My choice gets made: I’m shouldered backward for the processors to better gather around this young woman. The body of this young woman. One for each arm and one for each leg, and two to play appropriate music.
At some point in time, this procession would have had a meaning. I feel like this clanging of metal and childlike beating of drum would once have been… sophisticated? My father might have known. These days I think we have most of our ceremonies form television.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Here,” he says, handing me another cigarette. We stand about the girl and make as if to smoke.
“Do you want this?”
I watch Zhou because he is struggling with some answer.
“No,” I say. “Do you?” I want to see what she will say, but her marshmallow face is as pressed and closed as if she were dead. I draw on some smoke. “Hey?” I say. I squat.
“Do you want this?”
“Just leave us alone,” says Zhou. The drummer beats a tom-tom-tom sound. And repeats that. At points only he has decided upon, the cymballer hits his circles of metal together. On one of them, the four carriers heave the girl aloft. She goes up awkwardly and draining water. The fellows skip aside as best they can without wholly letting go.
“Fucksake,” urges Zhou. “Get back in.”
They line up more steadily and settle her on their shoulders.
In attempting to step up the incline away from the water one man sinks a little and stalls the others. Cursing and pushing one another under their load, the four of them prance about the mud like a disturbed pony, scared by the clash of cymbals perhaps. No one can want this, least of these men. “Goddammit,” says Zhou. “Give her to me.”
He shifts under the girl and the men settle her around his shoulders, pushing her clammy head up against his and wrapping her squashy arms around his neck. When they abruptly let go, her legs sail down almost to the ground. Zhou takes a sudden step backwards.
She’s going to come apart at the middle.
This building for years leant sideways and was more shifting scaffolding than dwelling. The walls moved under a burden of snow. Some other buildings, such as mine, had glass and were barred about the windows. The shiny chrome cages were bolted to the walls around the glass and had been installed some time before we arrived, before anyone knew no one else was coming. In a fit of marketing optimism, the complex had been called Heaven. It was and remains the loneliest place I have ever known. Back then I hadn’t been to other places. I didn’t know everywhere was like this.
Beyond the buildings were flat fields. I went there often because it is open. This was that good yellow earth I mentioned and beyond was the mighty Worthless River. I could have known its real name but didn’t. The smell used to be strongest on still days. That one winter day I went in, the air was too cold to carry any strong smell. And the weeds were gone. Instead there was this sea of mud. Walking was like sinking or sliding. I’d just wanted to see the far side, all the construction over there, just as tall and empty as here, but more and wider. But the mist had arrived before I did. I’d hoped it would clear. There was nothing to see and I lost my footing.
I’d arrived at where there was more water than mud. I had a stone I had been carrying. This I’d hurled. There is something wrong with the inside part of my shoulder, and the throw hurt. I could not throw well nor often, but I was in training.
My boots were old long before I’d stomped through this mud, but the way they didn’t support me that day made me angry. The mud was slick and loose and I knew it was not natural. This mud, this whole country, had been disturbed too many times, moved too often from here to there, cut up, twisted, turned over and never left alone. By then we had only this sliced mush and the dust. No fixed and firm ground. No foundation. No good earth. All the things around here that had names were like that too. They were shells. Featureless….
But like I say, I lost my footing, and I went in. It wasn’t my fault.
“Now you know who she is?” There are six men – Zhou, his two compatriots from earlier, the fat friend from the restaurant and two other shifting their paper frocks nervously. The sharp stink of burnt fireworks settles over us all.
I groan out a rolling curse that first time I try to get up. Stomach is weak, muscles feel stretched like torn, but mostly I’m giving voice to my lower back. Gasping and saying fuck I use my arms instead, pull onto my side. Cold rushes in. Vomit lands behind me in a steaming wet splash. I feel better.
Not that I’m that particular, but I do slide myself along the dirt a little because I don’t know what splashed where and a muddy jacket is probably preferable to the alternative. I hear the clash of cymbals and look up.
Skinny and his fellows, dressed up in white, coming down the road. The last time I’d seen that a group like that, decked out in flimsy paper robes and red sashes, they’d been strung out across the main road stopping traffic, the one and only protest action that wouldn’t get you shoved to the road by police. That time, word was, some liked individual had been killed on that same road and that group was observing traditional funereal rites. Buses had lined up on either side of the road to disgorge passengers who’d started walking, bags in hand. This lot, with cymbals and sticks to beat without rhythm on their tambourines jostles along on the thin road
The form of this march worries me. Aside from people collecting for a public purpose, which was suspicious already, the presence of ceremonial elements just flat out contradicts everything we know about the state of our country.
I stand. Somewhere back up behind the line the fireworks start. Shatteringly loud in the still air, rattling furiously, I won’t be able to tell these halfwits to fuck off. Then harsher, solitary booms, and the rattling rises and falls. The thick white haze wafts along with the crowd, looks to be about eight men.
The only truly musical element in the procession is the horns. They produce a raucous reedy buzz, altogether too high up the scale, but purposeful and continuous.
The procession halts a few steps away. We wait for the crackers to cease exploding. The music stops abruptly, the product of some tape machine rather than players.
Skinny Zhou approaches, fumbling at a packet of cigarettes. He holds out the butt of one at me, watches my hand come out to receive the offering.
“Come to take her home,” he says.
We lie there a measure of time, not exactly side by side, in fact further than arm’s length from one another, but aligned anyway given how I fell. I watch the vomit. It seems to me at some point it must fall but meanwhile it hangs above me in an unpleasantly captive liquid arc. It’s possible I doze.
I snort. I have the curious feeling of having just now heard – without hearing – a noise loud enough to startle me. And startle me awake. I know this phenomenon, and I hate it every time, because my body is both so fast, fast enough to push me out of rest, but so slow, the progression of my heart from resting to walloping being easily followed, anticipated even, and I have to sit it out until it gets better.
“Can I sit somewhere else?”
It’s the vomit. Do I roll her way or away from her to get out from under? She’s put her head on the side again, cheek to dirt, to speak. It’d be like rolling into her embrace, whatever over-inflated poison grasp that would be. But it makes a difference to when I should speak: roll her way, then speak; or speak now, and then roll the other way.
The spray left by my guts above me does not glisten. It could be made of shiny plastic shapes and pieces of food. I roll her way and take her by the collar.
When she’s settled laid out on her back alongside the road and out of harm’s way, I retreat to the other side of the rutted dirt and ease myself down into the grasses. The dirt here is unnaturally shaped, created by tractors and the passage of trucks, so I sink a little. But I can put my elbows on my knees and consider the corpse more easily. It watches the sky.
Experimentally, I say, try to say, have to clear my throat first, “this doesn’t make sense.” Her battered face produces a slight smile. And then falls back into no expression.
“I am at least not cold,” I say. I wipe my hands on my trousers, scrub then at my face and nose. Wipe my mouth. Spit. The air is not warm exactly. The bite is gone though.
She speaks then. I see her mouth move. “Why did you come here?” she says.
I consider for a while what the fuck kind of business is it of hers, and I do have no answer for that because I don’t know what she is. “Here?” I say.
She doesn’t answer.
Ordinarily, there’d be a trail. A girl on her own like this doesn’t happen here, not usually. Maybe in the cities. Girls leave a place like this one and in the big cities they’d be prey to anyone who might act like a friend, but here she’d be tied to family. And by now, there’d be someone to haul her onto a scooter or lift her onto someone’s back. And it wouldn’t be down to me to do anything at all.
I could just leave her. Not make the report. Skinny fucking Zhou might make trouble, but I could cut off his access to the building site, at least formally. Probably wouldn’t make any real difference to him.
Fuck me, I can’t remember a time not being tired. There’s nothing at all to this job and yet I’ve worried over what do to ever since I started. Back then I had an enthusiasm. Now… well right now, I’m so tired I put one arm across my belly the better to hold up one arm that holds the hand that I put across my eyes.
And just like that I turn on the other sense. That idea that blind people develop better hearing? It’s not true. They just use their hearing. You try. Put your hand over your eyes and hear what happens. I stand there with my eyes closed and realise somewhere along the water there must be birds, small and fast, chirpy in the morning air, foul though it is.
Was a time this place would be obnoxiously loud with cranes and trucks and men calling out to one another. Up on the construction there’d be hammers against pipe. The day would literally ring. Even the night. You could wake in the earliest morning and find all that weight lifted from your ears. Then the first shout in the street would make you curse. The first truck and the sand it would billow into your house.
Different now though, she says.
I lurch. I might be ready to vomit. I certainly snarl.
“No!” I say, and I point at her carcass. “No.”
My stomach does heave just then.
Have you ever tried to vomit into a frozen world? I mean a world with no motion. It flips you about like you’re a spaceman. Heaving and stretching out I should be stumbling into the water because I can’t hold myself upright, but my head is thrown backward instead, pushed off the tower of vomit that exits me and then doesn’t move. Dropping to my knees and pushed backward, I am propelled away from it rather than it being propelled away from me. I land hard. I’m as stunned as a child. And it’s worse because I heard that crack in my back.
I hold onto my head like it might fall off, and sob because I’m that tired.
Only slowly do I realise nothing actually has happened.
“You have to learn to control that,” she says.
“Do I?” I say, because I’m angry. “Did you?”
Skinny and his new found friends are soon gone. I should have had their names. Their numbers too. I let them go instead. Honestly wanted them gone. But the key point here was supposed to be that she is dead.
“Hello?” I say.
It’s wrong as I say it. If she wants to lay there, that’ll be her prerogative. I’m proud enough that I bought her some time away from the prying of others and here I go prying as much? This will be complex. I take a step back down the road myself, sock squelching in my sodden boot. Start looking for some place to sit. The road is dry enough in places. I park myself and creaking slowly down, and almost immediately feel relieved. See a weirdly new perspective on the same old scene: the dry grasses stand firmer, taller; hefty clouds overhead show off how clear the horizon has become.
“Wo beautiful ma?” she says. She’s lain her head over on the side to look across at me.
“Who are you?” I say.
“Die wo,” she says. “Die wo hui qu Meiguo ba.”
First thing anyone wants to know is where I come from. She asked that one already. But no one has yet asked me to take her back to America.
“Okay,” I say.
I should just go. Even now I’m not going to find out what she is. I haul off a boot. “We’ll go in a minute,” I say. Her eyes have glazed. She’s stopped moving. I try a last time. I’ll regret it if I don’t. “You’re not a prostitute,” I say. Might look the part, but doesn’t act it. I peel off the sock and haul my foot back up onto my thigh. It’s awkward but I’d rather not get dusty as well as wet. “So who are you?”
No longer tracking my movement.
I should just go.