Jenny Wu is currently working toward an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, where she edits The Spectacle literary magazine. Recently, some of her fiction was selected for WTAW’s Features Chapbook Series and, on another occasion, shortlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction.
Notes and Addendum
There was one who called herself a doctor on the expedition. I distrusted her right away. “You are not a doctor,” I said. We were now several months into the expedition, but I had not bothered to study her when we started out. Likewise, I have not mentioned her before because I found her trivial and typical of her kind. “You are a mystic,” I said. “Just admit it.” We were walking through a night market in the center of the capital; on both sides of the street colonial edifices with eighteen bays cast their twitching lights like fishermen’s nets onto the rubble.
Perhaps it was not the right time to say such a thing. We were trying to enjoy our night off. Amidst nocturnal peoples selling medicinal herbs like astragalus–slightly toxic, with giant hairy tuberous roots rolling off the stands despite not being round. Often the locals went to barber shops after dinner; visited massage parlors at three in the morning; bought a crate of oranges at midnight. Darkness was something expelled into the atmosphere. On the ground, poverty and its fluorescent reflections; the barber shop employees were all family members, large extended families always hanging around, drinking tea out of paper cups; and whose children were these playing poker? A man and a woman shivered in the cold, on the steps of a bar where workers on either side of the steps were rolling a fried dough balloon–a local favorite. They slapped the sphere of dough in the oil and nudged it with long, thin reeds until an air-pocket rose. They used the reeds–one in each hand–to roll the dough, while the bubble expanded, glistening with oil. So we were out walking in the middle of the night. They stared as I walked past, as if telling me to go to bed, as if simple foot-traffic laws could direct me like the changing chords of a jazz improvisation. Stop. Go. Let other people pass on your left. Do not flash your camera in their eyes. They want to be away from home but they want privacy.
The shorter the street, it seemed, the shorter the street name. Maybe the proportion had to do with the printing of the map. Some were horrifyingly long words, emblazoned on streets that careened off the edge of the paper, made you think the street would take your whole expedition into the Parcae.
Overhead, a white solarium with casement windows and slick tile walls, a ghostly light within. Four hangers arranged in a square, three jean shirts and a pair of jean pants, each piece a different shade of blue. Apartments with no right angles, the balconies turned into rooms with shabby roofs–in other words, rooms with glass doors; in other words, lean-tos suspended in the air. A drove of grey laughing-thrushes diving in from the north. We went to a shop to get our hair washed. Our hair had not been washed in a week and it was almost too enjoyable. The young girl, younger than me, began to tell me the story of her birth, how her parents abandoned her at an orphanage, as she lathered my hair. I would rather have done it myself. But in this city there were no membranes separating one person from the next. They looked inside your shirt when measuring you for clothes. They asked for advice on their bowels. Death and illness did not frighten them.
We scientists were all wearing hiking boots, which was somewhat conspicuous. But that was the only difference. We did not make trouble for the locals. We wore hooked scarves sewn into hoods with neck wrappings over our clean hair, since, in this city, most women on the street wore these. We were cold nevertheless; temperatures dropped below zero after sunset. That night I was drawn to the colonnade’s yellow light, having tricked myself into believing it might be warm.
According to this mystic, I was nothing more than a mouthpiece for my expensive education. I will admit, when I was younger, I knew nothing. By the end of my schooling, though, I had read extensively even outside of my own scientific field and continued to read extensively. By flashlight I read poetry and philosophy in three languages. She mocked me. She admitted to having no formal training, but claimed she had saved more lives than your average doctor. She was middle aged–more “life experience.” Later on, before I had even said anything, she pointed to an old couple inside an illuminated jewelry shop; they were sitting in the back on those fake leather swiveling stools, examining some jewel in the display case with their elbows on the glass, wearing winter coats. The mystic said she had sensed last night, while the rest of us were sleeping, that they were going to have a heart attack, that she had rushed over to save them.
“Them?” I said. “Both of them? One heart attack or two? Where? Where did you rush to?”
She said nothing.
“Them?” I repeated. I, for one, had never seen these people before.
The mystic pulled up her messaline sleeve, revealing a bracelet. “They bought me this bracelet in gratitude,” she said.
Doubtful, though the bracelet did look like something that would be sold in this city; it was a bit gaudy.
We had been eating cakes with crushed almond powder mixed in under an awning. It had started raining heavily. A restaurant worker was taking a bunch of pots to the back alley for scrubbing. She poured boiling water over an empty soup bowl, over her fingers, rubbing their leathery prints together to remove the oil. She began to explain to me the perplexities of human anatomy. The food here–the tubers–when you ate them your whole body itched, but they tasted so good, especially with salt…
When the heavy rain on the street subsided, we could hear street musicians.
In the daylight we each carried binoculars and a slide projector. The villagers of S– were friendly to our expedition despite the politics–first comes the scientific exploratory expedition, then come the army and tanks, as is always the case. I glimpsed the top of their heads from afar, in the ruins. Through one arch I saw a wall with another arch; through this hole I saw a vague figure the color of flesh. It ambled and swayed amidst oblong yellow flowers with dark, fecal bulbs sprouting from their heads, plants with red stalks, blackberries choking an old sawed tree with antler branches, vines and long green beans twirling overhead, weeds like white hairs stomped flat on the ground, and an array of snake skins and milk teeth. The mystic spoke of the field as being otherworldly, occult, spirited, eastern or easterly, of a man falling into the ground never to be found again. But I understood immediately that she was talking about the Greek philosopher Thales, who while walking, staring into the sky, fell into a well–in other words, while staring at air was consumed by water. I was annoyed that I understood this. I was frightened too. The field was quiet so our thoughts were loud.
Three of us explored the foliage. I would rather have been anywhere else–alone under a tree, for instance, getting started on the mandatory report. Instead, a persistent drone of insects. Standing by a stream, feet getting wet and cold. I had the feeling I was being watched. The mystic bent over suddenly.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m tying my shoe.”
After rain, the colors intensified, time passed slowly. The other two were talking but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The mystic led me to the ruins–to look at something painted on the menhirs, or so she said. Again, that childhood habit–climbing on stones to prove you are not afraid of heights. Walking along the top of a stone wall the height of two men, one foot in front of the other; there was a gap in the wall. The mystic said she had been up here many times; she knew the structure of the ruins; she knew where to place her feet. She leapt effortlessly over the gap. She motioned for me to leap. I couldn’t. She held out her hand for me to shakingly take; she looked so far away; besides, I didn’t want to take her hand.
Outside the village of K– we sat around a small fire boiling tin cans. The cartographer rolled some tobacco and another expedition member, the conservationist, struck a match for him. The mystic was off to the side performing a bloodletting on a villager who had smelled our lunch and ventured into the field. Distracted by this spectacle, the two lingered with the match too long and the cigarette went up in flames like a candle. The cartographer shook it and embers fell to the dark wet ground. The conservationist pointed at the papers on my lap–the beginnings of my report. “I just finished mine.”
“You’re the first one to finish his report,” the cartographer said to him. Some of us who went on these kinds of expeditions were known to procrastinate for months after we got home. “Let me give you a gift of congratulation,” he said. Took out a small thing.
The conservationist suddenly panicked, leaned away. “No! Keep it! I don’t want your things!”
The cartographer rummaged through his bag. “Just a small thing I picked up. Thought you would like it.”
The conservationist grunted. He was drinking a soup made from berries, with a medicinal smell.
“Here is a photograph of that man who refused to be photographed,” said the cartographer, trying to give it.
“Mm!” said the conservationist, pushing his hand away.
“And here,” I said, retrieving another bulging envelope from the cartographer’s bag, “are the two-hundred Polaroid photos of a black sky that you took the other night.”
“Because I was trying to capture the lightning.”
“You were very drunk.”
The mystic came over to sit beside me. We spoke about our credos. “Once,” she said, “I was asked to read the palm of a man from the north who was visiting my city on business. His palm revealed to me that at the age of fifty a great tragedy would befall him.”
“What do you tell them,” the conservationist asked, strumming a lap dulcimer, “when the news is bad?”
“I tell them the truth,” said the mystic. “It does them no good to lie.”
“Do they get angry at you?”
“In fact, this man did not,” said the mystic. “What happened was this: the year he was supposed to turn fifty, one day in the spring I received an international call from him to meet me for tea; a few days later he flew all the way from another country to meet me. His twin had died.”
I said, “Ah, so the tragedies you predict are unspecific.”
She said, “Twins, you know. They have the same palms.”
The villager told us how to make it over the summit by sunset. His village was located on a crag that overlooked a treeless section of the mountain whose inner rock layers were showing, the orange colossus broken and lying at the bottom of the drop. The road ran dangerously close to the edge. The people in this region fetched their water from a nearby stream. Pleasure to see clear water slopping over the half-buried rocks–you could lie belly-down on a flat rock and drink from the green and black current. Upstream, in the middle of the rushing waters, was a woman squatting on a rock, washing her clothes.
Uphill the whole way and, mid-ascent, out came the peasants selling their wares–they charred sardines on sticks atop an open coal fire. A pile of skewered sardines sat raw on the side, their bluish-white scales still wet and glistening. Other vendors had skewered some sort of long-necked bird. In the fire these birds’ bodies turned gray and brown, their blue innards peering through transparent breasts, while their heads reddened and bulged. Some sellers had whole eggs boiling in metal pots, plates of red chili powder at their feet, their children crouched beside basins of live fish. A man smoking a waterpipe made from a stack of bottomless tin cans slumped on a footstool, swarmed by red-faced cockerels. Women sweeping with hand brooms. A single yellow monkey scoured the hillside for fruit, and, when it found some, turned and stared suspiciously at everyone as it ate. For half a kilometer beside the stream the mountain economy was concentrated where travelers passed by. The women sold charred meat.
The children sold flowers. The very small children sold pebbles. These were mountain people; despite the cold they sit outside.
We could no longer understand their language. For the rest of the day we communicated with rudimentary gestures. Went up the mountain and took a detour, picked up a stone from the grass, weighed it in my hand, and held onto it.
“Who needs to piss? Show of hands… Alright, we’re taking a detour.” The men unzipped their pants and pissed in the dirt, off the cliff.
“Would it be wrong to call us a choir?” They stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the abyss.
“I’ve heard that saying used,” said another.
“Next time we have to piss we’ll call it ‘going to sing,’” they chuckled.
I waded alone through brambles, sometimes cutting my own way through the entangled branches with my knife. I came this way because I wanted to–there was no other reason. Eventually I came down on another side of the mountain, evergreen trees and white twiggy underbrush: a vast expanse of land flanking a crude road stretching as far as the eye could see. Maybe I beat the expedition here; they should be coming up the road any time now. The road was gray gravel pounded into flat scales. It looked new, with no weeds between the stones and no cart ruts to either side. I had to criticize, however, the irrigation practices of these peoples; the deforestation; the roads, like the manmade ponds, partitioned with stone slabs that disrupted runoff. Water and land must have, I would argue, a natural meeting point. The trees on each side grew dense and green like spears over the land, gradually steepening into the sides of the mountains that contained them like a bowl, and the sky dropping–cloudless–in every direction like a dome. I continued west. Behind me, the gravel disappeared into the green hills, and I noticed every so often there was a big stone on the side of the road. As I walked on I realized that someone, for some reason, had been marking the distances on the road.
Wherever the trees stopped growing, the patch of land was left destitute and foreboding. Pockmarked landscape with cairns. Upon closer inspection, some of the cairns were mausoleums hidden under grass. At least five mausoleums in a jagged line, all facing the road. Were they, I wondered, a family? Or strangers who met only after death? Sitting on the roadside writing this entry, I looked at their land and saw that they could grow pears, walnuts, chestnuts, wild honey. There was even evidence that these crops had grown here before. There ought to be some goats in the mountains. The threat of tigers? After all, tigers factor into their paranoid superstition: on the first day of the fifth month, I was told, each person must sleep alone. Stay hidden while the ghosts and tigers prowl the yard, they said…and if a villager is sick, they pray to the tiger head.
Our first night in the countryside. Awake due to some indigestion. Snuck out and went into the field and took a night-photograph. It turned out blurry. The kitchens and outhouses in this region were communal; both types of mudbrick houses clumped together on the periphery of the village. There were giant crystals of salt on the road; they gleamed in the moonlight, winding down toward the houses.
Woke up in the morning to caterpillars and white butterflies. Found all sorts of animals in the garden: the usual gray rabbit, the locals gestured–now twice its original size–then a Maltese cat, then a prickly hedgehog, then an orange-and-black fox whose tail I snuck up behind, whose fur was rustling, who looked at me suddenly over his shoulder. As though our villa had become the setting of a fairy story.
The mystic came outside, stretching, and said, “It feels like we’ve lived here all our lives, doesn’t it?”
That day we found a village where they spoke our language; stayed there, visited homes, tasted their tea, even though the people were not particularly pleasant. The men in this village were gamblers. Subsistence farmers: grow some sprouts, eat them, and gamble. Any money in the village was locked in drawers, away from the prying hands of the women.
Next was a house with old man on the floor. Perhaps it was the age of the man, his refusal to present himself, refusal sit up straight, even when there were people observing him. He had coarse black and gray hair knotted in the back, but strands around the temples seemed to have been torn out of the knot and were standing on end. He had no eyebrows–probably from age–but his brow was permanently raised, his mouth permanently pursed in a horizontal line. His eyes stared at nothing, two pinpricks. Extremely long ears. He was wearing tweed trousers, dark gray, and a ramie collared shirt underneath a sweater in the faintest shade of lavender imaginable. He was resting on one elbow, the hand on his stomach, the other at an odd angle on an old quilt. The old quilts were all over the floor, gray bundles with the occasional square of city-colors. Not a scrap of furniture. “It’s been gambled away, so be careful,” said the mystic. “That old man sees that you have money on you.” Where the blankets did not reach there was cardboard taped to the floor and the corners of the wall with yellowed translucent packaging tape. The walls were covered in pages from an atlas, maps of the same area of land with different routes marked in red, showing different sized portions of the ocean. Above them, magazine clippings showing the latest styles of cassimere, voile, damask, muslin… all the pages pasted perfectly straight, not a slapdash effort. The paint on the windows was flaking; there were thin pages of some book printed with gray ink covering the window jambs. On the sill, strangely, two pieces of porcelain; they looked like soap dishes with dirt in them, a shriveled stem and some excavated roots still visible in one. On the wall–on top of the atlas pages, beside the magazine clippings–a colorful flower print, an ultramarine background with tricolored peonies and a golden border. Pasted on top of that, as though the larger flower print was a frame, a blown-up image of paper money–a bluish note with the profiles of the heads of state and everything. Was this decoration? The mystic explained. “They paste any paper they can find on the walls for insulation and because it looks better than the blank wall underneath. Every so often they need new paper because the existing layer turns black.”
An old woman hobbled into the room and told a story of their relative–pointing at the seated man–“his brother.” We listened to her story; we watched her hobbling around holding her wet laundry in a knot, as though she did not know where to put it. She was the shortest person I had ever seen in my life. “His brother,” she said, “gambled the entire family’s savings; his mother and father starved, some of the younger ones starved to death. He was the only one who took pity on this brother; the rest had planned to tie him to the bed and lock him in a back room for the rest of his life. Ah, I’m telling a story that’s fifty years old.”
“Whose brother?” the old man suddenly said.
“Your brother,” the old woman said. “This idiot”–her index finger shaking–“brought his brother to come live with us, eat our food, and gave him a portion of our land and even a share of his ensete trees, livestock, and our business. He loved his brother so much, you know. They were closest in age. They went everywhere together, did everything together. When his brother got whipped in the yard he would cry, cry, cry for him. And the first thing he did was destroy our business. The fruit on the trees? The goat? All gone. Then he stole everything of value in our house. I set up traps for him and even caught him with my own eyes. Still this idiot took pity on him.” She set her wet shirt on the windowsill. “Our village has been debased by these men. Do you know how our women make a living? They sell rocks to travelers. Well. You want to guess what this man’s brother did after all that? You’ll never guess what happened then.” She cackled; she showed her silver teeth. “Then he disappeared!”
We spoke at length with local experts. Governments would be alerted. Aid would be sent to this village, preferably in the form of microcredit. We were to leave the village through a narrow mountain pass; from a distance we saw the women lined up on both sides. As we entered the pass a child approached–young, naked, protruding navel. He was holding something in his hand. A ruddy volcanic rock. The women, too, were selling stones–polished limestone bracelets, heavy pendants, crude sculptures. Some of them had stands, and some were sitting on threadbare blankets with the rocks spread before them. They clamored over each other, describing the rocks as artifacts unique to the region, that such-and-such rocks were blessed by a goddess. One of the rock sellers smiled at me. I realized that for however many months we had been traveling, I had not seen a single local smile. The girl was pale and fat and sleepy, but–was I mistaken?–she had smiled. I approached her without confidence; I approached her politely; I bought a rock. I felt oafish, conspicuous.
“You saw the village where I live?” she asked.
“I was just there,” I said.
“Why do travelers prefer to come in winter?” she asked. “In the summer no one comes.”
“A lot of travelers pass through in the winter?”
“Every three days or so, a group passes through.”
“Have you ever considered leaving with them?” I regretted asking; I could not make any promises.
But she shook her head. “I’ve never thought to leave my family. Or to be alone. Where would I go anyway?”
I told her I’d lived on my own for five years, since I was fifteen.
“We’re the same age then,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say; I wondered who was more surprised. So I told her, “It’s nice to be on your own. But being alone causes you to form all sorts of weird rituals.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know… I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”
“You’re so brave,” she said.
Suppose I moved to this village and married this girl? Immediately following this thought I was seized by dread and tremors. I didn’t even know if this girl liked women. I looked up and down the mountainsides; their immensity dizzied me; for a moment I forgot which way we were walking, which way we were coming from.
“That girl,” said the mystic, “is your soul mate.”
Looked back at her over my shoulder; the sun was setting and getting in my eyes. “But I have an expensive education, remember?” I waited for the mystic’s reaction. Getting none, I said, “I doubt she can read.” I had never thought much about marriage, always buried in my studies. And I had no feelings for this girl beside the thought that I ought to…
“She will be very surprised.”
For the first time I looked closely at this mystic’s face. She had a square-shaped face, brown skin, crow’s feet, and black moles. Compared to the average head, hers was relatively small.
“She won’t know why, but she’ll say yes. She’ll never be able to understand why she said yes, but she will think about it much, and she’ll never argue with you.” The mystic seemed utterly convinced by what she was saying. “And day by day you will find yourself more accustomed to the traditions here.”
She embraced me. I patted her on the back. How rare, I thought, that my life should cross paths with the likes of this mystic. There was truly no one like her. She went on to predict that I would spend the rest of my life working with my hands, specifically with wood. We looked around at the trees of the region–aspens.
“I must catch up with the expedition,” the mystic said.
When the army and tanks rolled into the region, they were met, in this mountain pass, with a funeral. The funeral happened to be processing in the opposite direction, momentarily blocking the army’s path. The funeral, they learned, was for a young woman scientist who had, five years earlier, married one of the locals but for whom the combination of harsh working conditions and the high elevation proved to be too much. She had overworked herself trying to provide for her wife, a baby-faced woman seen walking in the procession with her head down, weeping tears of unmatched devotion.
Jenny can be found at her website, jennyzw.com.