I've forgotten the smell of my distant village. The smell of old linoleum as its glue dries and cracks, the smell of gasoline on my fingertips, the smell of the Detroit river in April; all of these have supplanted the verdant scent of wet succulents, freshly turned mountain earth, and the rich spices of an evening meal. I've caught myself in the bulk spice aisle of the local grocery peering down into tubs of ground ginger, mournfully drawing in the odor.
My mother, who lives far a field in the Michigan countryside, has stubbornly planted jiu-zi for me to chew on, but the impotence I feel is hardly sexual. She can't possibly understand. I feel as though I was entirely a wound, but no amount of purple xia-ku-cao would suffice.
I am suffering what my French uncle would call ennui, the trouble.
In my village in the mountains, there was a little boy who longed for the sea. But we had barely enough water to stand knee deep in. We had a thin river that ran quick down from the snowcap, and we had a dip in the rocks beyond the old overgrown temple where water sometimes collected and spread disease.
But this boy, he longed for depths. He had dreams of floating on the cusp of the sea, his face in the water, and the blue-black expanse of the deep yawning before him like the black sky of night, save with no stars, no moon, only deepening dark.
The little boy first went to his mother, and he said, "Mother, I wish to travel the seas like the old French, and the white ghosts from far away, and like the thin, slick people of Saigon."
And she smiled, kneading the pasty dough she had in her bowl, and she said, "But you're a little mountain boy. You've a firm goat-like step and a careful, climbing gait. The sea is shiftless, and for shiftless folk like those you speak of."
Unhappy, the boy went to his uncle, a Frenchman who had lived for so long in the village that he had forgotten the name of his mother.
"Andre'" the little boy said, for he had never been allowed to call the man anything but this strange sounding name, "I want to travel out to the depths of the sea where the fishes and the serpents writhe, and where the golden mountain rises up, and where the black abyss opens arms to all comers like a lady of Canton."
And Andre's said, "First of all, mon garcon, the ladies of Canton would not appreciate that characterization."
The boy, I recall, scowled at that.
"Second of all, there was a man from long ago in my own land who wanted nothing but the embrace of the sea."
The boy perked up. "What happened to this man, Andre' Father's Father's Brother?"
"Well, his name was Jonah, and he was devoured by the leviathan of the deep, and he lived a gay life in that belly with a little wooden boy and children who had been turned into donkeys."
The boy scowled doubly at that, and decided that the French were indeed mad.
After speaking to his uncle, the boy played at contentment for half a season, gathering salt and playing children's games when his mother watched. But in the rainy season, he snuck away for a night to the abandoned temple where water collected and disease spread.
In the temple there were raised sculptures of the Buddha fighting many demons, their beards painted bright yellows and greens, their talons blue and red. Buddha, in the center of a thousand whirling knives and teeth was ever serene, save for the fact that half of his stone face had been broken off and lay on the brick floor several yards away.
The boy prayed to the demon that once lived in this temple. The temple had been built to drive the demon out, but the boy suspected that if Buddha had forsaken his own face, then surely he must have forsaken the temple as well.
Finally, there came a noise from behind the temple. The boy snuffed out his votive fire and slunk around into the darkness and rain.
In the sunken rocky pool behind the temple there was the silhouette of a woman. She was bent over in the water, splashing anxiously through the blackened pool. Finally, her hair swinging back in an ark of water, she stood upright, her silken gown clinging to her body improperly.
"What in the fuck kind of ship is this?"
The boy was aghast. First that the women would curse, and second that it would be in English. Finally, that he would understand her even though he barely spoke any English, except "candy bar" which was a cherished word he had learned from an American GI.
The boy fell to the ground as the rain poured soothingly across his back.
"Get up." She kicked his side.
He stood and saw that she was an imperious woman from China. She kept feeling at her earlobes.
"I prayed to the demons of my ancestors for help. Are . . ." the boy paused and then darted along behind the woman as she stalked down the mountainside. "Are you the demon that my ancestors worshipped before time began?" Her legs were impossibly long, and seemed to grow longer. The boy found it difficult to keep up. She made sharp turns severl times. They headed up the hill. Down the hill. Finally, the boy saw the temple again, and though she was many yards away by then, he saw the woman sit on a rock overlooking the pool, and though it was raining, he could tell as her shoulders shook that she was crying.
The boy stood . . .
(Oh Fuck to This!— the little boy in this story is me, okay? Perhaps Robert has rubbed off on me in a disastrous way but, well, I am sick of playing this storytelling game.
Sigh. At any rate . . .)
I stood up on a rock and looked down at her. Moonlight filtered through the clouds, and the rain started to turn to the warm wet right before it is about to end.
"Are you the demon?" I demanded.
"No," she held her head in her hands.
"Who are you?" I hopped down and sat on my stone, still slightly higher than she.
"Tien-hou," she wiped at her eyes and added, "and I've lost my earrings."
"If you're not the demon of my ancestors, then who are you?"
"I'm Tien-hou, dammit. And aren't you listening! My earrings are missing and I think they came off when I shot up out of the slime-hole over there." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the pool that spread diseases. She was so much like an American.
"I prayed to the demon of my ancestors because I want to leave this mountain village and travel the seas."
She wiped her face clean, and then shook it upward in the moonlit rain.
I walked down the slope and sat on a lower rock by her knee and gazed up at her as a child would to his mother.
"Why pray?" she asked.
"Why not just walk to the sea. You live on a mountain, for fuck-sake. Walk down hill." She pointed emphatically toward my village and beyond. I sat up and cocked my head at that.
"Christ," she muttered as she snorted and wiped her nose. "Would you help me find those earrings? They belonged to Amelia Earhart."
"Who? What? Yes." I crawled past her into the black pool full of fresh rainwater. Just as the moon passed over I felt a prick on my fingertip. Moon light shown down and illuminated the simple silver earrings. I pulled them up and gave them to her.
"Here," I said. Her skin was as cool as a fish's scaly side. As my hand withdrew I could feel the scales on her skin were real, and her eyes, in the moonlight, bulged.
She smiled and held her palm to my cheek.
"What's your name, boy?"
"You've done me a good service. Now, I owe you a boon." She swelled in that moment. Or not swelled, but more fully occupied the space she was in. The moonlight was drawn to her, and her curves and her gray-green skin were more clearly delineated on the rainy mountainside behind the old temple of my dreams where water pooled and diseases were spread.
I took a breath. "I want to travel the seas and gaze deep into the eyes of the darkest abyss."
She held my cheeks in her cool hands, and her smile was almost wanton in that moment so that I was afraid for myself. "And so you shall!" She hissed. Laughing, she dove backward off of her rock into the pool.
Rain poured down and the moon faded behind a cloud. Then she clawed back up out of the water, her breasts floating upon the surface of the black pool. She cursed and scrounged in the rocks, grabbed her earrings again, and this time more carefully sank into the water and away.
In the temple, where my dinner bowl was, and the cold rice I had brought up to eat, there was a brochure. In the brochure was a train schedule and a ticket to one of the port cities near the border with China.
And years later, I took that train to the seashore and then traveled to this country to study Computer Science. I crossed many oceans in aeroplanes, and now I trundle through this dry office everyday, high above the streets of the dead city of Detroit, and on the other side of glass as thick as a temple wall there lurks the black and glistening eye of the deepest abyss.
And he makes dick jokes.
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