The lull before the start was her favorite part of the race. She craved, she supposed, the anticipation, the sense of energy suffusing her body and the bodies of all those restlessly, patiently shifting their weight from foot to foot in the ‘corral’ around her—a great wave about to be released.
Surprised as she was to discover this on each new occasion, to find it, still and always, a surprise.
How she relished the release itself: the pounding of thousands of pairs of feet in their disparate rhythms, the soft chorus of thousands of breaths; the sea of color bobbling ahead of her toward the horizon.
Gratitude? At the instant camaraderie ripping through the crowd like an electric charge, however short-lived.
Until she crossed the finish line, and felt the rush of a different kind of joy altogether.
Something more like relief, if not total exhaustion. The peace that only total exhaustion can bring.
Gratitude, for the last streaks of sun in the maples, for the skitter of leaves on the road, the crispy smell of late fall; for the truth that she did not have to run another step. Not today, not on this path.
Her own energy being, let’s face it, something short of boundless.
One thing was sure, even to her: if you wanted to finish, you first had to begin.
If only to finish last.
Which, truth to tell, she always dreaded. However ashamed she felt to own up to this, if even just to herself—the more so when she invariably placed a few hundred, if not several thousand, ahead of that naked finality.
Well, so far.
To say nothing of thousands behind number one. Hours behind, if reckoned by time.
To start, or to finish? It had always been a tossup—in the luxury of retrospect, if not the haze of nostalgia.
Perhaps there was no contest.
Aware, as she was, that whatever she tossed up was bound to fall. Eventually, if not in a matter of moments.
Once, as she stumbled toward the uncharted reaches of a distance she’d only ever dreamed of achieving on her own two feet, she heard herself mumble “no context.” Even as she wondered if she might be losing her mind, or running in fear of that.
Laughing till she all but choked on her own saliva.
Only to hear a cry from the wind: say what? as a chill blast hit her face.
The air breathed concrete and half-frozen spittle; dogshit stiffened on the rutted street in lumps of gray brown dull as burrs blown down from blurs of trees, chunks of brick tossed or plummeted from great, indeterminate heights. Her ears pounded with the thud of her feet on the tarmac, the sluff and scrape of thousands of pairs of lead pigs bound in high-tech cocoons made of polypropylene, zeo-line, neoprene, gore-tex, polartec, velcro, turtle-fur, coolmax and plastic foam nestled on a bed of gravel buds and sand. Coarse sand. Whole grains. A blister formed in the crook of one of her toes and she thought of a pebble inside an oyster. She found herself wondering: what would her life be from here on out if the pebble never became a pearl, but stayed instead the speck of volcanic ash that had found its way into her shoe, a splinter spit out of a slit of faultline racing along some ocean floor, only to swell and give birth to a shower of embers that burned a path up to the pads of her feet and on through to her ligaments, tendons and bones? What if her blister were to bloat into the mother of all pearls, glom like a barnacle fast to her flesh, taking her prisoner without parole, hostage never to be prizen free?
She listened to the synchrony of pace with breath. Her steps marked the rhythm of the earliest pieces she’d ever played, simple tunes in duple time. She scaled a peak every time she inhaled: four steps to the top, four down the far side. She picked up the pace: triple time, split time. The cold stung her nostrils; the smell recalled to her the color of the bar on that swing they’d strapped her into when she was three so she wouldn’t go pitching headlong off the seat when they pushed her out over the cliff. She’d murmured a tune in a major key; how her stomach had gripped as she plunged down the long slide of sky, almost scraping the ground; how her stomach released and her lips fluttered, lashed with an uncontrollable itch as if they had trapped a fly that now crashed and buzzed inside the quivering cave of her mouth, craving escape; a fly that buzzed and strafed her lips as the momentum swept her up and all but away, then pulled her back down into the trough, back up to the refuge, the prison of her father’s hands. Her hands, avoiding the bar in front, gripped the chains at her side. She’d pushed her fingers through the links that suspended the swing above the ground, that sent her flying, propelled her back. Now, as she neared the top of the rise she’d fixed in her sights for a thousand breaths, she recalled the time she extended the tip of her tongue to taste the steel fat as a donut, smooth as spearmint hanging there plumb in her face when she turned her head and leaned into the link, the silvery curve bleached the color of candy-coating by the cold; how the steel had mocked the warmth of her tongue with a taste so bitter it stopped her breath, how the icy fire had grabbed her and wouldn’t let go. How she’d choked, how her scream had strangled in the jaws of her throat.
She crested the hill and braked into duck-shuffle down the flip side, her knees sending off little z’s of pain. The mass of black fuzz she’d passed in her peripheral vision three paces ago let loose a growl the size of a cave. She heard the links of its tether slink and grumble as they cracked awake with the animal’s lunge. True, the sign warned BEWARE OF THE DOG in strokes dark and sloppy as blood, but the chain lay across the blacktop in coils long enough to snake all the way to her hamstrings and wrap around her three times naked. She dashed, she hoped, out of range of the jaws as gravity chased her down the elbow of slope steep enough to dare her knees, after seventeen miles, not to buckle and pitch her over headfirst, not to simply burst through the drum of her skin in a shower of bone-shards exploding like ash from the pent volcanoes her patellas had become.
Two girls, half her age, half again her height, leaped by, the dog, the chain, the sign mere memories, purple thighs lithe as lassos looping the air in great arcs, heads so high she couldn’t have seen their eyes if they’d turned to peer into hers, and why would they want to do that? They scaled the next impossible hill with the grace of antelopes charging across a great plain, tight butts bobbling over the crest, blur of bright spandex exploding upon the volatile horizon only to sink like twin tropical suns behind it. As she swung down into the trough herself, her quads released their grip for two steps, three, then four; for a moment she, too, soared like those gazelle-like girls already long gone, buoyant, flamboyant mirage on the wind. The fifth step slammed her back to ground, to time, to the cracked asphalt that alone shielded her from the slagheap of electrolytes sprawling like lava beneath her feet. The ridge ahead arched its back against her assault as lead seeped into her calves in a slow drip that swelled on contact and hardened against the tapered wands of her shins, bearing down on bone that couldn’t bend, but only splintered, in the face of stress. She became aware of a presence encroaching upon her magnetic field from somewhere off to the left, marking her step, shadowing her stride. Something with mass and heft, its acetone breath battering her neck, its voice the sound and color of secondhand smoke stage-whispering commands in a crook of her ear. Or were they demands? Perhaps they were threats. Albeit disguised as offers intended to cause her feet to stop moving, to stop the beat of her breath. Give me your tired, your poor, your bare ruined schemes, your muddled words, your decomposing dreams . . . Pain formed a ridge behind her eyes and proceeded to populate it; hunks of hurt hunkered down in masses sang in split, adversarial choirs; her elbows, now rusted through, ground over and over the same rutted trapezoid of track on the same pitted wheels as she toiled uphill on cartoon paws trapped in ten-ton bricks wrapped in fabric foam-padded and trimmed with swirls. Dear fuck! how she craved to be one of those girls.
Though for the day or two after the race, her quads remained sore enough to be challenged by the intricacy, however commonplace, of the transit from a standing to a seated position and back again dozens of times. Forget the simple act of walking down a flight of stairs, which required her to choose between two poor alternatives: grip the railing with both hands so as to manage a lurching vault from that step to the next one below, assuming, that is, the presence of a railing at all; or, use both hands to lift whichever leg seemed poised to take the next step however reluctantly, by hefting that leg behind the knee and placing it on the lower step as if it belonged to a piece of furniture too heavy, or cumbersome, to lift all at once.
Despite all this, if not because of it, she found herself more than a little sobered to note how few women in her designated ‘age-group’ had taken part in the race.
Or at least finished it.
Why did she think of that five-year range as having all the light and air of a spider-hole—by-product of some kind of battle—into which she and her fellow detainees had been arbitrarily, if momentarily, bunkered?
Interesting, how walking upstairs was so much less painful than walking down, after running a couple of dozen-plus miles, all in a single day.
She could have waited, of course, for the elevator to take her the two flights down to the lobby, the way her neighbors did. Not only the old and disabled.
Odd that no one seemed to see this as a choice. An act bristling with some kind of implication.
Maybe she meant complication.
She couldn’t help recalling a comment she’d seen in an article in the Sunday magazine just that day, attributed to some ‘expert’ whose name and niche she should no doubt have recognized.
But did not.
Ashamed as she felt to realize she’d missed his fifteen minutes of fame, no doubt because of her too-recent return to this country, this city, after several years on the other side of the earth.
As if she were partly to blame for 911, by virtue of the simple fact, however accidental, of her having been so very far away when it happened.
Just one year ago.
The article purported to expose the means “deployed,” as the author put it, by women “of a certain age,” to pass themselves off as of a less certain one.
Not that he put it that way.
The means of such deployment being cosmetic surgery and trips to the gym.
Spoken in the same breath, as if to equate the two.
Though, in a curious if not telling omission, he had failed to mention exercising once you arrived there.
“A certain age” being, alas, the author’s code for women around her age attempting to be taken for thirty years younger. Or so she surmised.
Not that he put it precisely that way, either.
He seemed, for one thing, to have got his certainties confused.
Cosmetic surgery being, surely, nowhere near as strenuous as going to the gym. At least not if you went on foot.
So much less diagnostic of one’s health—if not a greater risk to that very condition.
Perhaps she meant ‘prognostic’.
The tacit intent of the claim being, it seemed, to suggest that having gobbets of fat scraped off your thighs under anesthesia was as good for you, and as invigorating, as peddling a bicycle, forget any question of age.
Or that swimming was as bad for you as silicone implants. Albeit more elusive in terms of its effect, if any, on the size of your breasts.
Some sort of cost-benefit analysis might have been helpful here.
Alas, it had always been only a matter of time.
The years she’d lain in wait, hardly conscious of their passage, for some touted expert to equate an act as natural and essential to life as moving one’s body, with the deeply invasive, ominously wasteful process of having one’s phenotype surgically adjusted every few years.
In a vain attempt to outrun the effect of the passage of those years on one’s appearance.
Equate? ‘Conflate’ was more like it.
Might the activity of running, for example, be propelled by the same degree of vanity as the decision to inject one’s face with botulinum toxin? The decision, followed by the act of having it done?
Or might running be merely perceived as such by some people unlikely or, alas, unable to engage in it themselves, however vain it might be fair to characterize some of their alternative pursuits?
The two stances, if you will, inspired to a kindred extent by fear of time’s scars, if not by its mere passing?
Never mind that a certain proportion of women her age who found it salutory to work their abdominal muscles with some frequency might well refuse to have their tummies tucked even once.
Nor, she assumed, would many women eager to spend thousands of dollars on a procedure of such transparent evanescence as a tummy-tuck thrill to the notion of having to spend, in the alternative, hours every week flat on their backs on the floor—for the duration!— flexing and releasing their obliques. Merely to achieve the same effect.
With far greater effort, if less expense.
To say nothing of hours weekly, as long as their knees held out, running along some deathtrap of a highway.
Or on a treadmill somewhere.
Which, it must be noted, most women her age had been doing for years anyway, however metaphorically.
Or so she surmised.
Perhaps metaphorically was more than enough.
Which it might be fair to conclude, given the statistics she found on the race website.
Twenty-two women in her age category. Out of a field, they said, of six thousand five hundred seventy-three.
Suddenly, the thought of spending several hours in continuous motion to cover a distance it might take a car under thirty minutes to achieve, on the same highway, made her feel bone-weary.
As if she had not just run such a distance herself, however slowly. One foot in front of the other, step after step.
How many years before the metaphor would have to suffice, in lieu of the act?
She found herself pondering this question once more as she ascended the steps from the station to the road above, the road that wound around the top of the cliff overlooking the river, facing the palisades. The cliff that supported the building that held her apartment.
To reach the top, she had to climb seven flights of stairs—broad flights with treads so narrow she took them at a slant. Leaning into the slope so as not to lose her balance and go hurtling backward, cracking her skull on a crest of concrete behind her.
This, despite that her feet were slightly smaller, if anything, than the average adult’s around here.
She wondered how people with really big feet made it up these stairs without falling. Day after day, year after year: the last phase of their evening commute a brief but bracing workout. Sometimes on packed ice. Often in darkness.
Though the stairs were supposed to be kept clean and well-lighted.
Adjusting her backpack as she climbed, she narrowly missed tripping on a ledge that some stone-eating creature had taken a bite of, leaving the already shallow tread further indented by several inches, its edge now crescent-shaped, sawtoothed and crumbling.
Though it had been that way for months already, if not years.
How long before she found herself paying the price for failing to remember the hazard, to see where it was?
She dared not speculate on what that price might be.
Even as she’d given up asking the question, no doubt more pressing, of when the gash might be repaired.
Given up, no doubt like the rest of the tiny minority who used the stairs instead of shelling out two bucks to sit, the long way round, on the railroad’s shuttle-bus. This, after sitting half an hour on the train and, before that, eight or ten on a padded chair in the office.
Or so she surmised.
She couldn’t help recalling the Chinese proverb about the journey of a thousand miles, and how it began.
The mother of all metaphors, perhaps.
Was it not the simplest, the barest of truths? First coined, or so she imagined, in an age when metaphor was still in the womb, a time when people traveled mostly on foot, singing in synch with the pulse of their steps?
Finding, and stating out loud to the treads their ancestors had carved into the sides of mountains centuries before, the words they sought to help them reach the summit by sunset. The words that snaked into their brains, unbidden.
To reach, that is, the gate of the shrine into which the last step always merged. The realm of possibility, if not mere pause, the last step opened upon.
Courtesy, as always, of the first, without which nothing could happen.
The lines that lay down in their minds as they toiled up flight after flight of stone stairs, the women tottering on tiny feet wrapped tight to prevent their true flowering into precision instruments of transportation, if not necessarily speed.
Thereby to gratify the proclivity, immortalized by decree, of a now infamous emperor of the thirteenth century who believed that the foot of the human female should resemble a golden lotus bud.
Even as he believed it should not be permitted to flower.
Women, that is, who were not reclining on lacquered palanquins carried by male karyatids.
Which surely nobody called them over there.
Strange, how the only lotus blossoms she’d ever seen up close were the size of wine jugs. In which case, that particular ruler of the heavens and the earth must have been referring to a mutation. Though he wouldn’t have thought to call it that.
Could a bud be so much smaller than its blossom?
Perhaps it was the twelfth century. Or the eleventh?
Any thought of cosmetic surgery, were such a term to be conceptualized by a culture even as elaborate as that of the emperor’s a millenium ago, rendered moot by the simple force of cloth—linen or muslin spun no doubt by some of the same women whose feet, barely bigger than crescents of jiaozu, rested immobile as divots on the earth or drooped like deadheads from their chairs as they worked; women who tore the fabric they’d fashioned from fibers of flax into strips whose pressure against the bones jammed toes and heels together until those accessories vanished utterly from the profiles of their daughters’ feet.
Ensuring, thereby, that they’d toddle in their mothers’ footsteps. Forever.
‘Divots’ being a term for which a Chinese rendition may well have existed as long as a thousand years ago.
Albeit with no perceptible reference to the game of golf, which she assumed had not.
Though she might have been completely wrong about that.
Only for the truth to be uncovered—centuries later, by an anthropologist from Germany—that the toes and heels never really disappeared but, rather, became so conflated as to resemble a jumble of knobs the size and texture of marbles, or of periwinkles.
Even as an archaeologist from Scotland claimed to have gleaned, on the rolling, rocky coast just north of Qingdao, the traces of a primordial links course, thought to be the earliest ever documented.
Predating St. Andrews by eight hundred years.
The Scotsman’s hitherto obscure career having soared as a result. Enshrined, as he later became, in the Sports wing of the Archaeology Hall of Fame.
Or something lie this. If there was such a thing.
Kernels, not unlike those little suckers on the undersides of squid tentacles.
Though the anthropologist may have been British, or French.
A man of a certain age, peeping through the keyhole of radioscopy.
She recalled watching, as recently as thirteen years ago, a group of very old women laughing and joking on a flight of steps, one of many carved into the side of a mountain in Shandong province—a peak reportedly sacred to three religions.
The only way to reach the top being to take the stairs, one flight at a time. A climb that had taken her no fewer than seven hours, hobbled as she’d felt in her ignorance of all three faiths.
And not just of those, but of vast unmeasured bodies of lore, scrolls of wisdom and truth unreckoned and uncounted.
To say nothing of oceans of superstition.
Though her having forgotten to eat breakfast before she set out no doubt accounted for any physical, if not motivational, lack she labored under now.
Not that there was anyplace to buy anything resembling a meal—or anything else, for that matter—en route.
Though this was not quite true. Squat ladies with swollen ankles, swollen putty-colored faces and kerchiefs tied around their heads had set up shop along some of the outcrops, selling boiled eggs out of buckets filled with warm liquid the color of espresso. The shells of the eggs were a patchy bronze, stained thus by the mysterious fluid. Alas, not espresso, she thought, realizing she could have used some caffeine. Though she’d discovered that coffee was almost as rare in this country as lipstick, which she never used, or deodorant, which she’d long since run out of.
The buckets gave off an odor of dried cuttlebone, or something equally fetid. As hungry as she might realize at any moment she was, she couldn’t imagine biting into one of those eggs.
But wait! Might not they be living examples of the ‘thousand-year-old eggs’ still found on a few restaurant menus back home? That would explain their strange smell, wouldn’t it?
Yes, if indeed it was the scent of great age.
Never mind that the squat ladies with the swollen ankles and puffy faces were probably at most one-third as old as those tiny old women. However buffeted they looked from a lifetime, no doubt, of selling ancient food of indeterminate aroma on the outcrops of sacred mountains.
Their own feet flat and wide in black canvas Mary Janes, their arches long since fallen. Gone.
Not that they called their shoes ‘Mary Janes’.
Which would have been forbidden by the powers-that-be, even if they’d been aware of the name. Which they would have considered taboo: too bourgeois. Or so she imagined.
Too ‘running dog’.
Her eyes wandered now toward the feet of the tiny old women. Even as she dreaded with a frisson of prurient fascination what she felt certain she’d find.
Compact little triangles barely four inches long, swaddled beneath white socks that might have fit a child two years old. The women teetered under laundry-bag-sized bundles they’d slung across their backs, their heads almost brushing the stone with the weight of the bags.
She thought their laughter carried, or echoed, a quality of lives lived inside of large families.
Though she could not have explained what she meant by this.
Nor could she have said exactly how the phenomenon might have been achieved, if it wasn’t merely an illusion on her part.
Unless through the simple, however perilous, fact of those great-grandmothers having survived the deaths of many of their children.
Even as they’d raised others who would survive them. Kids now close to seventy themselves, grandparents of several boys.
Two of whom, or so she imagined they might be, fell into step with her as she climbed.
One of these a student of solid-state physics, the other in accounting. Roommates at a university in Beijing. Whose great-grandmothers had in fact already died.
When she felt she could not take one more step, the two boys urged her along with something like filial kindness.
Both of them young enough to be her sons.
If not quite her grandsons.
One of them counted, in a soft voice, every tread of every stair, while the other tallied it all in a tiny black notebook.
Re-enacting the origin of the term ‘number-crunching’?
Which, if that were true, would be a rough approximation in English of a much richer concept in Chinese, centuries old.
Or so she imagined.
As they climbed together, the two boys introduced each other to her, each one managing to convey, in the wrap of his voice around his roommate’s name, a mix of affection, respect and mock scorn.
She asked them both what their names meant. Again, each answered for the other.
‘Construction of the Country!’ shouted the one with the small notebook, the two of them dissolving in giggles. This mouthful in English being fully pronounceable, in Chinese, in just two syllables. Written with two characters, like every Chinese name she’d ever heard of.
As for his roommate, Construction of the Country told her the boy’s parents had named their son Joyful Serendipity. Or was it Generous Burden? She could no longer be sure. He was a third child who would have been illegal, if not forcibly aborted, had he been conceived in Shanghai or Beijing, in Tianjin or Guangzhou or Harbin.
Either one of those names being rather less common than ‘Construction of the Country’—even now, in the age of the latter-day Deng Shao Ping. Or so she surmised.
Generous Burden—or was it Joyful Serendipity?—having had the good fortune to be not only conceived, but born, somewhere on the icy steppes of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region bordering Tibet.
At least, so she imagined, when he told her where he was from.
A place the powers-that-be had decided, for the time being, needed more people.
Even as they were engaged, at that very moment, in further reprisals against the people of Tibet. Which was why, she supposed, that place had been closed to foreign travelers “for the indefinite future”.
Good fortune being, of course, a relative concept. The more so for being such a loaded one.
How intrigued she’d found herself to learn that the people she’d met so far in her travels considered Richard Nixon a hero for having, as they put it, opened China to the West. Even as they’d praised Deng Shao Ping, with seeming spontaneity, for his having allowed them a smidgin of capitalism: a form of innocent amusement after work.
Perhaps the premier had thought it would remain a harmless pastime—a few hours of homey entrepreneurship following the factory whistle’s last daily blast. The clearest result of this policy being, as far as she could tell, the markets that bloomed like orchards in the late afternoon, the quasi-festive atmosphere of whole boulevards, in every city and town she’d seen, lined with stalls hastily fashioned out of corrugated cardboard, slats of packing-crate, scraps of metal from defunct tractors, railroad cars and refrigerators; nylon mesh from the huge, soiled shopping-bags most people used for luggage, remnants of towel and bedsheet; stalls tended by even small children sometimes, selling everything she could imagine a traveler might need—and more!—as she moved through a vast and various country.
One example being the two strips of elastic of just the right length, width and resiliency she’d bought and had sewn, at ten cents a pop, into the cuffs of her cargo pants so she could push the legs up in a hurry.
So, in other words, her cuffs wouldn’t drag in the dirt when she had to squat.
As she was going to have to do at some point during this climb.
‘Dirt’ being, indeed, a willfully imprecise term.
Though perhaps diplomatic was more to the point. Falling somewhat short of euphemistic.
Genteel, if you will.
Usage befitting a foreign guest.
When she rubbed her stomach with a pained expression, Construction of the Country—or was it Joyful Serendipity?—motioned to a concrete wall a few yards off the path. Not that she would have needed their help to tell where the bathroom was.
Rural public toilets being little more than troughs, occasionally concrete-lined, in lean-tos without doors or running water—mere slits, at most ten inches across, which you straddled and hoped not to miss, or touch.
Let alone to fall partially through.
Targets she found routinely overshot. If not ignored altogether.
Fortunately, she had no way of knowing how often some child fell into one of these.
The slit on the sunny side of this slope being, if anything, shallower and more aromatic than others she’d. . .experienced.
Owing to an infrequency of nightsoil harvests? Notwithstanding the rapid and continuous growth of the crop.
Though hardly a mystery, given the evident lack of arable land to which nightsoil might be applied on these steep, rocky slopes.
Experienced? Perhaps ‘endured’ was the proper word.
So she considered as she zipped up her pants and stepped back outside.
Only to emerge, however temporarily, upon a dusty street in Suzhou. At least in her imagination.
Pushing her cuffs from her knees back down to her ankles.
Elastic being the kind of useful but somewhat arcane commodity she’d anticipated searching endlessly for, if not finding in the next market stall. Meters of it, in every imaginable size, spring and thickness, wound—like string—on bobbins the shape of buoys, cylinders the size of a goat’s head. And, at the stall across the way, knots of people lined up to have their Mao jackets mended, kids’ hand-me-downs altered, and even whole outfits sewn to order, while-u-wait, at prices that all but made her weep.
Breathtakingly low, as they were, by the standards of a traveler from the Land of the Big Rice.
She wondered how the tailor and his wife could support their family on such modest means.
Even as she played her part, to the delight of the burgeoning crowd, and bargained with the tailor to lower his price yet more. As indeed they expected her to, vendors and customers alike being fully prepared to chide her mercilessly and en masse, were she to fail in her role.
Or decline to fill it at all.
No, she dared not ruin their day. Not with so little panache.
At least, so she reasoned—however shamelessly—as she approached the man with the sewing machine.
Not reasoned, so much as rationalized.
Surprised to note that it was a vintage Singer, huge and ornate, black with gold filigree. The sort her grandmother might have used.
Or so she had to imagine, as she’d never known either of her grandmothers. Each having died at a time when her parents were still in school, hundreds of miles apart; as yet unknown to one another.
Perhaps one or more of the tiny old women she’d met on the side of the mountain had used a machine like this in her youth. Before Chairman Mao.
If not even before Dr Sun Yat-Sen, the first of the powers-that-be to ban foot-binding in China. The first and last of them, so far, to aim for something like ‘democracy’.
Though she could not be entirely sure of this.
Her sense of time, to say nothing of history, no doubt increaingly skewed, with each step, by a heady mix of awe, fatigue and sheer ignorance.
Democracy? A word, she had to admit, she found hard to use with a straight face, or any other kind of face, anymore.
Was it possible, she wondered, to operate the treadle of a sewing-table if your feet were enlaced in meters of muslin? Wouldn’t the pressure you had to apply to set the mechanism in motion all but blind you with the pain? Stop you, quite literally, in your tracks?
Enlaced? Encased, was perhaps more accurate.
Though it shone with the gloss of a new machine, or one very lovingly cared for.
She wondered if it might not be brand new. If Singer hadn’t fortuitously tapped into the ideal market for its mother of all home models and decided to revive production. The prototype being a device that required space, but no electricity, making it perfect for outdoor use.
Not just a device, but a kind of shrine. Evoking, to be sure, as much veneration as the hearth, or the ancestors. If, that is, the powers-that-be allowed people to honor their ancestors anymore.
The very notion of that—to say nothing of the spirits themselves, indeed once venerated—no doubt banned, long since, as counterrevolutionary.
Unless, of course, you had the bright fortune to be descended from someone still in the good graces, however posthumously, of the powers-that-be. Someone—alas!—like the Chairman himself. He having managed to trash, if not purge outright, most of his one-time cronies before he died.
Though she could have been way off base on this.
Was it possible to speak of the ‘powers-that-were’?
‘Veneration’ was not the right word.
No—the word she sought would mean something like ‘conscientious attention’.
Not unlike the kind that Construction of the Country and Generous Burden—or was it Joyful Serendipity?—were visiting upon her now, with every step she took, however haltingly, after six straight hours of ascent.
The three of them paused and turned every now and then to look back down at the zigzags of stairs they’d already climbed—endless riffs of corrugated cardboard vanishing into the mist.
Or so those stairs appeared, from this great height: harmless, almost flimsy. Small as props in a model-train set.
The tiny old women still laughing and joking together, their loads on the steps beside them, scores of flights back.
Or so she imagined, even as she took strength from her companions’ voices, from the rhythm of their speech in a language she didn’t understand, but felt she knew, as they beckoned her when she fell behind—lai le? lai le?—their laughter light and cool as the air had begun to feel, at last, when it touched their faces.
‘Conscientious attention’ being a concept for which there existed, no doubt, a single character in Chinese. Whole, in just one syllable.
Or so she surmised.
She wondered if the tailor or his wife, back on that dusty street in Suzhou, polished their sewing machine every morning before they rode tandem to the plant.
Or if they took turns.
Perhaps the emperor who had decreed almost a thousand years ago that women should have feet no bigger than lotus buds had been a man ‘of a certain age’.
The eggs he ate for breakfast, if any, would have been babies back then.
She tried to recall when, if ever, she’d heard someone refer to a man that way, either out loud or in print.
An age in which, it might be fairly noted, we could all be blown to bits at any moment.
The longest journey ending not as it began, with a single step, but with a juggernaut.
Thunder of billions of pairs of feet?
No: quads of wheels.
Whooshing across a plain once rife with forest and meadow and marsh. . .
. . .now a slab of tarmac stretching all the way to the horizon.
* * *
B J Atwood-Fukuda lives and writes in Spuyten Duyvil, NY and Woods Hole, MA. Her work appears in Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (Scribners, 2003), Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books (Subpress, 2004), American Letters and Commentary and The Mad Hatter’s Review.