in a gyre, the roc
spreads his wings
ninety thousand li.
Bearing the blue sky,
he looks down, surveying
the little kingdoms of Man.
—from “Dialogue Between Birds” by Mao Zedong
Grandma always spoke fondly of the shrimp
in the spring at the edge of the village.
No bigger than her smallest finger, they frothed
in the small pool—rice-paper shells
bandaged around a bit of milky gray
with long silk threads for whiskers.
Small vehicles of life in deadwater.
They moved like a great fleet of dragon-boats
from one end of the spring to another,
their legs the oars of many men.
For them, the spring was a lake—
an ocean—a continent of water. It was all
they needed to survive. There was nothing else.
No apparent food for them to feed on, as if
they sprouted from the rock itself—
a deep pact between stone and water.
And what did they think of her small net?
She often wondered what it looked like to them.
A fibrous constellation pulled out of the sky,
descending, penetrating the defenseless water with ease,
carrying them towards the edge of the unknown.
The constant pressure of water—suddenly gone:
a strange lightness unbearable.
Were they aware of body, and not-body?
of mind, and not-mind? In the air,
as blind as they had ever been.
How crisp they tasted fresh out of the water!
They tasted even better in the wok: lotus-leaf
shells blooming like rust under oil and tender iron.
Was water dark or full of light? At times, the spring glowed,
thinking itself an ocean and its inhabitants phosphorous beings.
The fields heaved like a fur-thickened thing
under the midday sun. Its great, slack mouth stretched
for miles, swallowing up the men and women.
It tilled their bodies relentlessly, carving up grooves
like the deep folds of intestines.
Ma was upset again, the sadness upon her face liquid
moonlight pouring over the globe.
The badge-wearing children had come knocking at the door
again, demanding all their photographs. The colored one, too. Yes,
even the colored one had been scratched up and taken away to the fire.
Each face effaced an incision upon the heart.
It was no good to try to console her.
She couldn’t be consoled.
It was so expensive, she said.
You looked so pretty in your new dress, she said.
And the one with your grandmother—
the last one I had.
Uncle came from the city to visit, decorated
and uniformed, bringing with him
coupons for extra portions of rice and cotton.
Even that was not enough to make her smile.
Sister, he said, pull back your dark-grey hood. These things are not necessary for life or
for happiness. And the wok, too. The wok must go. Our soldiers need the iron. Our fields
have sprouted out of their blood. Our fences stacked with their bones. There are certain
rivers here, crossing the land like polluted veins, filled with the piss of dead men.
Sister, he said, I have journeyed through the primal world and seen what evil crouches
over small huts. Establish your mind on the highest cliff, where the eagle’s nest dwells.
Bring your feet to the precipice, and you will see the birds who turn from wing to wing.
Even that was not enough to make her smile.
Late summer brought the cooling of bamboo mats,
and the Japanese soldiers.
It was said they came from Beijing where
the river dolphins played in the Yangzi.
What did they know of the war,
living, as they did, underwater?
Did they taste the bodies that sugared
the banks with blood? Did bullets pass
dripping brightfire through the water?
Did they feel the march of spoiled feet like a ripple—
She had been warned often of what they could do,
what they had done in Nanjing:
bayoneted women in their full-moon bellies,
forced fathers to fuck their daughters,
and afterwards taken photographs—
little trophies to remember the war by.
Ba, but they look like us.
Pale-skinned and dark-eyed,
with long, straight hair like the fibers
of falling stars.
No, my daughter, they are not like us,
not like us at all, these ri ben gui.
They sail across the mirrored sea
with blood on their flags
On the day they first came,
the stew on the fire was boiling,
boiling and boiling again.
For three weeks, the meat had fallen
away from the pig in long, fibrous strips.
and now its bones turned, uneasy,
in the pot.
Ma was sucking on a thick, yellow bone, sucking out
its spongy stuff. “There’s always something left for you
to eat,” she said, “even when all the meat is gone.”
She lapped at the bone with a little pink tongue.
In the distance, came the sound of the alarm,
a long wail, passing like a ghost through the village
with bare feet, and river hair.
Ma tugged her to her feet. Their small bones
gathered themselves quickly, running
towards the cover of the forest. Near the edge,
she turned and looked through rows of bamboo,
towards the village where the slow ones began to
fall. Her stomach growled.
She thought sadly of the soup left on the table.
In the spring, the shrimp continued to swim.
To them, it was a quiet evening: distilled with light
passing, on its way through the universe.
Copyright © 2015 by Wendy Chen. Used with permission of the author.