Angie Sijun Lou
2022 Honorable Mention, Goldenberg Prize for Fiction
Li has never seen a kidney, but he imagines a flesh-colored ball the size of a fist. He wonders how he will transport it on his motorcycle, whether he will seal it inside a plastic bag with duct tape or place it in a cooler lined with ice. Night insects hum in the grass when he lays down to sleep. They sound like the engine of his motorcycle. He cuts the ignition and the humming never ends. Gasoline leaks onto the cold night earth. Even though he wakes each morning with the sunrise, Li still feels anxious that it’s too late, that his father’s kidney has already been sold off the black market, and now it’s in another city, purifying the toxins from a stranger’s body. He slurps down soybean milk with pickled ginger before getting back on the road, veering on neither the left nor right side but on whichever side the shade falls.
Li follows the directions to the doctor’s office that his father gave him: ride the freeway until it splits four ways. Soft right until you see the night proctor’s house next to the Coca-Cola plant. Take the long dirt road, a shortcut through the jungle. On the riverbank, there is a jade dog overgrown with ivy. When the tide is shallow, you can cut through the water as if with a sword, and every path on that side will take you to Guangzhou.
“You can’t cut water with a sword,” Li said.
His father pursed his lips. “It is just a metaphor.”
“What if I get lost?”
“You use your brain. Find somebody and ask them the way.”
But the summit of every hill always reveals another. The landscape is so boring. He passes by Buddhist monasteries where monks pay respects to individual grains of sand. Li thinks that if every rock is sacred then maybe none of them are. In the rain he senses the sharpness of the world, in the sun it becomes disarticulated again, amber and charged with its own aura.
Li squints through his cigarette smoke as he revs the engine, looking everywhere for the jade dog. He hallucinates it into being when there is a curve on the dirt road. On his darkest days, Li imagines a kukri viper’s venom pricking his skin, or a ginkgo branch hurling him into a ravine, or the blisters on his thighs flowering with pus. When he stops to boil water for instant noodles, dogs howl in the bushes around him. There is not even a visible moon for them to howl at.
In this moonless place, Li has no past to revert to. It is so unlike his hometown, Houtouwan, where every bad memory is eclipsed with the suchness of history: this is the bakery where Master Kang gives him fermented rice balls. This is a girl he once loved who wears butterfly pins in her hair. This is the machete that bisects the banana palm leaves. This is the dirt where the chicken warms her unborn yolks. This is the emotion he felt when his father revealed the stitches on his belly, ruby and involute.
The villagers who choose to stay in Houtouwan are either very young or very old. After the gǎigé kāifàng policies were passed, most of the fishermen left to work in factories near the cargo ports, only remembering home when they sent money over the newly installed internet wires. Vines grew over the old canneries. The remaining elders sit on buckets and play mahjong in the village square, each day a shadow of the one before.
Maybe Li’s refusal is coming back to him. He knows he wouldn’t be able to survive in the factories—cafeteria meals served on beige trays, silkworms fed to a power loom, cement soft and supple before it’s poured into forms. On the day of his father’s operation, he saw a sparkling white van casting an oblong shadow over the village square. It was a scene of desire. His father entered intact, exited un-intact. Many hours had passed. The doctor placed 10,000 yuan in his hands with the promise of more to come. Each bill was printed with Mao Zedong’s face glinting toothlessly in the light. At night, when he and his father slept together in the hóngmù cot, Li heard the lapping sounds of an animal drinking water from the gutter outside. He thought about the animal’s mouth coming into contact with the water, the water vibrating outward, folding into itself.
“Bābā,” Li whispered. “Can you hear those sounds?”
“I can’t hear anything. I am asleep.”
After a long silence, Li asked, “Are you in pain?”
His father’s breathing was serrated. Li laid awake with him until it became dull again.
“If you are in pain,” Li said, “I should help you.”
They waited three weeks for more money to be wired into his bank account, but the money never came. Li watched his father grow more sickly with each day, the skin slackening around his jawline. Li called the number printed on the business card but the line had been unplugged. At first light, he set off for Guangzhou.
In the wilderness, Li’s motorcycle beams with dust. He walks far away from it whenever he kindles the fire, but the distance does not induce a new way of seeing.
When Li finally finds the river, he can’t fix his gaze on one part of the water without seeing the totality of it. Nowhere is it shallow. Maybe this is the wrong river, and there is another one with a jade dog on the riverbank. A monsoon assembles slowly over the mountains.
Li sighs and sits down on the rocks to eat a cream puff, the only food left in his backpack. The cream puff is sour and crushed from the ride, splitting open when he sinks its teeth in, exposing its moldy pulp. He squints the sun from his eyes. The summer is beautiful. He wishes he could be born into it, only differently.
Li turns toward the voice. A young woman looms over him. He hadn’t heard her footsteps approach.
“You scared me.” Li said. “I thought I was alone.”
“I thought I was too. Who are you?”
She has a deep overbite and she is lovely.
“My name is Li from Houtouwan.”
“Why have you come?”
“I want to cross the river to the other side. Who are you?”
“Meilin from Huangluo.”
In his presence, she slowly removes her sneakers, jeans, and shirt studded with rhinestones, revealing an ovoid birthmark below her collarbone. Li looks away, embarrassed. Her pale skin glitters as she wades into the current. Even in the darkness of river weeds and hyacinths, light seems to collect on her. He looks down at himself. Maybe there is some light on him too.
Li chases after her as she wades away from him. “Could you help me find the shallow parts?”
She shakes her head. “There are none.”
Some people might say her overbite is ugly, but Li thinks it makes her beauty more realistic.
“Can you show me the way?” he yells, chasing after her.
“You have to take the long way through the Nanling mountains.”
She unties her headscarf, unleashing a thick torrent of black. Her hair falls below her thighs. Li is surprised by the pure mass of it. If she grows one more strand, it could break her neck.
“Your hair is so long,” he says.
She looks lazily at him with a cold elegance.
“I could cut it for you,” he offers. “I have a knife. Do you have knives where you are from?”
She laughs, covering her mouth with her hand to hide her gumline. Li does not think what he said is funny at all.
“What are you eating, Li?”
“I am eating a cream puff the baker gave me.”
Meilin runs a fine-toothed comb through her long hair, softly at the tips, but with increasing severity. She brushes her scalp until it produces a real drop of blood. As a child, Li believed blood was blue until it touched the world, and there was nobody in the village who could prove it otherwise. Now, looking at Meilin’s head, the redness of her blood drips as a testimony against him.
“Would you like to come for dinner before you go?” she asks.
Nausea brims inside him from the cream puff, nausea and hunger. He has to concentrate on having one feeling at a time because they are in conflict with each other.
“Yes.” He hesitates. “Though I don’t have much of an appetite right now.”
“Gather your things,” she says. “I’ll wait for you.”
He wonders if Meilin is inviting him for dinner because she thinks he is cool and free like those men in biker gangs who ride into the retrograde horizon. Li does not feel cool and free. Those nameless men and women working in the motorcycle factory–why had his father saved him from that life, from that mass of muted hands? His motorcycle idles in the shadows, aluminum and serrated. Li wants to eulogize the hands that built it, remember them truthfully, as belonging to people who never stop working, transmuting things from morning into night.
Meilin’s mother’s hair is even longer than Meilin’s. It is hard to imagine, but Li does not have to imagine because he can perceive it with his eyes through the window while she combs rice-water through the strands. She is shouting at Meilin and Li for standing idly in the rain.
“Who is this, your new friend?” she asks.
“His name is Li from Houtouwan,” Meilin says. “I found him eating a moldy pastry by the river.”
“In, in,” her mother says. “Cold shivers will give you áizhèng.”
The table is set with pomelos, sweet buns, boiled wildgrass, chicken and ginger, and eggs stir-fried with scallions. Li eats like a pig. Eating becomes the sole focus of his being. He sits cross-legged on the floor, his face eclipsed by the rice bowl.
“Li, why have you come here?” her mother asks. She has to wait a long time for him to swallow.
“I want to cross the river to retrieve my father’s kidney.”
“Why is your father’s kidney so far away from the rest of his body?” she asks.
“A doctor in a white van extracted it to sell on the black market, but he didn’t perform the operation correctly, and now my father is very sick.”
“Xīnkǔ, xīnkǔ. Zhùfú nǐ,” she shakes her head, spooning more rice into his bowl.
Li grows doe-eyed as he absorbs Meilin’s mother’s pity. Her hair drapes over all the objects in the house: the wind-up radio, the Hello Kitty stools, the rice cooker, a calendar with a portrait of Cáishén holding a gold-plated ingot. When she brushes it away from her face, she looks like an older version of Meilin. This is what’s strange about meeting someone’s parents, you can look into someone’s face and watch their future occur eternally in the present.
“There is now a hydroelectric dam on the river,” she says. “We can no longer wade through to the other side like we did in those days.”
Li watches Meilin eat. When she spits out the bone and cartilage, there is no trace of oil on her mouth.
“Stay and rest a bit before you make your way to the mountain pass,” her mother says. “You are just in time for Meilin’s coming-of-age ritual.”
“What will happen to her?” Li asks.
Her mother smiles knowingly and clicks her chopsticks. Meilin’s eyes are in her lap, studying the veins on her wrists.
Li wakes to a gray, maddening light. After he rolls up his tatami mat, he realizes there is nobody else home. The blankets are folded and the windows are wide open, letting the world trickle in. There is a note left on the table next to a pot of chrysanthemum tea and a boiled egg. Find us at the theater at the end of the road, past the butcher.
When Li is walking over, he makes believe he has a purpose here. Everything in his vicinity could be instrumentalized. A baby wearing a knitted panda hat: he could play with him. The public bathhouse: he could rinse himself off there. The cathaya tree’s root puncturing the gravel road: he could remember not to trip over that. The three-legged Siamese cat dragging itself through the village square: he could let it drink from his faucet. It was a horizon of possibility.
When he passes by the butcher, he sees honey-glazed ducks hanging in the display window, and feels the residue of last night’s dream. In the dream, he was inside a meat locker the size of a stadium. On each hook there was a singular kidney. His task was to discern which kidney he needed to bring back to Houtouwan. It was easy because each kidney was distinct; he could tell when it belonged to an alcoholic or someone with a sweet tooth. Their kidneys were bleached yellow, the ventricles engorged. Some of the kidneys belonged to bouncers who worked the night shift; others belonged to people who had jobs that made them type reports inside office cubicles. Li’s father is a rice farmer; he leads his water buffalo through the irrigated hamlets, picking the ticks away from the animal’s eyelids before they have a chance to embed themselves. There must be a kidney that corresponds with this too.
The theater is dark and smells like water that’s been sitting still. Light spills in patches, elucidating swirls of dust. Meilin’s mother stands at the entrance, playing games on her cell phone.
“Li, we are just about to begin.”
She takes his hand and leads him down a narrow corridor. Inside the theater, rows of people are seated like an egg carton filled with darkly shrunken heads.
“The tourist season starts after the first rain,” she says. “Any day now we thought we would see the first travelers; now here you are.”
He wants to remind her that he is not a tourist, but the lights are dimming and the velvet curtains are drawing open, confessing their true interior.
A bronze gong sounds. On stage, an elderly woman stands in front of a tánggǔ drum, but instead of using a mallet, she bangs the drum with her long, braided hair. Her cheeks are sunken and her earlobes dangle with years, but her hair is still obsidian. Li is stunned. The elder must have been growing her hair for a lifetime or longer. A line of six girls enters to form a circle around the elder, bowing deeply on their knees. They take turns pressing their foreheads to the ground at the elder’s feet. Then each girl braids her own hair into pigtails, intertwining her hair with the hair of the two girls directly adjacent to her, forming a closed ring. The girls approach the ritual with a quietism that silences the room, saturates it. All of the girls except for Meilin; Meilin is pouting.
Girl A wears a silk dress embroidered with flowers. Girl B has forgotten to brush her hair this morning and is untangling it with her fingers. Girl C is smeared in the same peony lipstick as Girl D, who somehow applied it perfectly. Girl E shrieks a folk song in a dialect Li does not understand, though maybe it is a song of mourning. Girl F is Meilin who performs the ritual without looking into the audience, only glancing up darkly for the next visual cue. Even though her hair is entwined immaculately with the others, it seems her brain is elsewhere, f loating.
Later in the afternoon, Li walks with Meilin to the rice terraces where she will wash her hair in preparation for the evening’s ceremony. The ravines make indents in the mountain, craters sunken in the green. In her satchel, she carries pomelo peels, tea bran, fleece flower root, and a stick of ginger. He tells her stories about life in his village, the schoolteacher who was always piss drunk, delivering incomprehensible lectures while smacking the students’ fingers with a bamboo stick. She no longer covers her mouth when she laughs in his presence. Her jawline dimples along her overbite, but when he reaches to hold her hand, she frowns and pulls it away.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t feel romantically towards you.”
“How do you feel towards me?” Li asks.
“I feel fine.”
Embarrassed, he clears his throat and tries to think of something to say. The stormy wind is blowing again. It is at the time of year when the seasons become oblique; each rain is lit with the end of another.
“I want you to take me to Guangzhou with you,” Meilin says.
Li is surprised. “Really?”
“Yes. I want to wear a leather jacket and dance to electronic music like they do in the movies.”
“How will you make a living when you are there?”
She considers this thought like it’s something brand new. “I could work in one of the factories.”
The factory, where time is slippery and ceaseless. He frowns. He wishes she would not go there, that place where she will no longer be Meilin but instead a tooth, a fingernail.
“What will you do at the factory?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think about the future in that way; what happens to me next is inscribed without causation.”
“The future,” Li repeats. He imagines a bright wall.
“What will you do when you get there?” she asks.
“I am going to find that doctor and ask for him to reverse my father’s surgery.”
“That’s so brave of you.”
They climb to the plateaus that surround the village, slowly rising in altitude. The temperature changes imperceptibly with each step until suddenly Li notices he is cold, immersed in fog. They take off their sneakers to wade through the muddy silt toward the highlands.
“We should leave before the sun sets,” he says.
“Let’s wait until after my ceremony tonight. We can go in the morning.”
“What will happen to you at the ceremony?”
“Nothing will happen to me.”
“Then why do you have to do it?”
“Things will happen, but they will be symbolic.”
“What are they symbolic for?”
“They are not symbolic for a particular thing. It’s my rite of passage.”
In an enamel bowl, she crushes the ingredients with a stone pestle. She adds rice-water and lowers her hair into the solution. Li recognizes the skin of the pomelo he ate, carefully unpeeled it in one long coil.
“But what will you be passing into?” he asks.
Fog divides them like they are sitting in separate rooms in a house.
“I will be passing into myself.”
Li rolls his eyes. His motorcycle beckons him; he thinks of the soft crackling sound of the metal contracting around the exhaust as it cools. From this vantage point, the village of Huangluo is a speckle in the hills. It is easy to be transfixed by small distances when they uncoil into landscapes, lacunas which puncture and recurse us to an origin point, which is a vanishing point, which is a kidney beating inside a plastic bag.
A long white tour bus is parked in the gravel lot at the entrance of the village. People from the city exit in an orderly fashion, avoiding a stray dog with a tail freshly injured from a dog fight. It stands at the archway, smiling and begging the tourists for food scraps. With each wag of its tail, arcs of blood are sprayed over the side of the bus.
Meilin turns to face Li at the red pagoda gate.
“Goodbye,” Meilin says.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“I am not supposed to be seen until the ceremony.”
Even though Li is standing in front of her, seeing her now. “Well, what should I do?”
She shrugs. “You can enjoy your free time.”
Meilin’s wet hair drips in the soil behind her as she walks away from him. Now Li is left alone, unsure what to do. The injured dog whimpers pitifully while the sun’s monotony casts down on it. He leans down to stroke its matted fur.
“Pale unhappy dog,” he says. “I know what it means to be you.”
The city tourists ignore him, pushing their way through the gate in their dyed linens and aviator sunglasses to glimpse the village of women who never cut their hair. Everyone in his vicinity is in transit while he stands still. When he looks at the injured dog’s face, he thinks of the jade dog’s beaded eyes blinking by the riverbank. He should have left here long ago; with each hour that passes, ivy reaches its long fingers to shield the jade dog from the world, and his father lays in the hóngmù cot with the windows open, looking over the mountain’s precipice waiting for a motorcycle to glitter towards him.
The dog slobbers.
Li pats its head for the last time. “Goodbye.”
His motorcycle is parked in Meilin’s alleyway, waiting for somebody to contextualize it. When he touches the ignition, his shadow integrates seamlessly with its shadow.
Blindfolded, Meilin is slumped in a chair in the village square. The crowd gathers to witness her. Meilin’s mother holds a razor in her hand, sharp with its absence of use. Girls A through E stand in the periphery of the circle, chanting a somber tune about a mischievous butterfly who is sentenced to relive its past lives. Her mother corrects Meilin’s posture by placing her hand on the small of her back. All eyes are on Meilin, but Meilin has no eyes. This witnessing is not a reciprocal relationship. Behind her blindfold, she has no choice but to look inwards, at herself.
As her mother presses the razor into her skull, Meilin concentrates on the individual strands as they are shaved from her head, falling onto the ground like autumn leaves, the tourists each vying to take one home as a souvenir. A material trace of her will linger in the hands of strangers, a record of each day of her life contained in it, recursing back toward the beginning, her childhood, when there were many days just like the others: eating taro cakes in the rain, napping in the milk-bright afternoon, the dew camouflaging the grass in unbearable ways.
On the riverbank, Li lights a cigarette and thinks about drowning in the abstract sense. The calmest part of the river is marked by a mossy stone egg the size of a semi-truck. Where the river hits the stone, the water ebbs into a deep pool. He imagines his motorcycle gliding across the surface of the water, taking him to refuge on the other side.
Behind him, he hears the soft sounds of a crepuscular animal padding in the lichen, but when he turns to look, he sees Meilin running barefoot through the night, her head shaved close like a young boy’s.
“Where are you going?” she yells. She looks crazy.
“I am going to cross to the other side,” he says, mounting his bike.
“I said I would come with you,” she says.
He doesn’t want to say the obvious thing, so he stares at her instead.
“The women in my village cut their hair only once in a lifetime,” she explains. “This year, it was my turn.”
In her baldness, he sees the whiteness of the rapids. “Will you miss it?” he asks.
“Having all your hair.”
She shakes her head with violence. “No. I hated it. It was so long.”
In that moment, he didn’t think she could be more lovely.
“Could I come with you, or are we saying goodbye?” she asks, but before he can answer she mounts the motorcycle behind him and holds the fat of his stomach, dimpled on his waist.
“Hold onto me more tightly,” he instructs. “The water will be very cold.”
They could be mistaken for brothers now. Wherever he is, she is too. What he sees in her is not singular, but it is not exactly plural either. Her form welds with his. If you were to separate them now, you would not end with symmetrical halves of the same self. You would end with a border that circumscribes.
He revs the engine. They lean into each other, ready to exit the life that they have learned to hypertrophy themselves inside, like a stone birth. The water before them is pure and dark. When they make contact with it, it doesn’t feel so cold after all.