation had become a dragon prodded by new gods; it could bellow fancier hates of progress past dawn, dreams seen then becoming smoke, vitalities worshipped then dismissed, encouragements hollow and sorrow as always – infinite. These sheltered people had held prayer-full hands as midnight coughed out authoritarian evils, and the simple folk kept dwelling vaguely on long dead folk doctors who could not be told apart from their real counterparts. Now, becoming awake, they had to decide what was real for a dreaming world once more.
Her husband said [I had a college professor. And he said that before in China, during the Cultural Revolution, these Grandmother Patrols, old women, under local party district permissions travelled the night by mule drawn coaches, shanghaiing drunk men from the sidewalks and scissoring them to vasectomies.]
She replied, [I am not sure where that was the case. Allow me to tell you what happened…] She pulled back slightly, then leaned in to continue. [How it happened was that doors were kicked beyond the midnight hour and pregnant women were violently dragged out of their homes and forced marched to abortions at nearby low-end all-night clinics.]
[How many?] he asked.
[In the rural areas nearly eight, no nine out of ten pregnant women has this done to them, in the cities somewhat less.]
He shuddered. How could his elite college professor have it so wrong. How hard it must be to know the truth of another country. His insides became as slowed, tumbling jelly, horrified as the scale of the thing seeped in, but his being, the thing that was known to him, roared, and toppled with further complexities. Something hinted at propaganda, but he was not sure what. It was like trying to figure out children. Though he had no children, and she one son. Marriage, that scout of dawns, did not offer insight into what he had married into. A whole nation with a history he did not understand. It was like playing a game with a clever mother.
[What about contraceptives, why didn’t the people or the government make use of those?]
[No, these were backward places and times.]
Who was he to profess? After all, when they met eleven years ago, he had already squandered his father’s small fortune and nearly had no vocation promising any longevity. His countrymen hated him for his edge, noble perhaps and assuredly dissolute. She had been around eight years old when the Cultural Revolution began. The language barrier only briefly stalled their marriage. He was a psychotherapist who believed in mind-reading and of course some of the sub-textual languages of love. Some of his patients released demons in his home office as easily as releasing balloons into the air. He racked his brain to recall if she had attempted to tell this story to him before. This was a deep night. It had been a while since they had had one. He had smoked marijuana that she did not know of. She had odd views to be sure; she believed the Chinese were smaller because they ate pork. She didn’t approve of American unorthodoxies that were chemically-based. He played her at chess as if juggling sharp dragonflies and she was coming close to winning a game.
She cooked at night, morning, noon and in-between. She cleaned the rest of the time. She could stop, though her husband told her to do so more than ten thousand times. She was sixty-three now and that night she spoke more than wedding vows and was as quiet as a funeral sermon. Only momentarily did he misunderstand. At age 17, near the end of the Cultural Revolution she was sent to a chemical factory for four years of work. An Internship. Her husband had asked her that night to tell him something more of China:
He pressed further… paper, gunpowder, [Don’t tell me of your nation’s inventions and arts. Tell me of your nation’s moral love, something higher than anything normal.]
[Chinese are bad. They push and take from people. They pay in curse.]
[Come on there must be something good.]
[I can tell you of my master.]
He was likely dead now she believed. Tell me more. They played no music yet, and hope held. A marriage needs inspiration and it’s amazing what magic a simple conversation between a wife and husband can become.
His father’s old album records waited. He put on country, then R&B, and then something from overseas. Would she have ever been educated if not for the old master? He was a distinguished electrical engineer with a beautiful and most modest wife. Her own father was pleased with the arrangements. But the details are more specific. There was a secondary selection process by the master on the first day of work. Three interns stood near a furnace in the catacombs of the factory. The engineer sat them in chairs.
It had to be in secret because The Great Leader Mao thought because the sirens were silent and the muses deaf; only death would do. Jealousy and Outrage, the unbalanced siblings of Play and Anger reigned. Mao’s was a sick angel. Yet, Mao knew none of this because his friends’ hearts hated him while their mouths lied adulations. The Cultural Revolution brought shame and death. His wife’s own father was tied and marched in the streets, his face full of dirty grease, with a dunce cap while the people who thought they could be free threw rationed vegetables as sacrifices.
How the Steel was Tempered. It was one of the first books her master had her read. She had won the selection by stating she liked the novel Spartacus.
[My master had first asked another girl, what kind of book do you like to read? The little girl said I am not interested in books. My master asked the young man, do you like to read books? The young man said that I like to read The Book of the Little Man (Mao’s Bible to the People). My master is the chief engineer of this factory. His education is very high. In those days, no one went to study, this was the late Cultural Revolution, things were loosening, yet my master had to be brave as he held an outlawed book every day.]
Her husband pictured the scene in his head. The two wandering the catacombs of the chemical plant, as odd as a Totalitarian with Confucius, reciting to each other theory and reflections on Chinese and Western novels. Of course, there were no fresh crops of students anywhere for more than a decade. She was a good, if simple choice. Formal students had been outlawed upon penalty of death. The Book of the Little Man, Mao’s Little Red Book, espoused limits. The prosaic engineer must have been bored to tears. Now, with the curious girl by his side, there were to be conversations again. There was a youth who could learn and keep a secret. Tongues would conjugate heresies of beauty against the State.
The factory hid a small library away from the crowd. It contained a fair portion of classics. She always had one to take home to read. She, at sixty-three, still listened to Chinese translation of The Red and The Black each evening to sleep. The Pacific had been crossed and she was with an American. Her story had lived long enough to see this definition of freedom.
[What were your favorites?] her husband asks.
[The disabled man who worked hard for the big fish and showed the boy.]
[Do you mean The Old Man and the Sea?]
A civil war between a fish and a man in a little over one hundred pages.
[What else did you read that you ended up liking?]
[Too many books. Maybe forty each year. I liked Dumas The Three Musketeers and Camilla the Little Piglet.]
[What is in danger by reading these books?]
[The danger was ending, but some could still go to jail, or worse, as eternal learning had not blossomed.]
Yes, she was right, China – Weird Place. The “ Great Helmsman” Mao orchestrated the murdering of up to two million Chinese. Sinister is when they know you know and pretend they don’t. Mao usually riled up pretty and unlearned young girls to join the Red Guard and point out decadent, educated families as to purge his detractors. Dear Utopians, it is the Acts of Salem, not the love of country or rapacious magic that causes the deadliest in revolt.
[My master name is How Long.]
[Oh, How Long?]
[Yes. If you wish to know I also enjoyed The Dream of the Red Chamber.]
[A long story unlike Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. A big family was the story and also of a weak woman. One hundred tasks in the lives of one hundred people and all in great detail and exciting. Loners cannot write such books. It takes a man of the people who is not afraid to go to parties. It requires task deception of very fine particles.]
[Tell me more!]
[Translations of Spring and Autumn cameos.]
[What does that mean?] He began envisioning the crucified of Spartacus along the Silk Road.
[Our library was obscure, yet endangered. I was excited and scared. Things had already happened. I remember lots of big posters suddenly everywhere when the Revolution began. I was around seven or eight years of age at the time. Chairman Mao used a trick. He wanted the people to forget their past. Everyday people were knocked down. Even ancient Demons, but not Mao.]
Those who initiate love and do not consummate it will be looked on with bewilderment or scorn. Mao must have been such a man, he thought.
[No wonder your teacher valued you.]
[Yeah, the engineer.]
[No, he no my teacher, he my master. My teacher was beloved. I loved her. I knew her two year before I found her.]
[What do you mean found?]
[Well, I saw it by the crowd. It was large and excited. I was ten and in the back of the crowd, and I must push forward through all the people. And I did like a sea snake. Then when I came out, I saw her, my teacher! Hanging from a street post.]
[Like hanging dead?] He gasped and air shot out of him like a bullet from a gun. Or was he a child who just had shot a bird?
[Yes, they say she hanged herself because she was an American spy. She no spy! She good person! My teacher begged before when the first suggestions were made. I no spy! I no American! She was terrified and young.]
[Yes, I no forget.]
[I bet when Mao died everyone was happy.]
[Only in concealment could we smile. I laughed for joy in hiding. I no forget. Right after Mao died, if anyone laugh in the cantinas and a loyal lieutenant was present, they tended to use their pistols to the heads of all those with mockery.]
[Yeah. I get it.]
[Please be careful who you tell this story to, do not mention me, there are now many, too many Chinese spies in America. I don’t want trouble.]
[Yeah, okay, don’t worry, what else did you like?]
[Three Counties, a Chinese classic, and another favorite] though her friend “Mary,” a former university worker did not care for this book. [In America all that is understood is in hiding with those who write about it.]
In the Cultural Revolution thugs blossom suddenly. It did not need to cross her mind how high street posts, in China or anywhere else were. She knew her teacher was placed there, and this was no suicide. Anyone should know it would be difficult for a young teacher to climb alone so high. Snowball in Hell, Merle Haggard, next album up. Or Fords, and Good Times…
The Chinese Revolution’s voice had slaughtered more like a madrigal–cleverly instinctive and royal. It was like a land without a fool or a queen who could save some by naming the folly of the kings.
Her husband couldn’t remember the genealogy of all the record albums they possessed. Many were the ones his father had, and some his mother’s by way of his sister, then other’s his sister’s alone before, and then a few he had picked up himself from Goodwill and the like.
As with all Chinese, the engineer, the old master was still on his mission to seek for moral love in literature and histories. He was still alive. The television in his nursing home worked, and Mao was long dead. He recalled the old chemical plant, the secret library, and how he grew a flower amidst a time when one billion hands were put forth to hold back the ocean of enlightenment. He had turned to the old religions. He wandered into the thought of the Buddha and surmised Buddha was loved more in China, than his home India, because the Chinese are the most lyrical.
[Cameos, Translations of Spring and Autumn] These were good she said – the moral was easy to discern [There is no forgiveness in a house of one thousand charms.]
Her husband, in a mystic moment, had seen her past lives going back to Geisha Japan and as one of The Island Queens of Malaysia. Who would import two faces over such great time? Who was it, was it her or the translating computer who said [Who dares to bless the pig and eat the cousin?] She could be so loving that her prediction of the weather after reading it in the newspaper and might have one believing she was the Oracle of Delphi. That’s how those who love long must think on occasion. Who cares of the things and places of memory when people can be conjured into convenient elaborations? There are times when opposites do not need to be explored.
Eric Smith was born in Rhode Island and lives in Texas.