Kevin Hsu ~ translation of Zhu Tianwen

Carnal Buddha [Rou Shen Pu Sa] by Taiwanese author Zhu Tianwen, from her 1990 book Fin-de-Siècle Splendor [Shi Ji Mo De Hua Li]

Carnal Buddha

Summer this year was like the summer when he was fifteen.

The sun forever shone straight down from above, all things without a shadow. That year the ozone had likely not yet been polluted, fair hills and rivers everywhere; one could walk out of the house, and get lost amidst the silvery shining daylight. He lost his virginity to their village’s best basketball player, Jiaba.

Jiaba’s basketball, holy! No kidding.

He was pushed by Jiaba against the wall. Breaths let out by Jiaba permeated the house, smell of musk and resin oil, drugging him. It was as if he was inlaid into the mildewed, icy wall, then shattered, becoming a vat full of drenching comet showers. That moment, he heard the rain downpour.

After he woke, he stood under the old banyan tree; it was raining but light out. The sound of rain was frightening, splattering the leaves and windows’ eaves, like it was the end of the world. The rain was heavy, but it was not a bit wet under the tree; outside the tree half of it had evaporated in midair, half fell and drummed up smokes of torrid, foul dust from the ground allover.

Jiaba stood beside him, like an obelisk, beckoning him, Xiaodong, Xiaodong, I’m sorry.

He felt Jiaba looking deeply into his eyes, and it was also full of the intoxicating scent of resin, shrouding him tightly, as a toad marked by a snake, and had no choice but be eaten. Hundreds and thousands of the banyan’s root hairs whooshed upward; all the rain rolled into the sky.

This year was the ozone's swan song. Every afternoon he bobbed in the subdivision swimming pool, gazing at an endlessly transparent firmament, that damn question that has been asked for thousands of years suddenly posed to him at that endless place, what's the point of living? What is it for after all?

'Great indeed' was the question! He angrily stuck a middle finger to that fucking sky, shit. He turned over and fervently swam a good thirteen laps back and forth, using his brimming bodily strength to plug up that long-winded mouth. He struggled to exhaustion, then died afloat the water.

There were also periods of decline, already at thirty-even; in these circles thirty was already very, very old. The suspiciously blue pool water soused him into a blue fish, tears sluicing down the hairs on his temples becoming streams of blue water. Tears of mermaids in the South Sea became pearls; he was nothing, banking on life’s passing light, the insides of his body completely withered.

He had long stopped going to the saunas due to the spread of AIDS. Today his completely withered body banished him here, but was stunned by a portrait of a ruinous scenery. A lush purgatory, rising sulfur smokes from remnant embers were inundated desires past, become of wraiths, stranding through streaks of light and vanishing. Who still came here, but a spattering of dregs like they!

Dregs, he was glutted even revolted by this body of his. Installed there, heeding no one, a dried stick of bonito. It made him remember, distantly, that treasured bonito of mother’s, ensconcing the sense of smell of his entire childhood; only when they had guests would she take it out of the pantry drawer, forcibly with a cleaver shaving off a heap of flakes, thrown into a pot cooked with tofu and cabbage altogether. The bonito you could knock someone dead with, would make a thud when you hit it on the ground, would be rewrapped and put back in the drawer after being shaved, but never seemed to dwindle, always that big, and was finally even given to the second sister-in-law as a gift.

The body is an onus, how about paring it into bits and destroying it. But he sensed a set of eyes watching him.

Useless. Violent as a flash and strike of lightening thunder fleeting after a passionate spar, it was a boundless endless bottomless traceless pointlessness, a desertous ocean, devouring the spirit. He smirked in his mind, Not interested, raising a monkish glance toward the eyes gazing at him.

In a sudden, they saw each other. At the post of vastness in the empty roost of the mind, he and he met.

Useless. Like a dream and a bubble’s shadow, a leak of electricity, he said to the series of morose and pretty sputters roused in his body. But those eyes, those eyes were like seventeen years ago the eyes that stripped his virginity, immersed in an ether scent, powerfully jostling him. Broken strings and torn silks, he and he retired together, as the flower and bee met, the same sort of natural destiny.

They went to the tenth floor high up facing each other in the nude, the overpass flying by the sides of the window, road lights casting an orange sea, north and southbound traffic hurtling past above their heads. He reached his hands to embrace him, he, too. They both went to embrace each other, both wanted to give at the same time. This was an errant, careless romance, which at some time ended.

Arrayed on the pillows. It was dark inside, outside streetlights, orange sky mandarin sea like sunset on a barren plain casting their naked bodies in a layer of verdigris. Did it too bad, he turned and looked away from him, it was a through-and-through man’s body, hardy and potent.

He rose to put on clothes; he also got up and did the same. The apartment clattered with noises of dress, belts buttons keychains clinking, jangling, scary. Then suddenly it all stopped, quiet, stifling. He saw a large truck written with EVERGREEN ride in mid-air past the window. Chang Rong, evergreen, Xiaodong said, and broke the silence.

What? He asked.

I have a friend at Evergreen, working like an old dog, Xiaodong said. Evergreen Sea Transport, my friend sailed for two years, transferred back to land, then got married.

He said, I’m Zhonglin, you?

Let’s go, Xiaodong said.

Zhonglin was taller than he by half a head, clean and crisp, non-stick. He had met many, intuitively, he knew he had encountered top-notch stuff. Mind giving me your phone number, he asked.

What’s your name? Zhonglin asked him again.

He thought for a second, and said his real name, call me Xiaodong.

He extended his hand and let Zhonglin prickly and itchily write his phone number in his palm. Can I call you?

Zhonglin stuck his chin out in affirmation, opened a corner of his mouth and laughed. Strange it was the kind of laugh only rural boys had, with which he was familiar to the point of forgetting, and it reappeared. I’ll walk you to the car.

I’ll walk you. He held his hand, and he his, feeling more intimate than on the bed. On the street in a summer night fragrant with black sandalwood, a sodden ball of red light floating in the air afar, changing to green in a moment, a small low glowing yellow light hovered to here and stopped, a dark blue taxicab. They had let go, but their eyes lingered on each other.

Timorously, he invited him, want to go for a drink?

Let’s drink, Zhonglin said.

The cab had driven away; they walked a ways with the remnant cool air of having just come out of an air-conditioned room and soap scent, shoulder and shoulder with a clear heart and little desires, so nice. Receding dews drowned all buildings, leaving the unextinguished giant neon light like a celestial body in the sky. The full moon fished out from the water, dripping, accompanied them, and walking a while, they too got soaked. Took a car to MY PLACE, like they just came in out of the rain.

A Long-Island iced tea, no, an Iceland long tea, he joked to Jasmine.

Jie Siming Jasmine changed hairstyle, thick bangs cut just atop her brows, hair straight permed to the ears with little dense curls halfway covering the neck, moussed, a black and wet classic do, asking what Zhonglin was drinking.

Zhonglin wanted a Manhattan.

He reached out his index finger to sweep away a strand of black hair between Zhonglin’s eyebrows, and it fell again. The dew had pressed their hairs thin round against the scalp, showing off the demonic, thin snake-like eyes, a classic revival, good enough to pass.

You look like you hate everyone, Zhonglin said.

Really? Actually he was happy, at least he had something else no one else did.

You’re just sitting there by yourself, with a salty frost over your face, Zhonglin said, no one dared go up to you.

Am I like that? Really he was a mummy soaked through and brined in a deep sea of passions and desires. So you came to me?

If you’re gonna play, then do it, why act all miserable, Zhonglin’s tone was sharp.

He so wanted to hug him and give him a kiss, how blissful, my lover. One day you’ll play until you don’t want to play, play until you want to vomit, make you wish you’re better dead than alive!

Then I’ll marry, Zhonglin said.

After all he used English in place of the words, still it made his heart tremble a bit, sneering, you’re lucky.

Xiaodong, Zhonglin fervidly called him, calling him back, Xiaodong, calling him warm.

Zhong, you’re so cool, he grinned wistfully, cool!

It’s not like that, Xiaodong. I’m telling you, I think you’re different, I have to tell you first, I have a girlfriend, we’ve known each other for almost five years, done make it, I think I’ll be with her in the end, we’ve been for so long, right, Xiaodong. Zhonglin stuck his out chin to him, simpering, half-open half-closed, forcing him to admit it.

He let out a languishing laugh, does she know?


No pressure? He watched Zhonglin’s eyes plain as snow, ah he’s a wolf, he sighed in admiration. Did you join the priesthood half-way?

Got drunk once, got played with, Zhonglin said.

Go there often? The commemorable place where they met.

This is the second time, Zhonglin said, you’re not like the others I’ve met, swindled?

What’s the difference, he said with abandon, it’s all the same.

Oh NO, Zhonglin egged him on, this is very different.

It’s really better to be a pure one, he was suddenly rancorous, at least they can’t fight it, us, we debase ourselves willingly.

I can’t help it if you just wanna shoot me down. Zhonglin hailed him, hey Xiaodong, hey, be happy, clinking his glass to his.

He gazed at him incredulously, choked at his mouth and nose, and felt a scalding waxdrop of tear fall onto his heart, searing a hole. Zhong, do you love her?

Zhong thought a little, I do.

Then you should really go to hell.

I think so too, Zhonglin drooped his head, somewhat remorseful, like an innocent stalk of sunflower.

He already forgave him. If I call you will it be any trouble?

No. Zhonglin pried open his hand, and wrote down another number, for home, call at night. My mom, dad, older sister, you hear a hoarse voice, it’s my sister, plunged stocks, can’t get married.

He sighed, you don’t even ask for my number.

Zhonglin threw his palm to him, chuckling squarely showing his teeth. Palm lines evident in a glance, a big-boned hand, numbers written in the heart of the palm, unquestionably the fate of being washed away by running water, never remembered, he knew. Drink, drink up.

If you want it, you can, Zhonglin said.

He dared not look at him, saving the masses, thanks, no charity accepted. He said, I want it only if you want it.

Any time, we can, really Xiaodong, Zhonglin said, just a word from you, you can call too.

Part of his view obliquely passed over the side of his temple, gazing toward over the bar counter numerous long-stem glasses hung upside-down like a scaffold full of ice-crushed grapes, quietly across a boundless distance, abandoning all saintity and wisdom. Part of his gaze remained around his body, drifting and sinking. Heart of a lover, needle at an ocean’s bottom, he tapped the back of his hand, whatever, what year?

Fifty seven, Zhonglin said.

He was taken aback, don’t look it. A toast for the fifties, I’m from fifty six.

Zhonglin coiled his brows and looked at him, don’t look it, and punched his shoulder. You know, it’s all the sixties that are running around now on the streets, weird.
A tone like brothers, he liked it, and felt more relaxed, warm, even the seventies are coming out to play! He tended to his figure like he tended to his calf-leather briefcase.

In rainy May after he quit a job designing posters for touring theater troupes, he met two seventies, a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. A couple of little gnomes that liked to eat McDonald’s, yip-yappy like Siamese twins stuck together, tailing him just after the midnight show ended. He brought them for karaoke until dawn, finished a bottle of rosewater, a bottle of Shaoxing wine, he didn’t know how to sing their songs, they had not heard of his songs.

Raindrops covered him through in desolation, lights of the night traffic suddenly shining through the primordial mixture, in the light spirals little rain arrows flying allover, and passed. A heap of dark shadows trailed him, still them, two stupid drenched cats, he picked them up into the car back home. He drank too much, as he was falling unconscious, the two striped cats were already tangled together, fitful waves of rain under the eave, flowing down into his dream.

He woke to go to the restroom, turned on the lights, in the open one lay under the bed, one across the door, bumps and dents, ah had not grown into human forms; he found a couple of towels to help cover their stomachs, and turned the four lights off.

Noon he crawled up, and heard them watching videotapes, and regretted inviting wolves in. In bright shining daylight, true forms revealed, everything died on exposure, all, all were sapless. They ate a box of his wheat crackers, half of container of yogurt, so he took them out to eat.

The seventeen-year-old had a pair of heavy dark circles around his eyes, like an Indian, sybaritic, doused in hopelessness, with transcendent compassion. Complexly tinged eyes, but empty head, he listened all to what sixteen-year said. Not a moment they wanted to stop and eat, they wanted, he bought. A big bag of powdery white, pink and green spheres like baby toys, melted into sweetness in the mouth, one by one going through them. Meiji gummy candies chewed like rubber, m&m’s for ET. A bag of sticky candies shaped like kidneys, exotic vibrant fruit colors, President Reagan’s favorite, sixteen-year said.

Sixteen saw he favored seventeen, so he took seventeen hostage, going to the amusement park, playing pinball, and gave him plaintiff looks once in while, practicing trigonometry problems. He pursued them here to there, in the damp crowd, then turning from there to there, the lights had come on in the city at dusk, somehow they were walking on the dike of the watergate. Sixteen disappeared in a flash, yielding to them.

Ying yang back-to-back worlds, one side was the scattered neon lights behind the city, the other was the city’s inverted reflection; putrid winds blew from the other shore across the stygian water every which way. He took seventeen down to the reflection side, and pressed him against the coarse bulwark and kissed him hard, like Jiaba was to him years ago.

Sixteen reappeared, a shadow patrolling worlds of the living and dead.

Under the sprinkling sky, the three of them reunited.

They lived nearby; he walked them to the bottom of the building, and after faring them well, sixteen came back, with something to give him, come upstairs. Entering the dark house, lights off, sixteen gave him a smack on the face, and started crying. Stop crying, he hugged sixteen, kissing him with salty tears. Sixteen pulled him down, asked for him, so he gave, lucidly and distinctly, joyous, and lonely.

When the rain stopped he rose and left, stepping on shimmering lightspots on the water, carnal Buddha, nightly ferrying the masses to salvation.

He said goodbye to Zhonglin, hand on his, Zhonglin was calm, but garrulous, call me, so I can plan ahead.

Wherefore such burden, he would rather the spontaneity. After a week, he refrained from calling, and refrained from thinking about him. Working relentlessly, finished the children’s book illustrations he had put off for a half month in one setting. Dual pains of endurance and longing made his life full, and he stopped running around; when there was a spare opening in his mind, he carefully chewed on the bitterness and agony. He did not dare run around either, hurriedly going to the supermarket to buy foodstuffs then speeding home, afraid he might, just might call.

He put in an answering machine, so he dared leave for a bit longer, taking on a job making book covers. Came home and listened to the machine, hello, Wu here, hello, hello, you’re putting in this fucking thing too, click, hung up.

He decided to give him a call, but went first to put his head on the copy machine, eyes wide open, letting the bright light scan past, and copied a face—splotches of black, a white forehead, white nose and filaments of grayish white hair, banshee demon type. Might as well go make a copy of the left of his face, the right, one with the tip of the nose flattened, one with eyes closed, every kind of grotesque, exhibited hanging on the clothesline. Prolonged a while or two, then called.

Looking for Mr Zhong. Which Mr Zhong? Zhonglin. Transferred, who are you looking for? Zhonglin. Which division? Don’t know. Transferred again, the receiver set down, busy sounds of people, typewriters and papers and documents like a swash of flying sand and scrunched pebbles, what did Zhonglin do, he actually didn’t know, chickened and hung up the phone.

At night he called the home number, and Zhonglin picked up straight away; there was no conversation topic anyway other than setting up a meeting. Very busy, only Saturday’s free, going with girlfriend to a movie at night, eating at girlfriend’s parents’ house Sunday—all true, but sounded like excuses; Zhonglin got frustrated himself, so just made a date for Saturday afternoon to meet.

Five more days, five days as long as the earth and heaven endured. Now he still recalled that someone with a perennial moist red lips, as a cherry taken out of a just opened can, inviting you for a bite, a hurricane trading all life for a moment’s bliss soaring him into the Milky Way, enervated and spent, but he still did not come. That someone did not believe him, and arranged to meet again on a day off in a week. The someone seemed to run a western restaurant business.

He began to prepare his body and mind in full effort for the next meeting, storing condensed urges and desires like honey. Using high work performance to suppress anticipation on the verge of explosion, he resolved to come no matter what. On meeting day, the someone and he from first getting in the house tangling taking off their clothes to the bedside fell on the floor, almost passing out, a wildfire burst out within three feet, scouring away the bones. Even so, the someone still could not make it come out; finally it was still five-against-one, do-it-yourself.

Long after he and the someone ran into each other at a bar, looked at each other in tacit understanding and laughed bitterly; the someone walked over and teased him, ha ha too tired, too tired. He at last realized one thing: desire cannot be anticipated; it will always give you an anticlimax, you have to go with the flow, laissez-faire. He should pass the days with poise until he met with Zhonglin.

In each day encroaching, he smelled more and more distinctly Jiaba’s scent returning from many years ago, that damn pine oil and deer musk were just pheromonal aphrodisiacs, mixing in the seat of his corpus and fermenting it, enveloping him completely. The night before after he ate cold noodles he delicately prepared, facing the home-grown pot of marijuana on the counter, thick resin smell from all sides made him loose control, yielding oneself even without wind. A thought inextinguished, he fast escaped out of the house, going toward where there were people.

He went to his older sister’s house, only a concrete bridge away with cab fare less than thirty dollars—he still had not been in two years. Sister or not, uncle or not, just a television set brawling all night. Mom called long-distance, Shen Laoliu’s wedding invite was sent to the house, going with dad a bit for courtesy, give how much, a hundred is too much, sixty, borrow from mom first. Asking to talk to him, Maomao, don’t stay up late, don’t smoke too much, are you still having a bowel movement every two days, eat more fruits.

There was a sunglasses-wearing assassin singing icily on television, lyric words firing one by one like bullets. When, will I’ve learned something called cool, not easily stirred, like a cold-blooded animal, raise a cat, set each other’s loneliness free, one bed, half a lover, some plants. The song was just called cool.

Noon he woke, brightly lit, a sun without a shadow stuffing the universe; he lay flat and gazed up at his own loose pure cotton made-in-Japan boxer briefs tented up high like a pyramid. An affectless world of Amitabha infinite light, the only colors being the sun refracted on top of the wall via a glass of water on the table, shimmering in and out, red orange yellow green blue indigo violet dancing and changing. He was about to see his lover, Zhong. Oh Zhong, my lover, Zhong.

Yet a sudden wave of cynical feelings rolled him back up again, oh god desires were playing by ear, and betrayed him again. The pyramid on his body in the bat of an eye collapsed before him. His fertileness inside soon overgrew with underbrush, completely overgrown.

Desire roused him with a thousand changing faces time and again, to the highest highest place, suddenly lifting its face, beauty become skeleton, throwing him back into the dust several thousand meters, again again and again. But only now did he see its true face a little more clearly, looking at it head on. Over where there hung Ganapati, the god of wealth with an elephant trunk and a tin and copper mask bejeweled in little turquoises, was now a field of exposed white light.

KAMA SUTRA! Scripture.

He brought back from Nepal that book of drawings, KAMA SUTRA, Erotic Figures in Indian Art. Resplendent sexual poses, attained through a yoga-practicing non-human strength.

Strange were those colors, there were vermillion and mustard scorched as the smoking land ablaze, peacock blue, fuchsia and viridian deep as the starry night sky. In the sultry, tranquil forest, there was the most fragrant flower, the most poisonous snake, the most ingenious sexual technique, the most premature death. Strange it was a saturated, fetid world of the senses.

On the entire Earth he alone knew, the Indians who could paint these kinds of scenes were absolutely not a passive, unviolent people—just the opposite. He made use of them in his palettes and designs, just like as if they were he.

KAMA SUTRA! That sensorially precocious, emotionally astute tropic people, he was willing to bet, in one year they lived they would see more complex phenomena than would an arctic people in a lifetime. He just realized, if his ancestor was not Ashoka the Great, then it must be King Shibi or the little Prince Sattva. The former was warlike and repented and became cultivated only after massacring ten thousand; the latter, ah the latter!

Shibi saw a small dove being a chased a hungry eagle and escaping into his arms seeking help, and said to the eagle, do not eat this little dove. The eagle said if I do not eat fresh meat I will die of starvation, why are you concerned for him but not me?

So Shibi used a scale with the dove on one end, and on the other placed meat carved from his leg of the same weight, using his own flesh and blood in exchange for the life of the dove.

Shibi cut all the flesh off his thighs and arms but still did not match the dove, so he lunged throwing his body onto the pan, using all of himself as collateral.

At that moment the earth shook; both the eagle and the dove disappeared.

He knew on the entire earth only he alone believed, no matter it was little Prince Sattva giving his body to feed the tigers, or King Shibi cutting his flesh trading for the dove, bloody red manic, tempting realms were all born of the same, through and through it was his ancestors’ debauchery in the first place, now vigorously passed down to him after hundreds and thousands of generations. They were all number-one debauchees.

He got it, now what he should do was none than simply get up, put on clothes, and go see Zhonglin.

A moment ago he was still vacillating, to wear the POLO giving off fierce scents of rawhide, tobacco and trees, or the bit more neutral Guy Laroche, exuding first a whiff of the clean fragrance of citrus, gradually becoming a more concentrated herbal scent. Or just the Clinique only he himself could smell. Or Calvin Klein’s OBSESSION, adding pine and musk to a sweet perfume originally for women. Now he put on nothing, going on the date with the unique rousing scent emanating from within his own body.

They planned to meet at a teahouse he frequented. Being at times busy and at times a leisurely freelancer, he desisted urban life with two passive endeavors, not buying a car, not wearing a watch. And three active pastimes, tea, pottery, cuisine, especially Japanese ryori.

He sat where he often did back to the window, but flows of all scenes and things outside the window were projected on the whole row of sparkling glass cabinets across. Purple-sand gourd, red-clay gourd, green-clay gourd, stone gourd, persimmon gourd, chrysanthemum gourd, tree-bur gourd, cars zooming through dust rolling upon dust in and out of the pots, pedestrians walking, letting him see every passing cloud and smoke. Zhonglin, appeared just atop there.

Nice! Revealed under the white sun and blue sky, top-notch was still top-notch, never letting those who knew down. Zhong, over here.

Hey Xiaodong! Zhong came and sat, looking him up and down, punching his shoulder, hey Xiaodong how’s it going?

Acting like bro’s, smiles only country boys had, the intimate friendship only between men, enough, he bloomed into a bright, smiling face. After having gone searching through turns and falls amid raging tides and monstrous waves, Zhonglin, this man he could admire even on meeting him in daylight, given to him, was much too much.

His insouciance quickly spread to him, they relaxed each other. He made tea composedly, he watched placidly, tenderness just like the thin sifting shadows of the bamboo blinds densely enveloping them. He handed the tea to him, catching each other beneath waves of their glances, ah this too was connubial decorum.

The biting sun this summer was like after he finished the entrance exam in the last year of junior high, shining straight down; suddenly he could not find anyone to play with in the whole village, many out of town, many preparing for testing, so in a sudden he became number one in the alley. Overnight by the one they worshipped most as a Big Brother-type character in a time when they were little turnipheads, overnight done for by Jiaba, he became a cross lover.

Without a word Jiaba could soften and melt him with thick, intoxicating looks, making him loyal to one unto death. Seven, eight days, maybe two weeks later, Jiaba’s same eyes no longer looked to him, but helplessly toward strapping males appearing in all kinds of places. The first time he got really jealous, Jiaba promised he loved him and to let him enter a man for the first time.

It seemed as if Jiaba had sufficiently repaid him, coldly saying to him, he loved him, but he was not his ideal type. Not tall enough, not thick enough, not muscular enough. His Prince Charming was a soldier, a sailor, not he, but he could love him.

He was turned all around by Jiaba. Every afternoon they went to the ReSpring swimming pool, and he witnessed with open eyes Jiaba in the pool showing his body off and sending little electric currents via his eyes, shocking swimmers-by, flirting as a fish in water, like he was a seaweed or floating object unaware unconscious nonexistent.

He was enthralled day to day, stuck dead to Jiaba, letting himself be stepped over and belittled, believing it was what love was supposed to be. Until summer vacation was about to end and the night before Jiaba was leaving for the draft, he finally blocked Jiaba in a narrow alley, looking skin-and-bones like a tuberculotic letch, begging Jiaba to kiss him.

Jiaba turned his head to the wall and looked to the ground, not even giving him despite or contempt. He went up to embrace Jiaba, hugging a cadaver madly trying to revive it with heat, giving his all. They were not afraid of running into anyone, because they would not and could not, right now in the empty alley everyone was in their houses watching the big concluding reunion of starlet Jing Jing with Mother. Listen, the forlorn and grave theme song began to play, gushing out of hundreds of thousands of residences gathering into a large river rushing straight into heaven, composing a coda for his harrowing first love.

Jing Jing, Jing Jing, la la la, he started humming the Jing Jing theme song.

You met some wrong people, Zhonglin patted him and laughed, started off on the wrong foot, looking cavalier.

He cast an idle, gabby smile, Jing Jing, Jing Jing, la la la, ah naïve then, Jing Jing, Jing Jing, la la la, kept humming but just could not remember what next, addling.

Zhonglin took over, and hummed two choruses; meeting a hometowner abroad surprised and made him jump from his chair.

And this, remember? Zhonglin hummed another line of melody.

He listened carefully, déjà vu, hum some more, more, I know, Star River, TTV’s first soap. Tearily grateful the two of them broke a dish, resounding through the interior, creating a moment of chaos. After settling down, it was so sweet; they started talking about television. God both of them had the set with the Tatung Baby in a space suit as a gift, cover pullable on either side apart like an accordion, and a piece of purplish red felt with golden yellow tassels on top of the TV, furnacing the Tatung Baby.

Listen, what’s this? He tried hard to hum each note precisely, but even if it just went out of tune like so, Zhonglin after a moment or two’s hearing would be humming along, too, soldiers, bang, a steel helmet and two bayonets flew out of the screen, COMBAT! Heh their old friend Colonel Saunders, always lonesomely and resolutely leading his men to destroy the German army.

Listen to this, Zhonglin started humming di da di da. SAINT! Saint Simon Templar, no, not the American lar, the British lah, above Roger Moore’s pappy head chimed out a halo. The Saint shown Saturday night at eleven, a stud, then went on 007 Spy Who Loved Me, had to punch had to kick, had to go to bed with woman Russian special agent, tired him out, all ease and rake gone. Ah got old too, thinning hair sagging skin.

And this, he hummed a while but Zhonglin could not tell, Apple Sidra! Zhonglin hummed it over, right this time, in summer in the fireplace-heated house, feature movies two o’clock Sunday afternoon were cut off every time at important junctures, shoo shoo shoo spinned out a bottle of running icy crystals of Apple Sidra, hate you to death. And following this must be Queen Bee Soap, with the idle female voice creaking like an old cicada, he and Zhonglin sang together, Queen—Bee—Soap—

Everything in that damn era all came back. Two fifties lost under the torrid sun shining down now and then, they actually shared so much together.

Monday The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s Kuryakin, Tuesday MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE through fire and water, Wednesday the agents had ESP, the opening credits was the Zurich Jet d’Eau shooting high up in the air. Thursday private eye Mannix had a pretty black woman secretary. Leave It to Beaver with an open-minded mom and dad that could sit down and communicate with you that made you jealous to death. Heard the real-life Beaver died in Vietnam, no, he didn’t, it was The Rebel Johnny Yuma that died.

Friday afternoon five-thirty’s Get Smart, it was weird the ugly enough Number 99, with an uncanny resemblance to Popeye the Sailor’s girlfriend Olive. Heh Friday had the most and was the best, Combat! was on Friday. The Baron remember, the antique shop owner always embroiled in murders, or vying for treasures. Oh yeah Garrison’s Gorillas, dear gang brothers, Warden, con man Actor, the cat burglar, Chief with the switchblade, drawer-handle-mouth Casino specializing in opening safe deposits, heh the charming Warden had a cleft chin just like Kirk Douglas!

They talked until stars sank into the sea, the rain crossed the river source. It was time to go, Zhonglin still had to go with his girlfriend to the seven-twenty show. Suddenly Zhonglin got impulsive, forget it.

He was drinking tea, and felt a gust of wind out of nowhere blow across the ground, almost spilling his tea, his heart fluttered and waved some, gradually stopping.

Head rush waning, Zhonglin himself knew too this would probably not do.

Opportunity passed within a moment. They knew in the back of their minds, if they did not go to bed today, from now in this life, something like this would be very hard-pressed to happen between them again.

It made them a little regretful, a little stumped.

At the same time they were very clear, this would be a great beginning for their long and close friendship. It was to be celebrated, but such it was.

Which is better? He asked laughingly, not afraid to break taboo anymore.

Zhonglin thought, and thought for quite a while. It’s more comfortable with my girlfriend, this is more exciting, work work work is so boring every day, we’re like an old married couple, no new tricks. Zhonglin started laughing and seemed embarrassed, ah I don’t know either.

He knew, if he could refuse desire once, then he could refuse twice, the third time, the Nth time. When the day would come for the Nth time, he believed he could just as well ascend to heaven. Thus be joyful? Thus be pitiful? It was beyond his prediction.

This year’s summer was really the summer of his fifteen.


1. Zhu Tianwen. 'Rou shen pu sa'. Shi ji mo de hua li. Taipei: San San, 1990, 49-71.
2. Zhu probably means Geneva.—Trans

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Zhu Tianwen (b 1956) graduated from the English Department of Tamkang University in 1978. In the early 1990s Zhu Tianwen and her sister Tianxin both established themselves as leading fiction writers. She has edited various literary magazines and has won prizes for her short stories and film-scripts (most notably with Hou Hsiao Hsien). Her most recent work, Wu Yan [Witching Words], was published in February, 2008.

Kevin Hsiang Hsu is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the European Graduate School. He has published in Angelaki and The Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology. He has also translated works by authors Yuan Qiongqiong and Chen Kehua.