“It’s so easy to make a person who hasn’t got anything seem wrong.” —Jean Rhys
Just before the Avenue of Eternal Peace, before the main drag, where Wangfujing whirls off to the right, where the rich can eat McDonalds and stroll amidst the new abundance, stand the snow white headquarters of the China Women’s Organization. The building is nestled between Changan Dasha, where the state theater diligently stages Peking Opera, where on occasion men still play the female roles, and the International Hotel, whose biggest customers are the Americans who come to adopt China’s daughters, whisking them off by the thousand to the land of beauty in exchange for a few pieces of silver that amount to less than they pay for their week-long sojourns in a hotel that has a real fountain in the atrium and a babysitter service.
The front of the building that enshrines the equality of women boasts a wide carved white archway teeming with strong square-featured women, a stone testament to Mao’s now pedestrian claim that women hold up half of heaven. The arc spans the sky like a huge misplaced dinosaur rib, fleshless, ageless, and dead.
On the ground in front of the rolling steel gates lies a young woman wrapped in paper, which she has spread over her padded jacket to keep warm. She rests her head on a small red blanket and covers her face with her arm. She seems to be lying on a large red hongbao, as if she might be a gift to the New China that lies just around the corner. It is after all just three days before New Year. This girl has just come from outside, from Hebei, not far, just north, centuries away. She carries nothing of her world with her except the red blanket, a child’s pleated coverlet, and clasped in her hand she holds a small painted bottle, with a picture of the Great Wall. Actually, the bottle she found lying in the dust of behind-the-façade Beijing, just a few streets away. But she knows that it comes from her home where forever there have been people who destroy their sight with miniature painting, people who learn the lesson well about the need to constrain and condense and force all the best of life into a tiny hidden space that no one else can get to and destroy. This young migrant girl’s heaven she keeps inside her little painted bottle and clasps to her in the freezing Beijing night. She looks about seventeen, the same age as my mother, Red Deer, was when she and my father came to the capital in search of the modern life promised by Deng. They too slept in doorways or at the train station until they earned enough to rent the hutong shack just off Ghost Street, on the edges of life near the Lama Temple in Beijing.
There is a bus stop just in front of the main gate of the China Women’s Organization. Each time a bus stops, slow sleepy faces look through the window and slow sleepy gazes rest for a moment on the girl, drawn by the flash of red by her head. As the clutch cranks down each face lifts and turns away and stares on up the Avenue of Eternal Peace. It is early morning and the employed are on their way to work.
In the hutong that runs behind the China Women’s Organization, Red Deer pushes a rickety hand cart, head low, casting around at the piles of rubbish scattered at ten foot intervals along the lane. Every so often she stops and runs a long twig in a wide circle through a pile of detritus. She never falters and quickly unearths what she is looking for. She bends and lifts the plastic bottle, top down and gives it a quick shake before placing it carefully, like a long sought puzzle piece, into one of several sacks on the back of the cart.
Yes, I know this woman. She is my daughter-in-law. I am fond of her. Not that she knows. When I bring the boy to visit we all stay together in the ten foot hutong shack and she takes good care of me. I have come to see that her world is not mine. She is not well educated. It’s not her fault. She grew up like my son when the schools were shut, during the Cultural Revolution. We do not talk about that time. We all paid a high price for my pre-liberation university degree. There has been little advantage in education for me. Though, unlike Red Deer, I like to think that I can see the bigger picture. I must admit, that although I am not a particularly mean person, I have found myself treating this love-match of my son’s as a rather large pet, as a slightly cumbersome but necessary adjunct to the family plan. Even so, I am fond of her and she does not mess with me.
Red Deer moves quietly along, avoiding the house on the corner where a troublesome neighborhood representative lives. Last week she came along later in the day and the representative badgered her about whether she had permission to scavenge in her hutong. As if anyone minded. Red Deer is a shy woman and confrontation is always best left to her husband. She accepts this idea as a self-evident truth, an inalienable right afforded to her husband of twenty years. This, despite the fact that he failed to confront you, his mother, the one time when his confrontation could have meant anything to her.
She comes out of the hutong near the top of Dongsibeidajie. “Pregnancy Street” she calls it, because this is the only street in town where you can buy pregnancy outfits. The grey Peking Union Hospital looms up on the left and she feels it is a big old bear looking down on her. She moves to the far side of the pavement as if contagion can leap the street and knock her over with its big grey paw. Her fear tells her that they kill people in hospitals. The only people she has known to go there have not come out. And, worse, you have to pay to die there. She has heard that this is where women have to go now to give birth, as if pregnancy were an illness.
She had not felt ill in her pregnancies. In fact she had felt well, replete, strong and energetic. Not like now. If she hadn’t known it to be impossible she would have said she had been beautiful when she was waiting for the children to come. That is how she had felt, beautiful. A couple of times, she remembers, Liu had given her a foot-rub after the long day’s walk and twice he gave her the egg from the noodles, despite you, his mother, sucking your teeth.
She pauses for a moment outside one of the shops. The lights have been left on all night. There is a model in the window dressed in a frilly white dress. Red Deer searches her imagination for a time and a place in which a pregnant girl might be able to wear such a thing. All she can think is that perhaps one might wear this dress in the shopping malls of Oriental Plaza, that bright glass, steel, and white place that she has not dared enter but where she has seen the strange creatures of New China gather to do inconceivable, magical things. She knows that inside the plaza impressive things must go on, although she concedes they cannot be the same things she was told were important when she was young and able to be pregnant. The dress falls still like a picture. What kind of girl would wear such a thing? She would surely get sick if she did not cover her legs. What kind of baby would the owner of this dress have? There are, she sees, baby clothes arranged on the floor of the window space. They look remarkably like the pregnancy dress, white and frilly, delicate as rice noodles. Momentary clothes, white like death. Clothes you would have to put on with chopsticks, so perishable they seem, fit only for some lifeless thing, a doll maybe or a tiny corpse.
Red Deer clears her throat and moves on down the street. It’s becoming busy, the white collar workers are starting to arrive, stepping off the buses and trams, a river of people flowing in along the paved arteries of the city and breathing life into the buildings of Dongdan. Lights are flickering on all around her in the offices that rise up behind the shops. Past twilight. She knows if she hurries she will be able to linger outside the middle school a while before she has to meet her husband. He takes the bus nowadays. He says they can afford it. Someone has to push the cart though and Red Deer is happy to do it. She is looking for me still, you see, and she scours the city’s schools for me, with him none the wiser. He is secure in his knowledge of her submission or stupidity or whatever he thinks it is that informs her silence. He cannot see the thin slice of hope that flickers behind the veil of Red Deer’s eyes.
Liu rises from his seat. He will get off the bus at the top of Wangfujing. He breathes in deep and his breast swells as he reaches the stop. Wangfujing, the center-piece illusion of New China on retail display for the world and behind it Dongdan and nestling in the middle of the state-of-the-art office complex stands the thirty-foot metal angel. This is an angel trapped in steel, diminished by the soaring glass structures that surround it. From the north it looks like no more than a silver question mark reflected over and over in its dark windowed jail. Mammon’s chuckle. The sparkling glory of modern China fills Liu with pride. As he dismounts he steps around a group of school kids on bikes. One has a new blue bike with gears. The crossing guard steps up to the lad and shrieks abuse at him until he wheels the bike back to the line. The boy’s head sinks to his chest and he closes his eyes shielding his whispering soul. Liu shrugs. It is good for the young not to think too much of themselves. He nods at the crossing guard and steps away. He will walk the length of Wangfujing and find his wife at the end. Or rather she will find him, when she is done. He is keeping a promise to her today and he feels good.
Wangfujing is still given over to pharmacies, opticians, and photography. It has always been so, the main shopping street of the capital tacitly acknowledging the pathology of a nation. Liu thinks this is fitting. He has always been told that he and his kind are ailing and in need of cure, of betterment, of far sight, of clarity and clean images. The photography shops advertise their expertise with enlarged images of Mao and Deng and this is only right. As far as he understands it, China has achieved magnificent things with its myriad and comprehensive doctoring and although there have been tough times, he sees now that the modern is something to be admired and treasured. Out with the old. In with the new, the clean, the pure, the white. He and China have come a long way. There’s no denying it. And he has seen more than most of the changes that have been pouring into the lives of China. When he delivers the water in the big blue tongs, people no longer make him wait at the door. People no longer want to dirty their hands and lift the bottles themselves. Now he frequently gets to enter their homes and place the bottles upside down onto the dispensers. And as he slips his three-inch knife under the blue seal and rips the plastic away he often has time to take a sweeping look at the accumulation of unnecessary things in the homes that once were too bare to show to an outsider like himself.
Red Deer will get a dough moon mianbao from the stall and stand in the gap where the wall recedes from the breakfast stall by the bathhouse. From there she can look right through the wide school gate. She moves on down the street and dips into the next hutong on the left.
On the day you left, granddaughter, the first snows of winter clung to the ground. Not that Red Deer knew. She was asleep on a soiled roll-out mat at the time, dreaming that you still lay in her arms. And although she thinks she can still hear the firecracker bursting next to you in the dark and still blames herself for not finding you out there, it cannot have been like that. You were long gone before she awoke and she was in no state to stand, let alone leave the shack. You do her wrong if you think she had anything to do with it at all. I know all about her you see, know she searches for you still. I keep my peace. I am confident like my son and I am the closest woman to her. I placed you at her breast. But you know this, for your abode is eternity, and you know that as she slept I placed you out on the wasteland. Your face was blue in the moonlight and the frost was creeping up onto your red blanket even before I lit the firecracker. Why do you still haunt me?
Kankan, Grandmother. The dead are always here with you. It’s just the way it is. Ghost Street. is all there is for you, for me and for her. Just watch Red Deer. Just watch how she comes to me.
Red Deer stopped hurrying on this red earth a while ago. Not that she is subject to the institutionalized laziness that her friends back home have endured in the iron rice bowl factories. Nor does she have a happy ability to savor the moment and inhabit a Daoist, careless, eternal present like your friend, Lao Zheng, who retired to a temple to avoid the inevitable clash with her son’s mother-in-law. Nor is she striking a nonchalant pose to distract those who spy so intently on the misery of others. Rather, this slowdown has come upon her like a premature aging, a ragged backhanded epiphany that tells her that whatever she does on this dusty earth will make no earthly difference. She still goes where Liu directs, of course, but she goes more slowly and she goes with no joy.
Her grief is not poetic, it is base, uncultured. It lacks the sophistication of ten thousand years. Her grief is illiterate, like her. Grief is after all only the dry kernel of our humanity, that barren marriage of want and wont. And the parched sigh that lifts the crisp, brown leaves and throws them into the world’s disregarded corners is the dull echo of a caged scream that lies deep within her.
I have been watching her for fourteen years, a lifetime, aware of all she knows. When I bring the boy to visit with her I do not meet her eye. She passes me the best of the three drying cloths in the bathhouse. I know she spares the soap for me.
Yes, grandmother, keep watching. Nothing ends. See Red Deer as she looks at the mianbao in her hand and hesitates. The flour has gone white and the rice too. It seems to her that not so long ago everything was black and brown and red and that now things are getting brighter, whiter, deadlier. She has heard they bleach the rice and poison the flour. She doesn’t know. She knows it is quieter now and that the scream inside her is falling away and that if she does not act then even that will abandon her. So, she will find a clean glass bottle for her scream and preserve the dark colors of her pain. It is all she can think to do as the bones of the spirit are beginning to show everywhere she looks. The new buildings rise as skeletons into the sky and grow windows that no-one can look into. They do not exist, they are mirrors only, forever less than real, less even than her miserable life. They reflect away, reverberating ever away, refusing image and utterance like some hellish ghoul. If these New China buildings persist at all it is as an echo only, as the final scrap of a fading unclasped thing, a mere reversal, the first moment a last, some vestigial remnant to be recycled like the plastic bottles she collects for cash with which to eat. She feels the carcasses of these huge buildings as vast new dinosaurs that are already extinct. Red Deer has little understanding of evolution. She foolishly thinks that the modern buildings she passes on her daily rounds are humanity’s attempts to bring dinosaurs back to life, buildings raised on skeletons dug from the earth. Some would say she does not appreciate the beauty of the new, which is all around and full of earthly promise.
Red Deer puts the moon inside her jacket and steps back from the path to observe the children. They are all taller than their parents.
Things are coming good for Liu. He has not told Red Deer yet. The hutong will be knocked down next week to make way for a new business center and the government compensation has come through. He knows she will not want to leave the hutong, knows she waits there for my impossible return. Very soon they will move out to the new place he has found. He will tell her today after Ikea, after he has kept his promise. He knew it would come right in the end and this is the end. The new life. The part that they will play. He might even send for his son. But first he will help his wife join the modern world and buy her the first unnecessary thing. It had taken time for her to understand exactly what it was he offered when he told her about the compensation. He needed her to acquiesce again, to quietly do what was required and agree to purchase something, anything, so long as they did not really need it. Now they can afford it, now she should understand. If only she would make a little effort, and understand that it was worth it, what they had done to get to where they are today on the threshold of the future. And later, in the spring they will go together to the Great Wall so their son can be a man. It will be a celebration like that other time when you brought the boy for New Year and you all went to the Natural History Museum and saw the beasts of the past and how far humans have evolved.
As he passes the foreign cathedral a shiver takes him by surprise. Liu does not suffer with the cold, unlike his wife who never takes off her padded jacket, even in the summer. He stops for a moment at the jiaozi bar wondering whether breakfast is the thing. The lanterns attract him, more for New Year. Yes, things are coming good. He gazes into the blood of the lantern for a moment and bends his head to step into the steamy shack. He pushes into his jacket the image of Red Deer that first New Year after, of her waking screaming with his fist in her mouth. He is angry with her grief but not with her. Back then he would have chopped off his own hands if he could have put an end to her grief, if he could have changed anything at all. It was the firecrackers, he remembers, the firecrackers that had set her off, her screaming and her tears and her terrified eyes staring through him, tearing through him until he had to put a stop, had to place his fist into her mouth to try to take her pain. Just as he had done before when she was giving birth. He only asked her once about the dream. And she only spoke the once about it. He knows she sees it still, everyday and all the time. She had said that when the firecrackers started all that she could see were the babies lying on the ground with firecrackers all around and that everywhere she looked all that she could see for miles and miles were the babies, the babies lying on the ground, each with a firecracker beside them announcing their abandonment into Deng’s world, announcing that they were disregarded, left behind, ready to be recycled, useless, in the way, that although they were such lovely little girls, the New Year and the future had no place for them. Liu is grateful to the Beijing government for the ban on the use of fireworks and firecrackers for the last few years. This year though he has seen the fireworks stalls springing up on the intersections and he knows this year the rules have been relaxed. He is trying not to think about this. He does not think about the firecrackers at New Year in much the same way as he does not think about what he did not do fourteen years ago. He orders half a jin of jiaozi and covers them in vinegar to celebrate like he deserves.
The school gates have closed and Red Deer heads out again onto Dongsibeidajie where the whole of life is documented in shops right down to Ghost Street and the Lama Temple and the kingdom of the dead. She is in the wedding part now and has arranged to meet her husband by infirmity and old age where they sell the wheelchairs and the sticks, where they will tie up the cart and take the bus from Ghost Street to Ikea. Bottle-seeking on the main street alters her rhythm. She stops to rummage in the litter-bins and keeps an eye for people drinking who may at any moment discard their plastic bottles in her direction. She stays away until they empty the last drop, until they are ready to accept that they need her, then she silently raises her upturned hand for the swift and unacknowledged plastic deposit. Today it is cold. There are few drinkers and people walk faster than usual to ward off the chill.
She made her decision long before, at Heaven’s bridge. Heaven’s bridge, by the Natural History Museum, had led her straight to hell, Red Deer remembers. Or was it that she simply had not understood? She understands better now, and thinks she has found a way to preserve, to keep and to hold. She is still unsure. But all the signs are there and Liu will buy her the bottles today. It all started when the boy came for the New Year holiday last year.
Yes, I remember that day too. They think she is cold, the way she did not take to the boy. I think she knew better by then than to think there would ever be anything or anyone she could call her own. We did not intend for him to grow up in the slum in any case and it was better that way. He came two autumns after you. It was destiny, you see. I love him because he vindicated me. I took him back to the country where the air is clear and everyone is as poor as us and the dirt is the color dirt should be. He has grown strong and bold as he should and next summer he will go to middle school. He ran from Red Deer when she visited each year and when eventually he was forced to take the hongbao gift from her hand he called her ayi, auntie. I can’t say she ever expected anything different.
The first thing Red Deer saw in the Natural History Museum was that in the time of the dinosaurs, there was no grass. It must have been in the time of Mao. Thinking back she knew it was he who killed the grass because he said that that was where the mosquitos lived and thus he saved his people from disease. For Red Deer all things that are not new are eternal and it seemed obvious to her that the dinosaurs lived with Mao just after the beginning of time in 1949. This was in the first room and, while she stared at the oil landscapes, you and Liu whisked the boy off to the new children’s section. You had bought the boy a special ticket, to feed his mind, you said. Red Deer wandered the wide rooms. She wandered the rooms with the huge bones and the glass cases and found a statue of ape-men, ape-men who appeared to be screaming. They had small noses and big open chins. They stared up at the sky trapped in movement, their mouths wide, caught in a primal scream. She wanted to look inside their mouths but the statue was too tall for her to see the ape-men’s teeth. She raised her hands to cover her ears. She had wanted to ask the guard about them and waited for a moment but could not raise her eyes to him. The guard had seen her arrive pushing the boy in the cart, had seen you disregard her and go off with the boy. So, as the guard stood up sensing her expectation, she scuttled up the stairs following a yellow arrow along the wall. Then she came upon them, the babies in the bottles, floating in jars like they floated in her. There they were in the Medical History Room, the babies caught with the dinosaurs in this eternal place, waiting for their mothers in the tall clear glass bottles, waiting in an upstairs room in the museum devoted to the natural history. Finally, Red Deer understood all that could never be understood about life, death, time, and eternity. Red Deer felt certain that the bottles told her all she had ever needed to know.
Later you found her standing outside at Heaven’s Bridge, waiting for the boy. She swayed a little as if she were a slice of apple drying on a string or a bird in a cage swinging at her master’s side on the way to the park or like a baby suspended in a liquid in a bottle.
If you could do one thing, anything at all with impunity, with no strings attached, no responsibility, no nothing, what would it be? Have you any idea what you would choose to do? Nothing I suppose, but then you are probably like her, your mother’s daughter, too accepting altogether. But even so, you can’t blame me. For being strong. For making sure that we did not become extinct. After losing so much, so much I cannot even begin to tell you. I was just working with what was left and the way I see it I made my man, your grandfather as it happens, one promise and I kept it. Who would blame me? No one says anything at all. We are all obedient here. We have followed the rules. Deng said just one and just one is what we have. There is nothing to blame. You never disappeared, officially. No one will say you were ever thrown away and I can claim that it is only in her dreams that I left you on the wasteland in your little red blanket with a firecracker lit and jumping by your side. There is no proof and she will only ever be a delirious woman searching for a nonexistent child. Her truth is just her story and I will never corroborate it and Liu does as I say. I am his mother! You see, you never did exist, officially. You were a momentary, and as it turns out avoidable, cul de sac in the evolution of our family, nothing more, nothing at all actually. You were chosen to be spared your bloodline and your inheritance. You were potted, stunted potential, and now, to her, a never ending question about who you might have been and what might have become of you. With impunity I stand here because you are unrecorded, unnamed, unspoken and resoundingly absent. You were already nothing when you left. All I did was keep a promise to my man to carry on his name. It is only natural. It is as it should be. I will take the boy to the Great Wall after New Year and he will be a man, like his father and his father and his father. You, you should be pleased to know you have a brother!
Hush grandmother! The dead lay no blame. It’s Red Deer I want you to see. She is coming to me now. Look and see the last of her! She is stronger than you think, directed, luminous, and poised for her eternities with me!
Liu is standing at the intersection of Dongsibeidajie and Ghost Street watching Red Deer shambling down the road towards him. She pushes the cart he built many years ago now and he wonders where they should leave it. There’s a stump behind the teashop and he trains his eye on the gap on the path, measuring the space for the occasional car that may want to creep into the hutong from the street. It is no use. He will have to pay the bike keeper to keep watch over it. He’ll send her back for it tonight. She will not mind. She does not reproach him. Not then, not now. Not that she should. He only has one mother.
Red Deer looks him full in the face as she approaches. Instinctively he lowers his head, blood slipping from his face. He is confused by her gaze. She has not looked at him like this in a lifetime, in fourteen years. Storing the cart, they climb onto the bus and sit together for the trip. He has arranged to meet his old friend Xiao Zheng up at Ikea. He had offered to show them around the strange Western store that was painted in the blue of heaven and in emperor yellow, a place filled with the unimaginable treasures of the modern world.
“She’s happy now she’s got her bottles.” Liu nods towards Red Deer as she stands measuring string at the low table behind the tills in Ikea. She picks up the scissors that are tied onto a string attached to the wrapping table and cuts ten lengths of plasticized string. She lays the lengths next to five glass storage jars that are lined up on the table.
Liu stands a little apart with Xiao Zheng. The two men have spent an hour in the Western shop trying out the sofas and the beds while Red Deer stepped gingerly through the kitchen section searching for her luxuries, his gift to her, his promise of a better future. When she showed him the glass storage jar he felt large when he said in front of Zheng, “Go on, take more than one. You can have more than one. Take five, why don’t you?” She folds strips of corrugated card around each of the jars. Then she wraps each one in brown paper and ties them with string. Liu stops a moment, noticing a shine in his wife’s eyes that he has not seen before. She lays each of the jars inside a big yellow bag and grips her hand around the handle testing the strength of the bag. She had made him pay extra for the bag. He owed her, she said, though she said it out of earshot of the friend. Now she lifts her head and stands tall. She looks him in the eye, the second time in a day, and says, “These are the most beautiful things I have ever owned, husband.” “Husband” like a question. Confusion clouds her gaze. For a moment he sees her again on that night, her eyes peering up into his repeating “Husband? Husband? Husband?” begging him with just one stricken word, one confused yelp, begging him, confusing him, killing him. She closes her eyes and purses her lips for one long moment and then whispers, “Thank you.”
She will not let him carry the bottles. So he sends her back for the cart still carrying them. Liu is pleased. All in all he is pleased. He has given his wife something of the future, something new, something unnecessary. He thinks they have turned a corner and are at last moving on. Soon she will let them leave the shack. It will be knocked down in any case. And she will stop waiting and stop looking and stop her endless grieving. The boy will come and they will take a trip to the Great Wall, three generations together!
The noise of the firecrackers sends people running out into the wasteland behind the new offices at the corner of Ghost Street and Dongsishitiao the better to see the lights in the sky, the New Year heralded by the fireworks starting up all over Beijing. The bones of the one unfinished office block stand out against the orange sky. The flowering fires reflect back and forth multiplying endlessly in the dark windows of the towers. Amid their gasps of wonder they gasp again to see a woman lying on the ground. Red Deer’s staring eyes are full of fiery flowers. Her mouth is stretched wide open as if she is trying to eat the sky. Next to her lie the spent cartridges of a firecracker and a broken glass bottle, of the sort you can buy in the new Western shop where they let you try the beds. Shards of glass lie glinting in the orange light of the New Year’s night. At length, a young migrant girl steps up and places a small red blanket under Red Deer’s head. She picks up a yellow bag filled with bottles and walks swiftly away, shielding her ears from a piercing animal scream that seems to be rising from the earth at her feet but which she thinks is more likely the shrill blast of a new never-before-seen brand of fireworks.
Author’s Note: “Little Bottle” is, among other things, a reference to Deng Xiao Ping, whose name means “Little Bottle” and who introduced the one-child policy in China. The one-child policy created a situation where girl children were not wanted. If the police station or orphanage was too conspicuous, given that abandonment was illegal and secrecy paramount, it was customary for girl babies to be abandoned outside and a firecracker set off beside them in the hope that they would be discovered before they perished.
Helen Wing is a poet and fiction writer. She works as a poet-in-residence in schools in China and the UK. She runs creative writing workshops for performance and poetry book publishing projects with migrant children and refugees. Her work has been published in the UK, US, China, and Lebanon by Mississippi Prize Review, The Good Men Project, Southern Cross Review, Sukoon, and Forward Poetry, among others, and the poetry books Archangel, Savage Torpor, and Nowhere Near a Damn Rainbow.