A short story by Josh Stenberg
I wouldn’t call it exactly a conscious process, but you move to a new city and you think: who and when is it going to be, who will occasion the love affair, here? Who will pose the question?
If this is your attitude – and it is the only honest attitude – then the woman in question will materialise. You have to summon her out of the ether. Such persons, seemingly autonomous, are a result of your desiring them, of self-hypnosis. If you focus on this problem (and who ever really focuses on anything else?) at very least an obsession will develop. And why not? Obsessions pass the time just as well as actual lovemaking, which also has epidemiological drawbacks.
Cities are times and times are women. Women are cities and cities are times. I have lived in a number of cities, each of which has their official historical obsession, affair, question, concern. I grew up in Zhenjiang, a poorish Jiangnan city famed for its vinegar and the story where White Snake tries to drown the evil monk on the monastery hill. Yet I spent years at my classroom window, waiting for a succession of girls – whose very names fade before my groping mind – to wander beneath, to exhibit themselves to view. Life, catwalk, school, asylum. High school life was chaste, or self-indulgent; adolescent dreams were fed, almost innocently, by the one soft-porn film that a friend had brought back from a trip to Hong Kong. No snake appeared; not even a fox.
I spent the occasional Chinese New Year with my mom’s parents in Xuzhou, which is best known for its dog meat dishes and as the birthplace of the thief-emperor Liu Bang; I have visited his tomb and it is definitely nothing special. Reconstruction and vendors. Dogmeat, on the other hand: underrated, unjustly impugned. But my cousin Chuchu was timidity and games, and though she was younger I began to understand difference – the beauty of difference, before it turns to squalor. She is a mother and water conservation officer in Woollongong, now. People will be irresponsible with what they mean to you. In time people get overwritten, like any other data.
Then my undergraduate years were in Hangzhou (Su Yuanyuan was Hangzhou to me; jade, prism, fire; rather boring, like the West Lake, eventually, which eats up all your days and produces only melancholy memories of dead courtesans, mummies). Very little jade is faultless. Vanishingly small.
Then I spent a year working for my uncle’s instant noodle factory in Regina, Saskatchewan, world-famous for being nowhere and while being nowhere freakishly, indescribably cold, except in the factory which was feverishly hot, even in accounts, where I laboured. Also in accounts was Yvonne Liao. I wanted to possess her – she had been born in Canada – to own her, to make a point upon power. But at length she saw through this, and tearfully informed me that I was a bastard, and she wanted true love, or nothing at all. Romance; Cantopop; convention. As though true love were not best expressed through compulsion, defiance, disgust, soldering. Then the factory went out of business, Yvonne simpered off to push paper for a mine in NWT, and watch for hours Andy Lau concert reels, and I returned with Foreign Experience. A cut above. A Homecoming Patriot.
My parents are themselves natural scientists, and have therefore little understanding for how dangerous and heretical studies of the arts can be. By the time they had allowed me to conclude my MA in Chinese (thesis topic: fox spirits in Han and Six Dynasties Literature), there was little choice but to allow me to proceed into the depths of uselessness, ie teaching. Corruption, dissipation, scholarship. The fact that I was accepted by one of China’s best universities was only a small consolation to them.
So that was me by the time I showed up in Nanjing, perfidious ex-capital. I had a dorm, a supervisor, a topic, and the potentiality for a woman, to contextualise herself into me. And I was not so naïve to suppose that she would not also read into me whatever she happened to require. People are each other’s interpretations, renderings, translations. I went around the city with a body for a book and writing in my eyes.
Her name does not signify and she was Ma. That’s a minority, the Ma, down south reproducing irrelevantly in Yunnan. For all these centuries, accomplishing nothing of note until they produced her, for me. So she was defensive about being Ma. She didn’t know anything about them, she claimed. Her grandmother may yet have spoken Ma – sure, there had been village festivals. But her grandmother had long been dead. The dead are not embarrassing, they are venerable.
Her own Mandarin was impeccable, and she was barely dark at all, not much darker than any other Southerner. Dark girls, like fat girls, put on fewer airs, raise fewer barriers, consent as a matter of course, almost take it as a compliment. Ma means Hemp, which seemed to me like it suggested something about the development of this group, when the Chinese first ran into them. Hemp-Cloth people. While we, the Han, were dressed in silk. In robes of mandarin silk.
Though of course that wouldn’t be technically true. History is always much simpler when you conjecture it, recount it to yourself in abbreviations. If you look into things, you never scrabble out of them again. A story is a lie with structure. A truth is a lie with pretense. She told me, vexingly, that the Ma were on the contrary famous for their silk. That’s why she kept silkworms in her room. She said I should go see them, sometime. I agreed, enthusiastically. But someday, she hastened to clarify, when her roommates weren’t there. That would be more, considerate. We parted that day in the library knowing what we were about, imputing the terms.
So the Ma had silkworms, I thought, rubbing my hands. She had silkworms, in her room. Worming, spewing silk.
The girl was not especially gorgeous, but it does something to a man, when a woman is a minority. A certain imbalance seems righted. I assigned us to each other. Self-allotment. The rest was process. There is a natural order to desiring the other, hating the other, constructing, humiliating, impedestalling the other. She knew that. We went to school. We drank iced tea. There was that dumb theory class we had to take, and she was there, and I sat there, and decided upon her. Schooling just makes you stranger and stranger. There is nothing left to resist.
We persisted but did not quite advance. Of course, I made friends with her roommates so that we could be always together, so that socially everything would jive. Pretexts aren’t even pretexts anymore; just politeness. Observations. Grad students have no expectations, life gets cheaper. Everyone else is busy being alive, bearing children, earning money, while all you ever do is read and think and surmise and age. With lit students, you can arrange to go to lectures and thesis defenses together, in little eager-cynical masses – it doesn’t cost a thing. You see your like suffer, and usually triumph. Like saints, like martial arts heroes. “Love is free.”
We saw Bai Xianyong, Le Clézio, a Taiwanese poetry reading, Bi Feiyu, a French-Chinese woman who edited Rohmer’s films, Stefan Thome, an execrable student Faust. We did the rounds. We went to the Francophone Film Festival; we saw the Qi Baishi exhibit at the Jiangsu Art Gallery; a dreadful opera from Shandong came to town. We dropped names voraciously. We batted each other with Bourdieu, Deleuze, then suddenly Sartre reappeared, Kundera bubbled up, a tittle of Levinas, a sudden wildfire of Gramsci. We became tiresome; we got nowhere; we became collections of other people’s names. We were on the cutting edge of nothing, meanwhile in secret, the modern lit kids all had novels to beaver away at – they were all trying to break out, turn their status inside out, be the studied rather than the studying.
My Hemp beloved just had poems; bad ones, she said; she burned them. That made her a little bit hysterical, romantic – but poets whom you don’t have to read are allowed to retain the mystique. No one should have to read what an object of desire writes. It spoils the effect. Socially we need the fact of writing, of publishing, of the hypothetical possibility of being heard. No one actually requires the product.
Then other people began to sleep around; and that made me impatient. The cohort group swelled and contracted and reworked itself according to these changes. It was officially discreet, as such things must be; yet those who cared to know could find it all out without difficulty. Gossip had no great vitality; people gave up their information too readily. A linguist was admitted to a relationship here and there; there were a few anthropological affairs; there was an instance of romantic, doomed and committed buggery between a classmate of mine and a master of Library and Information Sciences. Perhaps it was a rip-roaring good time. We loved each other; we built socialism; we filled our identity card number on many loyal forms. Who joins the Party? We join the par-TAY.
And after a few months my Ma beloved and I were allowed to secede from the polity. We went wandering together, just our twosome, through the heather, bodies in dialogue with the Presidential Palace, the Tomb of the Sultan of probably Brunei, diverse mausoleums. Eyes writing each other. If you do that twice, and it becomes known, then you are fixed in other people’s minds: in that sense, it is like Talmudic law. We went back to Zhenjiang, but did not go to meet my parents. It did not seem too early; it just seemed, irrelevant, tiring, as though we were simultaneously far beyond this, and could never aspire to it. She bought some vinegar back for her roommates. She had to go home early. The silkworms would be hungry. What about me? I joked not-joked. I’m hungry too. I rate below a silkworm?
Well below, she answered. Incomparably far beneath.
We were fixed by then; like photos are, like photos used to be. Permanent, then yellowing.
She increasingly took me on, though with a certain reluctance. We were both moderns, decadent and in perdition; she saw eventually that my fox-project was a feint, a sally to keep myself in respectability and with a prospect of funds, salary – that I was deeply heretical, antithetical, and living off a future that would not obtain. Of course that came out in the voracious vixens. We discussed in desultory fashion everything we needed to get through before the presumable sex: but there was such redundancy about us.
How many years had we been talking Joyce, Kafka, Proust? And then to wander back into China – to try to correlate, justify, deem, redeem Eileen Chang, Lao She, Shen Congwen. There were days when we were despondent about how much a romantic poet like Xu Zhimo could once have meant to us; or had we ever thought Thunderstorm well-constructed? But where else and what else? Foxes and silkworms. Moons on bedding, and the West Lake. Yet having nothing else to talk about, except these activities of the mind – a standing metaphor, perhaps, for the activities of the body. You can become very passionate about text; oh, you had better be. If you overdo it, there is nothing else.
One day, over coffee, she told me she had a confession to make. She had stopped herself several times before coming to this admission, and so the suspense had built, and I had figured that she was going to announce that she was married, or was ill. But no, it was the silkworms again. They had already been acknowledged, and came up in occasional conversation, so I wasn’t sure what she was loading them with now. The term was almost over. She stammered and claimed that it must seem silly to me.
Not at all, I assured her. It’s “part of your culture”. But what are they for?
Just to … have around.
Will they … make you something? A silk scarf? Can you … weave?
Of course, we both knew from the poetry that the silkworm had to die in order to produce silk, and were far too well-bred too mention it. We’re so removed from life that we read about the moon a thousand times for every time we see it, above the fetid metropolis. The moon is not high, or paper, nor does it have halls of ice, or a rabbit, or a toad, or a man, or a maid. The moon is obscured by the exposure of the city. The city has burnt off the sky. Likewise, silkworms partake very little of reality.
Why did we still not go to bed, despite the allusion to the silkworm? We seemed to be too old for it, almost. At twenty-eight, the way the world changes nowadays, you already belong to a passing generation. You have bracketed up. Love and sex seemed to belong to undergraduate students, high school students. It would almost have felt like stealing. We should have been married already – we should have been expending ourselves upon offspring aka death. Winter was coming and we had not sown, been sown. We were holdouts, reprobates. We had sought a fastness in academia, in literature.
But mostly, we could not go to bed because we had those beloved roommates in dorm. I awaited my opportunity. It was not open collusion; she did not think about her roommates in terms of the absence they would create, for me to slip into. No one is to herself an absence. She loved her roommates, as one must love proximate things. They were innocent syntacticians, semioticians. They stood for things, they connected things. It was never clear what stood behind them. They didn’t have much agency in my mind; imagine the imagination you would need to conceive all the conflicting minds, battering about in their intense, closed spheres. Other people, transient phenomenon, and the flow, unceasing, of consciousness.
There is no border between confusion and insight. But do only the confused feel that? And is it permissible not to be confused? Lord, how I loathe clarity. Lucidity. What a scam that is! A presumption, an arrogance. And again the silkworms welled up, in conversation – parting, industry, futility, transience. Everything could be mapped onto them. I promised that some day I would come see them; an offering. Her “silkworm babies”, she called them, in an access of mandated cuteness. An afteryearning for abandoned sex.
At the very end of term, we saw little of one another. There were papers to conclude – I was trying to force Lacan on to my poor foxes, and she was attempting to reduce or elevate Faulkner and Jia Pingwa into something sublime about place and poverty and well she didn’t know quite what. We were miserable. Life seemed as futile as translation – and when we met we talked about how we didn’t know how to talk about each other anymore.
But schools have the strange custom of letting you know exactly when your trial will be over, and having endured everything before then – remembering that these silly experiments were the price for a life of thoughtful idleness, social uselessness, delayed procreation – we endured, tolerated and passed onto the next year, all without, blessedly, ever thinking anything specific. Without pernicious argument. Surely that would be the end of us: to catch hold of one idea, and need to delve into it, and teach it, and live with the compelled belief that somehow it carried meaning, importance – that this particular scam would justify our ongoing presence, parasitism. Being in the world. But who cares about that? The reader wants to know about the sex and silkworms.
Because, yes, eventually the roommates left and our ideas were submitted to our supervisors for perusal, marking, discarding. We met outside the office – almost an assignation. I was invited up to her room – with something just short of the requisite seduction, implication, and just too much of that sense of mechanical duty – to see the silkworms. It had by then become for us a byword for our eventual collision, congress, bliss or whatever else you want to call it. Fulfillment of biological destiny. Recapitulation of text. Code-decode. Reading. Collusion.
So that I was not surprised that once in the room I took off her clothes, excited-petulant, without any reference to the silkworms. And she took off mine. And we stood there, with only just enough desire (I reminded myself that she was a minority, a woman of the hemp) to consummate, not without self-consciousness, the urge.
Did you want to see me bare my teeth? she asked. Do you think women are all fox spirits? That must be the subtext, somewhere? Pretending to virtue with my spinning, dying silkworms. And really a ghost-vixen, all along? The undead?
She did it to turn me on; her hands were all over me, and every accusation was a clutch.
There are male fox spirits too, I said, undoing her bra. Sex is the fox spirit. Sex is the cunning thing, the seducer. People just replace it, conspire with it, emblematise it.
How romantic, she said, and looked at me a little lust-harshly and we proceeded without any more talk, though there was inevitably the occasional grunt, or cry, or inopportune giggle or wheeze.
Then we lay there, like beached blowfish, and over us came the terrible knowledge of achievement, of destruction. We had insisted on realising something that had gained power from its withholding. It was like meeting an admired idol and finding them only and predictably a person.
It’s like the Eiffel Tower, I said, giving voice. Or the Forbidden Palace. Once you’ve been there, it’s been done. It gets old.
Whatever, she said, demonstratively refusing to cover herself up. Then, rapidly: Hey, thanks.
That was probably ironical. I put on my underpants, wishing I had bought something that had gestured at sexy, underpants you might see on TV. Too late now. She was on some very different wavelength. Was this going to be a now-we-have-dinner type of thing?
I don’t mean you, I said, You were great … Hey, come here. Don’t do that … Look, I always ruin things. You must have expected something like this too. And now it’s over. You see?
She sighed and said, do you want to see them or not?
For a moment the question confused me, since her breasts were already uncovered. But she got up and took a shred of mulberry from a plastic tray and bent over by the bed and said, these are the silkworm babies.
So they were real? I said, feeling a little tired and overwhelmed. I suppose I hadn’t realised that they would actually be worms. And there. And vomiting yellow silk cocoons.
Then, when they’ve made enough silk, they’ll –
I know. You’ve told me.
There’s that Mao Dun story about the spring silkworms –
Don’t they all starve to a death?
Well, they’re all miserable, anyway. I know.
It was just like her to bring literature into the post-coital moment. Some women love you in order to make you feel stupid. And to expose you. And with those worms present, so industrious. You have to kill them to make silk, or it turns all yellow. She had said something like that. She clucked at the worms like they were chickens, and I had the feeling that the worms were some kind of prop, that usually she ignored them wholly. That I was in the presence of an effect.
Put on some clothes, I said. Let’s have some noodles or whatever. I’ll treat you.
It’s my turn to treat, she said.
Fine. Can we go? Don’t do your make-up, that’ll take forever.
We had so little to talk about over dinner. We gossiped about our classmates. We made no references to the future. Dinner was one of those things that remind you that life will last forever. You can try to insert your build-ups and climaxes (it’s no coincidence that literature and sex share the terminology) but then when everyone has gotten it out of your system, you still have to eat (how vulgar!) and talk and read and grow older and older, and be subject to thoughts, not your own and too much your own. You will graduate and she will return to Yunnan and your first job will be in another city and all the while she may or may not be yearning after you, intending to you, inclining towards you, and the silkworms may or may not be real, now that you’ve seen them.
Josh Stenberg is an Asia-based writer whose work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. He has translated two volumes of Su Tong’s fiction and edited Irina’s Hat: New Short Stories from China