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Language of the Dead


August 15, 2010

Zhao Nianzu waved his hand in front of his face. She could feel the current of air his hand made. He brought his fingers toward her face, and though he could not see the shadow of his large, bent finger drawing over her left eye, he willed an image for his mind to see.

“I have to go now,” she said, holding his hand and bringing it down to her knee.

“Not yet,” he said.

“I have to prepare.”

“You come and go and I don’t remember when you come and go. I’m like a dog. Sometimes I pretend you’re here all night long.”

“Do you want me to boil some water?”

“No, I can do it.”

The professor put his hands over the piano keys. He held them there and then pressed down slowly so that the piano didn’t make a sound.

“Beethoven was deaf,” he said. “Can you believe that? Beethoven was deaf and I am blind. I would rather be blind than deaf. Think how different the world would be, though, if Beethoven were blind or could see and hear or was never born at all.”

“I have to go,” she said.

“Kiss me here.” He pointed just below his left ear.

She put her lips to the spot. She could feel the coarse stubble of his trimmed sideburns on her lips. She imagined her kiss sending a pulse down his sharp cheekbone to his heart; he was a kind, sad man.

“How was that?” she said.

“I don’t know why you won’t stay with me. I can pay you. I can pay you more than that bar, and we could be happy together.”

“You’ve been so good to me,” she said. She rose from the bench, and the professor turned his head quickly.

“It’s because you’re my best student,” he said.

“You have had too many students to call me your best. What about Wang Le and Xu Ying?”

“Both can play, but neither can sing.”

She put her hand on his shoulder and he clasped his over hers.

“Tomorrow?” he said.

She left.

  *       *       *

She would sing tonight, but for now she was awake and wished to sleep. The bus was nearly full, and she stood in the aisle holding onto the bag rack above. A little girl beside her was picking her nose. She studied the tip of her finger as if she’d uncovered a rare amphibian. She wiped her finger on her pant leg. There was traffic ahead. Two men were arguing: a taxi driver and a man on a bike. The bus driver pushed on the horn, but the men refused to look away from each other. The beginning of violence excited Jimo. She didn’t want to see them hurt each other, only to know that they might. Someone on the other side of the street was motioning to the bus driver, waving him around the taxicab. The bus driver pulled out and the tail of the bus shifted and everyone on the left side fell against the windows. He beeped the horn twice and waved to the man who had helped him to steer the bus past the fight.

How long, she wondered, would it take to stop missing that part of sky she had watched from her window all her days in town?

The bus let her off in front of the row of cement block apartments adjacent to the university. She walked back to the dirty courtyard and up two flights of stairs. Her friend had been gone two months now and wasn’t coming back. Still, she checked her friend’s room, opening the door and flipping on the light, seeing the room empty and the bedding stripped, and closed the door. She went to the bathroom and turned the spigot. She filled a pot with water and went to the kitchen and boiled the water. She brought the pot back to the bathroom and sat down on the lip of cement that jutted out of the wall. She wet her legs and then with a thin razor, she shaved away the tiny hairs she had noticed on the bus. She would wear the red dress that the professor had given her. She took the sponge and soaked it with water. She cleaned her arms and stomach and vagina. She smelled the sponge, how it held the scent of the professor’s living room, the smoke and dried fish. She had known this smell all her life from her father’s house, and she imagined the same scent was in Professor Zhao’s father’s house. It was all of China as far as she knew. Except for the mountains, where the air was fresh and it strangled your lungs at first, and then it freed them, cleansed them, and you could believe that you were not where you had come from. She would save washing her face for the evening, before her show. She dried her legs with a clean towel. She went into her room and put on a Beatle’s album. The song: “Hello, Goodbye.” She fell asleep.

She awoke to a banging noise downstairs. The strike reverberated under the bed. She shouted, but no one called back. She smacked the bed, but felt foolish doing so and stood up and paced around the room, flicking one of her nails against another. Always there was building. Soon there would be no horizon. How long, she wondered, would it take to stop missing that part of sky she had watched from her window all her days in town? The ocean was calm and only one boat drifted close to the shore. She thought of swimming to the city. Early in the 20th Century, during the days when the German ships had docked close to what are now the number 2 and number 4 beaches, bringing with them the blueprints of what could be made into a charming German village, maybe even a city with commerce and trade, many of the Chinese women dove out past the breakers and swam with the little food they had wrapped in a headdress, bobbing across the water, using their bodies as boats; women and children and men, fleeing, undetected in the dark water.

Could she break herself down to the bare necessities like they did? Food, water, work? What were her bare necessities? There was nothing else to know outside of the patch of land they worked. And when a city began to form, they were frightened by it, not excited. The buildings and shipyards were unnecessary, extravagant; they didn’t help you catch fish any better. And if they did, if they helped you catch more fish than there was known to be in the ocean, who would eat them all? She could see them swimming, their clothes wet rags hanging from their thin arms, cold skin red and burning underneath. Some did not make it across, drowned or captured, left in the city to work as slaves, their lean frames building muscle, stretching their skin, and they could hardly do another thing with all their lives but build and rebuild with their bodies strong and their eyes weak.

The banging stopped. She pushed the windowpane out. She closed her eyes and put her fingertips against her high cheekbones, to the points underneath the far corners of her eyes where her father had once told her two little stars formed beneath the skin and gave her vision. She listened to the night. There were workers out on the bridge to the city. She listened to a jackhammer chip at the cement walkway. A car rolled slowly over the dirt road in back of the housing. She could hear a newsman from Beijing on the radio in the car. A crane churned above a new addition to the university.

She cried.

“It’s embarrassing,” her father had said to her mother once. “Always crying like she does.”

“You shouldn’t have done it, not in front of a white man like that,” her mother said.

“I had no choice but to do it.”

“And if it had been me? What if I cried like that?”

“You never cry.”

“What if sometime I let myself cry?”

“It’d be the same for you,” her father said. He put his hand on his daughter’s head and stroked her hair. “I won’t be embarrassed.”

She dressed in jogging pants, plaid shirt, and coat. She took the number 5 bus to the Palace Hotel. She watched as the town turned brighter and the bars and restaurants glowed with paper lanterns and yellow light from the streetlamps. She was let out in front of the hotel and walked the two blocks to Jane’s Bar.

She went through the back entrance and up the stairway. The door to Jane and Luo’s bedroom was closed. She called quietly, but no one answered.

She went to the room Luo had given her so she could change. She hung her dress on the door and sat down on a stool in front of the vanity. Luo had bought the mirror and stool for her after her first performance because he knew her voice would bring people into the bar and that she must look as good as she sounded. She pinned her hair up and drew her finger down her long slender neck, touching the vein that appeared there. She opened the drawer and took out her pipe. Besides the hash, the young Xinjiang boy, who had been trying to win a date with Tulu, the only waitress at the bar, had given her something different to try. It was dark, tinged with red. He said she should break it up and put it into the pipe with the hash and it would give her an understanding of what life might be like on other planets.

She did what he suggested and lit the end of the pipe and inhaled, releasing the smoke through parted lips and sucking back in and holding it in her lungs. Her head grew heavy then light as if floating away, and she was pulled back, but caught herself and saw a few tears had started in her eyes. She put the pipe down and stood up, but was dizzy. It will pass, she told herself. She didn’t know what time it was. She thought of her parents in Harbin and how sad her father had looked when she left. She went to the window. There were men outside smoking cigarettes, waiting for the bar to open. There was a knock on the door.

“Do you look beautiful?” Jane asked.

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Patrick Dacey’s fiction has appeared in Bomb magazine, The Washington Square Review, Stone Canoe, Zone 3, and the Avery Anthology of New Fiction, among other publications. He has recently completed a manuscript of short stories, Last Days in America, and a memoir dealing with insanity and addiction, This Will Take You to the Calm. This excerpt is from his unpublished novel, Language of the Dead. He is currently an Assistant Professor of writing and literature at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan.
This book is written masterfully and encompasses a half century of life in rural China with sorrow and wit. Mo Yan is brilliant and the world he creates is both real and fantastical, while never settling for sentiment or fabulism.

The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio.
This collection is funny, moving, and soulful, especially the stories: “The Screenwriter” and “The Bone Game.” Strange yet loving and compassionate.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.
Few American authors write action and dialogue better than Stone.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.
One of the most moving and heartfelt epistolary novels I’ve ever read.

Garage and Echo Train by Aaron Fagan.
I read poetry for what it tells me about the human experience, and what these books tell me is that there’s hope.

Homepage photo by James Henkel

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