all sounds disappeared, I braced myself against the scratchy, gagging discomfort
in my throat, and went on listening to the vacant whir of the cassette rewinding
in the tape recorder, and the rustling sound of my wife's affectionate glance
that made my ears ring.
In the short interval while the tape was being flipped over, I tried hard to recall the sound pictures of birds calling and insects chirping. What tape was that? What content, what message did it convey? Why did my wife choose to play this particular tape for me at this particular moment?
First came a turbid sound like a tidal wave, then the swishing of leaves. After a short silence came a whimpering, a murmuring, a rustling, and a creaking. It eventually came together in a symphony of birds, insects, fish, and beasts ... the longer I listened, the more familiar it sounded, and the more I wanted to call out the names, describe the feelings, tell the stories I had forgotten. But unfortunately, no matter how I focused and directed my life energy, the only sound I could produce was a monosyllabic guo, like the broken string of a lute. Just at this time I seemed to hear the sounds I had heard every night as I pressed my left ear against my pillow: the wild pounding of my heart, the acidic kneadings of my stomach, the coursing of blood throughout my body. In my dreams, the rapid movements of my eyes were like huge snowballs rumbling down a hill, making me toss and turn all night. These miscellaneous sounds struck the anvil, malleus, and stapes in the depths of my ear, setting off a vibration in the liquid of my inner ear, compressing my flustered soul like a deep ocean current.
I gazed helplessly at my wife, and she responded with an understanding smile, one like a morning breeze rippling over the surface of a lake. She still said nothing, wasn't willing to let the secret out of the black box, as had long been the case, pouring out instead to me silence, tenderness, and tacit protest. My suspended heart dropped for a moment into the hollow pit of my stomach as I looked at her insistent lipline and the pressed, whorled dimples and wrinkles on her face.
The day I was discharged from the hospital, I was so miserable I could hardly get out of bed. The lower part of the bathroom mirror reflected back a deep abyss, a hole in my throat, a tracheal opening, a black hole in my life.
Successful surgical removal of my entire throat in treatment of glottal throat cancer enabled me to reclaim the second half of my time on this earth while at the same time depriving me of my oral agility of which I was so proud during the first half of my life and my vocal cords. For a long time, through the vibrations of my vocal cords and the way I manipulated my tongue, I was able to cut a path through business transactions, negotiating tables, lecture halls and boudoirs and almost always come up a winner. Any place there were people whether I was confronted with a fox, a poisonous snake or a thick-headed swine, I was always able to size up the situation, licked my upper lip in confident superiority, and spit out cleverness and humor, while at the same time hearing right through the other party's intonational mask. I never cooed like a quail or crowed like a rooster, nor fell back on rude speech or dogma, parroting what others said to muddle the masses, though I was well versed in the art of 'onomatopoeia.' I was able to scratch the itch felt by both sides with a few well-chosen words, or to poke open the tenderest wound of my opponent; I was a mannequin on the knee of a master ventriloquist.
I well understood the power of 'sound effects.' I would play some classical music, or animal calls, to purify the ignorant, mediocre minds in attendance at my lectures. If it was just a conversation, I would have to lower the frequency of my voice, slow down my enunciation, and adjust my intonation so that I could transform a vocal signal of 100 cycles per second into a magnetic field, and make it 'background music' in the subconscious of my partner. Sometimes, in the face of a long-winded outpouring by a woman, all I had to do was to smile and nod, then pass a stethoscope-like gaze over the area between her eyebrows and mouth, and produce, at appropriate moments, a chanted mm-hmm of acknowledgment. I could in this way feel the vibrations of the cartilage between her skull and breastbone, like a resonator. I knew this whole procedure all too well the hair cells in a woman's cochlea are more reactive even than the leaves of a sensitive plant. What they hear, they hear forever; once exposed to the noises of flirtation, things can never be the same again.
Having lost the connection between my oral cavity and trachea, I was like a discarded speaker, depending temporarily on a drainage tube to keep me alive, and on a tube from my nose to my stomach for nutrition (mealtime always brought me the terror of drowning). I dreamed of pacing before a sewer with no opening at the other end, of screaming out at the top of my lungs and hearing nothing at all in return; or of sitting by the side of a river, blowing with all my might on a blade of reed grass that simply would produce no sound, and all of the cells in my body began to clang loudly like a mountain of wind chimes.
I was often woken up in the middle of night by an attack of severe coughing, red in the face, and unable to spit out a single word. What was my complaint? Or was I lamenting? The cotton bib carefully sewn by my wife couldn't block the hairs, dust, and thought crumbs that got sucked in through the opening in my throat. I covered the open sore in my neck, my throatless throat, violently suppressing my urge to pour out my heart, like a dismembered insect hanging for dear life onto his last antenna, until the time that my throat opening no longer contracted and scabbed over, and became a 'nose,' a newly formed respiratory canal, and voice canal.
The doctor said that patients who have had their entire throat surgically removed will, before adjusting to changes of temperature and humidity in the external environment, experience increased coughing and phlegm production, and will often have the urge to spit. You need to take care when bathing that water doesn't get into your windpipe, and you should avoid covering the opening with fuzzy blankets, which could cause suffocation. Throatless people retain the right of speech, but their voice can no longer be crisp or forceful; you can no longer break suddenly into song or pour all your feelings into a hearty yell. Esophageal speech is extremely low, flat, distorted, a little like the monotone produced by a computer, sometimes like the mournful cry of a blackbird.
I resigned of my own accord from my position as general manager, and canceled all my appointments into next year. More importantly, I had to forget what it was like for air to pass through my vocal cords, or for my tongue to press against my upper teeth. The training required to learn esophageal speech is arduous and draining (much harder than dealing with the most difficult client). I was like an angry-eyed warrior, mouth agape and tongue-tied, with elbow bent and fists clenched, as I drew a gulp of air into the upper reaches of my esophagus, caused the muscles of the same area to contract, then set the mucous membrane and column of air there into vibration, to produce plosives, fricatives, or various other nondescript sounds. During the period of intensive training for members of the throatless club, I suddenly began to envy toddlers just leaming how to speak; even though they could only produce a few meaningless phrases what could I do? The magician of whistled speech could no longer get out simple sounds like ee and ah. It was hard to fathom that the first sound I made after the beginning of my new life was guo, croaked out like a frog.
I refused the use of a voice synthesizer to aid me in talking, and yanked out the voice enhancement valve. I'd rather face my books and the music I lost familiarity with long ago, and live out my days speechlessly. In my dreams I continued to 'witness' scenes of high-frequency, ultrasonic waves: a symphony of crickets rubbing their wings together; the echoes of millions of bats flying out of their cave into the setting sun; the deep elegy of a single whale as he blows out a column of water ... every time I was awakened by the explosive sounds within the microcosm inside my body, I could only tightly embrace the wife whose body shape had become increasingly unfamiliar to me, but whose temperature seemed increasingly warm, and haltingly produce some disconnected gurgles. The vibrations started from the back of my wife's neck, and traveled up over her face to the opening in my throat, to the drumhead under my lungs, finally making my spine vibrate.
I closed my eyes, shut down my ears and nose, allowed my twitching lips to sleep, and lay down to play a quiet score. But the notes kept on vibrating, the nautilus emitted a tiny flame, which singed the cilia of my cochlea, and went straight to my wife's inner ear, forming a red-hot chord. When did I start embracing a wife as corpulent and desireless as 1, like a violinist gently stroking rosin? When did my wife silently return to my side, after I had lost just about everything I once had?
Or maybe I should say that my wife never did leave my side one step; it was me, rather, so obsessed with my own greatness, trying with all my might to create the climax of the carnival, and in the process ignoring her yeaming-filled and solitary B-flat note? So many years (my gosh how many years ago was it that we tied the knot?) I found peace in stability, regular habits, in the status quo of my life, and could not hear the uneasy strums from behind the curtain, and could not see that pair of hands whose palm lines have been blurred by detergent and dishwater. I wore my crisp coat and my middle-class mask to play a duet of enterprise and gossip; I stuck to a set pattern and drifted along without much selfawareness. It was not until those first few nights after my surgery when I grabbed onto the only floating plank I found in a vast, silent ocean that I became suddenly aware of the tempest raging at my nerve ends, the turbulence at the edges of my cuticles, and the secrets hidden in the rough whorled lines of my wife's fingertips. Yes, this noisy hammerhead dolphin has met up with a tacit arctic whale, a 'mute wife' who speaks through silence. What is it my wife wanted to say? Had she been talking all these years? She neither complained nor let off steam; every time those barely discernible whispers struck my cold heart, my wife was in fact holding an unbroken 'dialog' with me; one person played two roles: the secret language of a long, hopeless love?
What did my wife want to tell me? Maybe, before I had a functioning, articulate 'mouth' again, I should use my throat opening as an 'ear.' I long ago learned in zoology about how the sensory apparatus of insects was located in the most unlikely places, like under the wings or on the legs. The 'ear' of a dolphin is his oil-filled jaw; some snakes and lizards hear through their lungs; fish have no outer ear, yet they can hear waves and swimming motions of others of their species. Were the body heat and numb vibrations I exchanged with my wife also a sound wave, or waves of love?
Something occurred to me. Immediately following the conclusion of the surging overture came the scattered music of a water dance, and a symphony of innumerable mountains and creeks. When I was a university student, an elderly scholar of zoology who had covered practically the entire globe in his travels recorded all kinds of sounds of nature for me. What was next? There was a mating call of a male alligator, the warbling of tits, the crisp ping pang call of the nightingale, the chirping of crickets, the trumpet of David's deer, the combined lung lung and tzu tzu of the whale's song ....
There was yearning and uncertainty, there was raucous harmony, there were minuscule repetitions, there was interrupted passion, there were knots that demanded opening, there were major attacks that awaited a return to the original state, there were insuperable mountain peaks, there were concertos filled with fervor, chaos, and ecstasy ... the last portion of the tape recorded startling single sounds, melodies, intervals, rhythms, from low-pitched pipes moving gradually up to the guo sounds that suggested a song of joy.
Now just what kind of sound was guo? I looked at my smiling wife; it was the last tune on the black box. My wife's silent face was like a cold pool in early spring; in which the only little fountains that welled up were her expressive eyes. "Have you forgotten9" she asked. "This tape was a gift from when we first promised ourselves to each other."
"Guo? Guo?" I opened my eyes wide and fixed them on the motionless comers of my wife's mouth, to make sure that she hadn't opened her mouth.
"You said that those were the mating calls of various Puerto Rican tree frogs, and how the note they sang was determined by their lungs, that the sound waves would transmit to the sides of their bodies, thus sending out a call of love from the depths of their hearts. You said it was an entrancing harp played by God."
"Guo guo! Guo guo guo guo! "
A tsunami issued from my belly, and for a moment a flood rolled out from my empty throat. Pressed tightly against my wife's breast, I felt I would rather be a fetus returning to the womb, and close my eyes to listen to the background music of the male frog's sonata, and to the only language of my new world: tenderness, stability, familiar heartbeats and soundings of waves.
piece originally appeared in the author's prose collection, The Guide (導盲者
), and received first prize in the 1996 Central Daily News literary competition.
THE RUSSIAN DOLL 俄羅斯娃娃
by Chang Chi-jiang 張啟疆
translated by Karen Steffen Chung 史嘉琳
red painted wooden Russian doll-inside-a-doll stood on the natural wood headboard
of the bed like a crying roly-poly in a religious shrine. I stood in the bedroom
doorway trembling like a Parkinson's patient, afraid of not being able to control
my own shaking, and not daring to come too close to her, caress her, fold her
into an embrace in my bosom, then open her at the waist to find out what secret
she concealed inside. Yes, she held a secret, a whorled heart-to-heart puzzle
inside concentric circles.
One moming, just seven days ago, the early spring sunshine poured into the closed room in strips through the Venetian blinds. The little mistress of the room summoned all her energy to say to me, "Happy Birthday, Uncle! 'Dolly' is giving you a doll." Clouds of dusts scattered throughout the room. Efforts at a smile ended up looking like a shriveled little punchhole.
I gazed at the fine particles of dust suspended in the strips of sunshine, and thought of a 'wish' that flashed through my mind as I went out the door: I wondered if I could exchange one day of a morning mushroom for an enchanted tortoise's or tree of heaven's year of life for her.3 If I were to suddenly age, without any particular desires or requests, could I make time stand still and let this child have the chance to just be a child?
This was a birthday disgraced by a cake with candles. I held the bowling pin-sized wish doll, closed my eyes, and smiled as I listened to Dolly's mystery-filled explanation: "Inside the doll is another smaller doll, and inside that doll, yet another even smaller doll, and on and on. Each doll represents a wish. You write your wish on a slip of red paper, put it inside the tummy of the doll, then nest all the dolls together again. They are all anxious to get out, so they will help you get your wish. What is your birthday wish, Uncle?"
What do I wish? That sobbing sound, like a quail cooing, again reached my ear canals, anvil, and malleus, in turbulent, concentric whorls. I blinked my eyes, which smarted as though pierced by a needle, and were dry and bristly as cactuses.
"Why don't you be my wish doll?" I feigned a joking lightheartedness with great effort. But it was too bad that the simultaneous movement of my cheekbone muscles, eyelid muscles and laughing muscles couldn't dissolve away the bitterness that had settled to the bottom of my dimples. Was making a wish something like trying to go out and find the horizon, relegating a deep yearning to a distant emptiness? Or like promising an unknowable and unattainable future?
"OK, you said it you promised." The warm sparkle in Dolly's eyes spread a chill through my heart.
The multi-layered design is like a Tetris game ... no, no it's not squares piled up on each other it's beginningless, endless circles. Once you peel off the cheery exterior, you come upon a gloomy interior. Inside of every satisfied desire is an unfillable vacuum.
When Dolly saw me that day, she said, as I took off my coat, "You've lost weight. How could you have lost so much weight in just a month? You look like you've lost a whole layer of flesh."
"It's not 'losing weight'; I'm melting. Or maybe I should say that I've let go of another self."
Dolly shook her head. "No, you should let go of one of the inside selves," she said.
I thought of ten years back, the first time I held little Dolly in my arms. She was like a round little watermelon. She seemed to be scolding me, saying, "You should first learn how to hold a woman, how to hide her in your pocket, keep her in your heart. Is your room big enough?"
At the time I was unable to ruminate my way through the punishment this prediction would impose on me over the next ten years. I looked uneasily at my brother-in-law, who had just been driven out of the hospital room and was looking nervously this way and that.
The tiny newborn, who weighed in at less than two kilograms, squirmed in my embrace. It was hard to imagine that this little life that would grow and change so quickly was to be the only little baby, little doll, little girl, and woman in my life for the next ten years.
Dolly was once a normal abnormal baby girl: her eyes were puffy, her face dark and swollen, the bridge of her nose flat and crooked, her temples and cheeks black and blue due to bruising from the forceps used to assist in her delivery. Her skin was purplish, loose and wrinkled, like a snake halfway through a molting. The back of her shoulders and her ears were covered with down. I looked at the infant's melon-shaped head, and thought that all premature babies must look like this; but later I found out that the impressions of 'healthy babies' we get from TV commercials are in fact an artificial beautification of real life. This half-ape, half-snake child was 'normal'; what seemed abnormal about her wasn't due to her arrival in the world 60 days earlier than she was supposed to. The minute she was separated from her mother, she tried to open her little mouth, and fill her lungs with air from the New World. It's hard to know whether the creaking that came from her throat was out of relief or sorrow. She flailed her arms and kicked her legs, as though she just couldn't wait to grow up, yet was afraid to grow up. Choking, coughing, spitting up milk, rolling around, and twitching were her daily homework. It haunted me how I couldn't tell, every time she woke up from a dream or was startled, just what that pair of ashen eyes, so lacking in youthful innocence, were seeing. And she apparently couldn't see me, though I was right in front of her nose.
At the time we hadn't a notion about her very unusual condition.
Seven years ago, the first time Dolly was hospitalized, there was a boy in the adjoining room who was afflicted with giantism. Due to a pathology of the pituitary gland, he already looked at age fifteen like a forty-year-old man. No, no, the way he looked couldn't be simply described as "forty years old," or as having "enlarged limbs" or "weak vision and white hair." No one could possibly describe his features accurately; one couldn't know whether to describe him as an early bloomer or as having aged before his time. His eyes, nose, ears and lips were in a state of constant change; his face had broadened, his cheekbones jutted out, his teeth were spread out like a fossil bed, his tongue was so thick he could barely speak. The thing he most dreaded hearing was the popular Taiwanese lullaby: "Sleep little one, and grow an inch a day" to the point where he eventually didn't even dare fall asleep. Late at night when all was quiet, he had to live with the whooshes and rushings all alone, his erratic heartbeat, and an indescribable cracking and popping of bones.
Was it the sound of bones sprouting new growth, or of tectonic movement? I often went to see this little boy on the pretext of visiting Dolly, partly out of sympathy, and partly in response to some agitated inner voice. Any time he felt soreness in a shoulder, a twinge in a leg, or if his lungs filled with fluid, or his kidneys failed, he would say, "Look, I'm 'growing' again." Though the boy grew like wildfire, his personal development was completely stunted. His intellectual ability and thoughts remained at the level of a toddler, yet he had to bear the burden of a middle-aged body, and his uninhibited growth forced this little child to plan for his old age far earlier than expected.
The child became an old really old man in the less than half year that I knew him. He didn't have crow's feet or liver spots; due to his pointed skull, however, he had a two-centimeter-deep depression under a bone fold this was his 'wrinkle.' Later, after he was attached to a respirator, the boy asked me in a voice that had not yet finished changing: "What trick does the giant use to hide inside the magic lamp?" I had just come out of my first real relationship, which had lasted ten years; and I think I answered, "The giant never was inside the magic lamp. He's a genie, so he lives only in our hearts."
Many years later, I suddenly thought of something said at different times by both little patients, who were separated by just a thin wall: "I don't dare fall asleep; I am afraid that after I wake up I won't recognize my own self anymore."
Actually, the one afraid to recognize himself was me.
Now, so many years after that moment, I hold the hollow painted wish doll in my hands, and gloom and doubt enshroud my brain, the gloom and doubt of a middle-aged man in the shadow of an atoll of lust; a male seahorse sweeps across my hypothalmus, whipping up foam as in a tsunami. Yes, the entire surface of the sea has collapsed. I can't hold back the turbulence; all I can do is listen to the layers upon layers inside the hollow body, the sounds of crashing and crumbling, hitting me like an earthquake which within seconds makes every last building around fall to the ground. Stuck on a red door is the gaze of a six-year-old little girl, filled with longing for love; set in the paper window next to the door is a pair of downcast eight-year-old eyes sending off a mother leaving home; at twenty years of age, I push open the door of our home, head for a new city; then ten, twenty years later, here I am, trying to pull together a "home" from ruins. Three circles inside, three rings outside, with an iron grating inside the city gate. Which self should I release?
On her birthday, my sister patted the wooden doll in my bosom as she sent me off to the door. In her eyes I saw pain and pity, as though she wanted to say something but then didn't. I knew that she wanted to say, "Big Brother, my dear Big Brother, you dear, forty-year old sweetheart, don't let our parents' divorce and my unsuccessful marriage make you afraid of loving and losing understand?"
I let go a silly, non-comical laugh. A glimmer of the setting sun in my sister's eye looked like a hardened drop of glue on a dry riverbed. Her slowly falling and halting gaze was superimposed on a pair of listless eyes in her sickbed of ten years ago. This broken but strong new mother didn't scream, cry, complain, or curse; she performed, rather, a self-circumcision as though her body had nothing to do with her. My sister at that time didn't resemble a new mother, but a patient from whom a tumor had just been removed; after the birth she looked not like a deserted wife, but like a widow.
Why was it a 'circumcision?' Because my sister tried to tear herself open in order to prevent the tiny life growing within her from coming into the world.
A seven-year relationship ended in just one day. The time it happened came, most inopportunely, right when the doctor gave my sister the "good news."
I was abroad at the time. Ever since we were kids, there was nothing I didn't share with my sister. I didn't know what the wrenching pain would drive her to do. What would she give up? And I kept dreaming of another woman whose youth I had frittered away, who held out for so many long years hoping I'd change my mind. Later I scolded my sister in a candid tone of voice: "Why did you insist on marrying such a spineless man?"
"I don't regret leaving him, nor do I regret marrying him," she said with a firm and sharp voice. "Don't you think he's a lot like you? He really is just like you."
I knew she had no regrets. Ten years ago, when Dolly was bom, my sister insisted on celebrating the birth with a divorce.
When I arrived home at three in the morning, my sister insisted on coming to see me. That sleepless night my sister, who had never been at a loss for words before, became a speechless Barbie doll. I was distracted by the sighing sounds coming from my father sleeping in the next room, and couldn't think of a single thing I could say to console my sister. My sister saw my awkwardness and became overly quiet and tender with me, as though even the air had melted and no longer existed. The dim wall lamp cast a film of light over her, like a piece of amber enclosing a fly. I heard my own heartbeat slowly augment into a thunderous pounding. Then the air split, and a beautiful butterfly shed its thick chrysalis, casting aside its multiple layers of suffering and beauty. I could no longer suppress the tears cutting down my face, because of the new savage wounds my sister had inflicted into her full and snowy-white bare body: from her neck to her abdomen, across her navel, two scars like long, red, indented drainage tubes were carved out on either side of her.
"I'm sorry, Brother I've made myself into a rag doll," she said in a barely audible whisper.
She failed to end her life with drug overdoses and slit wrists, and also failed to end the life of the little daughter growing inside of her. A close and dear enemy from birth, she succeeded only in leaving an inauspicious, stick-straight crimson palm line on the infant who was senescent before she was even bom.
It is difficult to imagine that this little girl and her mother were bound together through the same body into an irreconcilable familial relationship. One morning, many, many years later, my sister finally told me, in a liquid voice, "I'm really sorry for all these years that you've had to play 'mother'.
Maybe my sister was right, that some part of Dolly really came from me, grew, flourished, then turned around to be nursed by me, to swallow me up whole, and become my whole being.
Over the past ten years, Dolly spent more time with Uncle than she did with her own mother. She created a far greater disturbance in my dream life than in the brooding melancholy and turmoil I experienced in my waking hours. Recently Dolly was again admitted to the hospital, and the woman who almost caused me to lose myself was not with me anymore.
"So your weight loss is a gradual melting away of yourself? My Dear Old Brother, is love at your age an endorphin? Or an amphetamine?" For seven nights in a row I couldn't sleep well; this birthday conversation continued to resound in my cortex.
"It's a substance in the brain that produces feelings of calm, warmth, and comfort. Not passion, and it won't give you great sorrow or great joy, but a long-forgotten feeling of peaceful interdependence. But then even a tranquilizer would be a dangerous drug in the hands of a literary type like you."
I forced an ironic laugh. I only know that in these past years even when I haven't had a girlfriend by my side, somewhere, somehow my broken spirit contains an insomniac woman. Sometimes there is a background of long hair, sometimes a side view of a statue. Sometimes she turns into a doll who dares make no sound, even when alighting on the ground.
I remember clearly that night ten years ago, when this underweight little life was first separated from her mother's body her body was curled up and shook all over. Her mother didn't scream, nor did the infant dare cry, though streams of viscous tears flowed from the comers of her eyes (we later learned that the gluey tears were due to an amniotic infection). When the doctor spanked her tiny bottom, she knit her brow, her lipline rose a it, and she carefully exhaled her first breath of air, but still dared not open her eyes. It was as though she had just been aroused from her land of Nod; she was a sleeping beauty who was loathe to wake up from her sweet dreams.
Thinking back now, maybe Dolly was an infant spirit anxlous to get on with her next reincarnation, and she was rashly assigned to the wrong mother.
Just like seven days ago, when I received the birthday present, an unsettling thought flashed through my brain: why is it a girl doll who offers me a wish? Why does the body of this baby doll have the eyes of an old woman?
"There's something creepy about this doll," a recently divorced friend warned me last night, with the air of a fortune teller. "Don't you worry that it will turn into a seductive enchantress who will harass you and give you no peace? You, the depraved teacher who charms young female students in your classes?"
I guess I'm the one who is all mixed up. During those years when Uncle stood in for Mom, I remember Dolly at eight or nine years looking like a young woman ready for love (in fact she was already an old woman at the time). She hid herself in the study from morning till night, paging through my writings, skimming my notes, reading every last one of the books on my shelves, playing my teaching videos over and over again. As background music she played revolving canons or Bach fugues, and on the wall hung a print of Monet's "Impression: Sunrise." I often held Dolly in my arms like a pet a poor pet who had fallen out of favor and would tell her that a fugue is an important genre of polyphonic music, that the rhythmic lines of contrapuntal music come together and follow one another; that they are an art of free imitation, or interactive molding to each other. At this time, the lower part of Dolly's eyelids, the muscles of which had atrophied, suddenly flashed a crystalline glimmer like a swirling galaxy, which chased after the first ray of dawn that appeared in the window. I suddenly remembered that the original meaning of "fugue" in Latin is "flight, a fleeing."
Was Dolly so anxious to mold herself into a part of my square-covered draft paper in order to escape her stalled world?
Sometimes when I would come back in the deep of night as she was sound asleep, I would find a few dried, yellowish, halfgray hairs scattered over the desk, draft paper, and title page, and translucent flakes of curled skin like strokes from a Van Gogh painting, like claw prints left by a cat that had padded through. I suddenly understood that the reason my sister had not wanted to give birth to this child was not because she didn't love her own flesh and blood, but because she didn't have the heart to bring an inauspicious life into the world, or maybe she had some kind of presentiment of some kind of unfortunate imitation. Dolly was a fugue in the form of a Russian mother.
Yet from her outward appearance, Dolly looked not a bit like my sister. Though Dolly loved to doll herself up, she never had soft black hair, luminous fair skin, bright eyes or a typical goose egg-oval face all she had were a tightly knit brow, full of anxiety, a cut-short line on her palm like her mother, following a fate that could not maintain her. Also, three years ago when my sister gave up hoping for a new love in her life, she cut off a thousand hair strands of worry. It was then that Dolly started to lose hair.
The two ladies aged in different ways at different rates. 'Mom' began to look younger and younger, with a kind of purity that came from giving up her search for romance. The daughter who longed to burst into bloom, on the other hand, withered extremely quickly. The daughter at five looked even older than a mother of around thirty-five. When she was in the hospital, the mother of a child afflicted with cerebral palsy worried only that she would depart from the world before her daughter, and leave behind a child with severe physical and linguistic handicaps to face her formidable karma completely on her own. Her daily prayer was always the same: let me live just one day longer than my child, just one day will be enough. My dear sister had no such worry to trouble her; we all knew that her daughter would leave the world before her. Ten months of gestation could not change the very particular ten-year cycle to which this child was subject. One day in the mother's life was equivalent perhaps to a year for her daughter.
I'd prefer to describe Dolly with her particular condition as an unidentified heavenly body, surrounding a mysterious silvery aureola and core. When she was one year old she wriggled about, learning to coordinate her hands and feet to crawl; then she stood up with a raised head and straight back; and finally she began to plod along with stooped shoulders. She seemed to go through all three stages almost instantaneously. We mistakenly thought that she was simply an early bloomer; we were oblivious to the idea that the progression of time and physiological clocks could in fact work in reverse or, I should say, that they can soar like a rocket.
Was this a stellar explosion? The death of a comet-like brilliance?
Dolly's condition was just the opposite of the boy who suffered from giantism. The shriveling of Dolly's body was an anti-world, anti-matter kind of reverse growth; her life itself, on the other hand, manifested a kind of abnormal expansion, something like the Big Bang that created the expanding universe, ordaining time and space.
Seeing her in the study, Dolly looked like a philosopher old before her time. She was fondest of the story in Chuang Tzu of the enchanted tortoise and the morning mushroom. The funny thing was that she never asked about the great nothingness that came after death, but concerned herself only with the 'emptiness' that preceded the birth of a child. (Good Heavens, I've totally neglected the possibilities of developing this image.) One star-filled summer night, I wondered if I couldn't see with the naked eye the entire Milky Way; so I made up an excuse to my father, slipped back into the study, gazed blankly into the distant skies, and said to the little girl behind me who was quietly approaching:
"The universe is so young. The starlight we see is still hurtling through space on a long and tiresome journey, through the star dust, cosmic rays, and dark matter. The new home we see is in fact an old residence. Did you know that? When we gaze into the night sky, and think into the distant future, we are in fact looking back at a remote age from before the time a star was even formed."
"I know. You're still young, Uncle. I'm old."
I was dumbstruck for a minute, and couldn't think of an appropriate response. Then she said something that caused an implosion in me. "How about if I be your bride?"
How old is the 'doll' at our house? Every friend who sees her for the first time can't help but quietly exclaim, "Good Heavens! Is this your family's progeria case? She looks like... she looks like....
Like a dried flower pressed between the pages of a book?
And what they saw was the Dolly of three years ago. Her dried out hair had gone from black to yellow to red to scorched. Her eyelashes were like fallen snow, she had the nose of an emaciated mouse, a pointy chin, brittle skin that looked as though it would crumble if you touched it, and purple veins that stood out for all to see. At ten years old, Dolly was under a meter tall, and weig ed just ten kilograms. Actually, she didn't grow any taller or become any plumper after age seven, and she was unwilling to be photographed or go out. When she saw a stranger, her body was like a burning candle, shrinking inch by inch into itself. Her knees were twisted, her muscles atrophied, and her organ functions rapidly declining to the point where she was eventually unable to move her limbs freely, to the point where my sister called me on the phone to confess: "She has shrunk to a smallness you couldn't ever imagine, like a beautiful doll that was abandoned and ruined. She's no longer much bigger than that doll she gave you." I remember how, seven days ago, it took all the energy she could muster to hug that little Russian doll. Or maybe I'm wrong maybe it was the doll who was hugging her.
But Dolly's shriveled body seemed to have a surging energy. The rapid deterioration of her physical senses, her high blood pressure, hardening of her arteries, stroke, and other geriatric maladies didn't dampen her childlike curiosity about life and living. She loved to watch the sunrise, in spite of her sensitivity to light. She always opened her eyelids with a shaking hand, as though drawing blinds to let in the morning light. (I often worried that with the coming of the dawn she would crumble and turn to powder.) No matter how serious her symptoms during the night, she never shed tears; she never cried for herself (only in my dreams did she cry herself hoarse). After she turned seven, the corners of her lips and her liplines could no longer curl upward, but you could still see laughter in her face.
I once reminded my sister that "Dolly matured so early. I mean, the maturity of her mind has surpassed by far the premature aging of her body." My sister replied by asking, "Like you, or like me?"
If Dolly could have had the good fortune to grow into a real woman, she certainly would have been a piquant flamingo flower type. Too bad that she will never really understand what it means to be "precocious." Having only just put infancy behind her, she skipped over all the anger, silliness, sorrow, and dissatisfaction in between, and leaped directly into middle and old age.
Her shriveled body was said to be suffering a "retarded development"; the compressed course of her life was called .premature aging." The doctors said that progeria is a combination of these two mutually antagonistic manifestations. No one understands why it happens, other than that it is due to a genetic defect, and is caused by cells lacking the ability to repair themselves. The rate of aging progresses at several times that of normal people; one's biological clock ticks away fast, and one's life span is short.
Rushing from the outermost of the concentric circles to the empty center point, you lose a big piece of yourself as you pass from each layer to the next; the further inward you go, the faster you go; and the smaller each revolution becomes.
Up until this point, I wanted to believe, as I held the lifeless wooden doll in my hands, that the constantly shrinking doll wasn't the real 'her,' that the 'real doll' was hidden in her innermost parts; if each outer layer were dissolved away, it would be as though she had just sloughed off a layer of obsolete skin, just broken out of a chrysalis, or maybe, my 'doll' was a concentric circle of a different level, not subject to the limitations of outer form.
Dolly also liked to discuss the topic of "little people." Scientists hypothesize that in the deepest, most hidden part of our inner selves, there is a little genie that directs all of our emotional and intellectual activities. This little person controls our senses, our behavior, and our bodies, but he transcends the confines of the human body. Sometimes he represents wisdom, sometimes he plays the role of desire, sometimes maybe he's a devil.
Seven years ago when we first discovered Dolly's illness, she worried about the little boy afflicted with giantism who couldn't sleep because of his incessant "growth." I tried to reassure her with words she couldn't possibly understand. "It's because the little person inside of him wants to grow big; that little person lives in his pituitary gland. He's called a 'tumor'."
"You have a little person inside of you, too, Uncle!" In the study, she extended her dried up little claw out of habit, and she brushed over my cheekbone and eye socket, which were suffused with a cold glow. "But there's nothing I can do to help you with your wanting to have a little person of your own, Uncle....Well, I guess I could be the little tiny person of the little
person inside of you, Uncle."
"Dolly has her own dolly, you know!" Over the past ten years, I had given her all kinds of different dolls a Mama doll, a Cabbage Patch doll, a Barbie doll in a wheelchair, a whole set of Maruko dolls, from the popular Japanese cartoon, and teddy bears. When electronic ta agochi chickens were in vogue, I had a friend bring back from abroad one with a ten-day life cycle. But Dolly shook her head, she shook her head like a stubborn old woman. I didn't dare say anything at that point.
From that night on, I no longer dared to hug this tiny old soul, or maybe she was an old doll with a girl's soul.
That day, on my birthday, my sister shed tears as I told her my story of lost love, but then suddenly a smile broke over her face. "Congratulations, Old Brother. There has been somebody in your heart, a tiny, little woman who you loved. Never mind who that lady is, or when she appeared."
The harsh words offered by my friend yesterday evening were certainly food for thought. "It's strange. I've just gotten divorced, and all I want to do is go and have some fun. You are just getting over an ended relationship, and you still haven't given up on the idea of marrying someday. I am really curious: what do you, as a middle-aged man, still intend to achieve?"
"What are you, who are almost to middle age, still dawdling around for?" My friend's words penetrated my muddled cranium (I again heard the crying of the little woman inside me); also, the evening that I returned from abroad my father roared at me, "you go abroad to study, but before you've gotten very far you say you couldn't bear the loneliness and catch the next plane back. And now that you're back you don't even want to find a good job and start a family. Confucius said you're supposed to be on your feet by age 30, which you have failed to do; I expect that after another ten years, when Confucius says one should no longer be deluded by anything, you'll be in a total fog. May I please ask you, my dear, precious son: Where are my grandchildren?"
After my friend left, a chaotic chorus of confused time and space again left me agitated and unable to sleep. I could only hug the Russian doll which stared at me with her cold gaze, and make my first wish.
At six the next morning, an anxious phone call arrived. The first sound I heard at the other end of the line was, "Have you made your wish?"
I knew that something had happened. And even more importantly, beyond what had happened, a promise never made was waiting to be kept by me.
"Brother, I'm so sorry for all these years that I've called on you to play 'mother.' Starting from when we were kids, we never even knew what a 'mother' was. The year Mom left, I was six and you were eight. Thirty-some years later, you still have no wife or mother figure in your life; but quite inexplicably we have this extra child now. I know you want a real woman and a real child. Have you made your wish?"
What kind of a wish should I make? Looking back o my painful past, I almost felt ready to give up on my future.
On my birthday seven days ago, I talked the whole day, laughed most of the afternoon, and my sister even made a special effort to tease her morose brother: "You've lost quite a bit of weight," she said, "but the black circles under your eyes seem to have swollen. You still don't want to tell your story, the plot, how it started and how it ended? Who was she? Or are you going to keep insisting on your symbols, your metaphors, your transformations, and all the other things in your writer's bag of tricks?"
I had just finished describing my first dream: the woman I parted ways with seven years ago was like a bronze statue that had solidified under my tightly closed eyelids. She cocked her head, with her long hair that reached down to her waist. The first tear hit the inside of my coffee cup like a bomb. From then on this sound remained frozen as an everlasting echo.
"What could there be worth telling in my experience, compared to the dissolution in one night of your seven-year relationship and one-year marriage?"
There is only one scene: a background color of pearl dust, a roughly cast and very thin gold ring, hanging mid-air where you can see but not reach it, all an empty illusion. Not until I decide that I'd like to open my eyes wide and have a look do I realize that my eyes are closed. (My sister laughed in a strange way, and her eyes flashed a meteor-like aurora. I couldn't help but look for my own reflection in her eyes... I extended my hand, trying to slip it into that contracting golden punishmentinflicting circle, when I discovered that the ring gave off both heat and light. It turned out to be the glow from a single, skinny candle stuck in a clay birthday cake. The tide began to roar louder and louder. The aureola expanded and contracted, eventually congealing into hot pearls in the cool pools of the pupils of a pair of eyes. I knew those were the eyes of a pair of girls.
(The tide began to surge in my sister's bottomless black pearls.)
"I couldn't help but look for my own reflection in her eyes. I only saw my eyes open to where I couldn't possibly open them any wider, an overlapping of fully dilated pupils and eye rims, set in the bottomless black pearls of a woman."
Half an hour earlier, my sister had yelled into the phone: "Don't come to the hospital hurry and go to Dolly's room. The real Russian doll is in her room. There is something in the doll's belly."
I rocked the oversized Russian doll in my bosom, the real wish doll. I felt the potential energy of a breaking through, the shaking sound of a slip of paper being bumped around inside. So my problems of entanglement, those women within women, emptiness in mid-air, all came from this maternal body. The outermost layer, a Russian mother, great with child, was about to give birth.
That day, looking at the seriously ill and frail old doll curled up like a cat and firmly ensconced between two middleaged people, I really wanted to say, "Dear Little Sister, adorable little girl, the seven years of love that you broke off are just like my losing my umbilical cord of love seven years ago; and this period of middle age when I most need love has ended up as a hollow in my life, hanging on the spirit of some woman in an icy land. But... but... this big blank has been filled in by Dolly's love, her complaints, her anger, her silliness. No promise was ever made of the piquant flamingo flower youth that I am unable to have.
"Know something? Before Dolly gave you the wishing doll, she had already made her own wish."
The sound of the tide and the rustling slowly merged into a combination of twittering, warbling, chirping and whale croons.
"I should have known why seven years ago the long-haired girl gave me a pair of cacti as a farewell gift." I said to my sister seven days ago, "Leave them on the window sill, leave them there forever. I had always thought that those two green globular suns were there to help me through the desert of love. But that wasn't fight. They were given to me by my first love, the woman I loved most of all, seven years ago, to store my tears."
"Are you hurt? You've been hurt, haven't you?" my sister asked, with the tone of a paramedic saving an emergency victim.
I gazed into the increasingly gentle golden light of the sunset. "Have you ever had the experience of having your tear glands broken by sunlight?" I asked.
I had already gone out the door of my sister's home, and continued saying to the woman behind me, "the night our relationship ended, I dreamed that I was flying, stark naked, in a polar region. A strange woman took hold of my shadow, and with a faint glimmer in her pupils, she crossed the lonely, silent frozen land with me." I instinctively felt that that warm and lovely woman was Dolly in another dimension, and it was also an amalgamation of my own past. "There was no background music; the backdrop of a dream is limitless white. Yet the lonely snow made white noise in my body cavity: in addition to the whale's song and twittering of birds, all of the sounds came together in counterpoint into an ensemble that tore me apart, punctuated by a woman's sobs, and sounding like clamors and sighs. Were the cries my own? I am finished; I have frozen into a snowman in the winter cold.
"Dolly Dolly didn't cry, up until ... the last second, she ... still didn't cry." For the first time in a decade, I finally heard the steely rises and falls of a mother's sobs, crying for her other self.
And for the first time in a decade, I could finally see the water dungeon that had confined me for so long. The water went drip, drop. Sometimes it was inside, sometimes outside, sometimes it was like a comedian making me the butt of his joke, sometimes it was a director telling me what to do. I couldn't tell for sure. Was it some kind of secret language? My spirit told my body, fragility informing strength, suffering embracing a moved spirit, delusion inquiring the unknown, depression waiting for a climax. Part of my self tried to wake up my other self.
At six in the morning, a minute before the phone rang, my lips pressed against the wish doll's forehead: I didn't know what I wanted; I only wanted to understand my longing for Dolly's remaining last year, minute or second of life. My only wish was that her wishes could come true. If she didn't get the wishes she had made, I wanted to give my wishes to her. The two hopes could combine into a promise. Two lives could be lived out together.
The sunlight of early spring is no longer radiance, but layer upon layer of light waves, pushing forward; behind the waves of light is a blazing waterfall of light.
I tried with all my might to twist open the snowman at the waist, and picked out the 'flamingo flower' hidden inside, and read with concentration the self melted onto the red paper, an by Chen Shu-yao inch at a time: "Uncle, thank you for giving me my wish. If you hadn't opened her, my wish would never have come true…."
Half an hour ago on the phone, in shock, I couldn't help but burst out, trembling, with the question: "Did she leave any last words?"
"No. The last time she opened her eyes, she said just one sentence: 'I want to go home. Uncle is waiting for me."'
The morning sun made me squint. I lay limply on the floor, blinking all around me at the liquid sounds flowing throughout the room. I recalled how Dolly had flashed a poppy-bright smile at me amid the floating strips of light from the blinds:
"I'm sorry I can't be your bride in this life," Dolly had said. "If there is a life to come, I wonder if I could come back as your daughter? I have only one big wish in this lifetime can you make it come true? and that is that I want you to try hard and find an Auntie for me. My hope for the next life depends cornpletely on your life in this world, Uncle."
From the Literary Supplement of the United Daily News (聯合報) on Sept. 16-17, 1997.
This piece won the First Prize in the Short Story Category of the 19th United
Daily News Literary Award.
2. A play on words: 'concentric circles' in Chinese is literally 'same-heart-rounds.'
3. This refers to a passage in the Chinese philosophical work, Chuang Tzu: "The morning mushroom (which perishes at the first ray of sunlight) never sees a full day, the hui-ku cicada (if born in spring, it dies n summer; if born in summer, it dies in the fall) never sees a whole year; this is called a 'little year.' In the southern part of the state of Ch'u, there is an enchanted tortoise; five hundred years are like one spring to him, and another five hundred years are like one autumn to him. In ancient times there was a tree of heaven; eight hundred years were like one spring for this tree, and another eight hundred years like one autumn. This is called a 'big year'." (Zhuang Zi, Inner Chapters, Xiao Yao You)