Six (Serious) Mistakes
Original short fiction by Erin McGrath (scroll for interview)
Posted Oct 30, 2015.
The general was about to eat a pear. The general was about to go to Nanking.
The general was about to lie with Annelies, who, in the way she pinched the shell of brown paper from his hand, said all there was to say about his leaving.
He sat beside her cot wearing the stiff robe he kept in her room, with Annelies on the floor and a box of paper-wrapped pears on a table beside him.
To Chinese radio broadcasts which were noise to both of them, she wiped his feet with a rag. He smelled the pear in his hand. The water in the metal basin where his feet rested became cloudy.
He was an old man, tubercular, and she was gentle with him. He had been visiting her for six months. So chilling were the sounds of the place, thumps and screams and sighs, that sometimes he thought about burning the temple down. But he was concerned for the girls—where would they go? And the innocent of Shanghai—what would be asked of them, if his men weren’t allowed to relax into the soft body of a woman now and then?
Annelies was different, which had earned her private and livable quarters, and, sometimes, meat. She was a volunteer. Vriwilliger, in her language.
“Get up,” he said, still unable to pronounce her name.
“Eat the fruit; I’ll wait,” she said, quickly up and naked, her robe laid out on the cot, all of it smelling of the cheap rose-scented powder they rationed to the girls for their linens.
“But only one,” she said. She was talking about the pear. “And soon. I must go to the church today. It is my son’s birthday.”
She laid out on the cot. Her body was white and still plump, but her hair, the color of egg custard, was thinner lately. In Siberia, he had seen girls like her, blonde and tall, and he’d thought them snow-creatures.
Some men remembered only that which hardened them, but from the frozen memory of his youth he kept everything: the times he might have died; the white knife of wind in his lungs; the boy who’d saved him from freezing to death by offering him shelter and then, in the middle of the night, woken the general--who wasn’t a general then--and pressed the general’s knife to his--the boy’s--throat, saying hoarse words that could only have been a plea for death, and why? The general had refused and the boy had beaten him impotently until he ran out of strength. The grasslands of Northern China in the summertime burst out in rude jade. In Manchuria, there was a mute man because of him. And so on. At sixty, he had seen all colors and knew that their differences were minute.
“Perhaps this is not the one, then,” he said, slyly, putting it back in the box, playing the game to prolong their last meeting. “Let me choose another, sweeter one.” The six pears were round and each rested in its nest of yellow silk. Where she had gotten the box, he couldn’t guess. Maybe from Sumatra, where they had found her mourning the rest of her Christian colonist family.
When he had told the Imperial General Headquarters that they must attack the capital, he made the announcement with all humility and reluctance, as must a lonely man who would undertake violence only if it were the only way.
But as soon as he left the podium from which he’d made his announcement, a message arrived that the Prince would assume leadership of the troops. It was this he feared--that fierceness was all they wanted and at any cost.
He picked up a pear from the corner and tossed it to test its weight. It seemed too light, empty inside. Emptiness was central to his belief system. Annelies was religious as well, but in a way that valued attachment and sacrifice. He had read the Christian texts, wanting to recognize the Western set of superstitions, and understood that volunteering had been a good choice for her.
“That one is good,” said Annelies softly. “Eat it.”
She had learned Japanese for them, though she still spoke in a muddled and slow fashion. Her ability to forget had impressed him. Even if she had not volunteered, he would have suggested the soldiers take her in, as they had probably killed her husband. Son too, he guessed. Barbarians on the frontier, those soldiers. Never kill a white foreigner, of all things. They would probably have raped her; it was a thing that was done, sadly, a woman’s price for war. But her volunteering was clever: she had given up her body like the savior in her religion, of her own free will. It was a time of sacrifice for everyone.
Emptiness may have been at the core of everything, but he could not eat an empty thing. The next pear he lifted from the box was of a molten core. He spun it on the table and watched it wobble. This pear must be filled with the same fluid that constantly refilled his lungs and made him weak; the color he did not know but imagined to be pus-green, viscous enough to cling to the skin, to resist certain motions and then give, rushing out with a sudden exuberance, a foul ejaculation.
He picked another fruit, and Annelies looked at him crossly, saying, “This one you must eat, General, if you wish to get anything else done.”
He smiled at her innocence and lifted another pear from the box, held one in each hand. Both responded eagerly to gravity.
“Just these two for me?” He asked, and imagined that he would eat them and she would watch him, hungry, and then take his juice-sticky hands and pull them to her belly.
“Those two,” she said, “you may have, if you promise to eat them both.”
“What are they?”
“I will tell you, if you promise.”
“I will eat them.”
“That one,” she said, pointing to his left hand, “is filled with worms. Maggots, I mean. They eat corpses, and these have eaten from the bodies of all the girls who died in the last week. Soon they will become flies, and then this pear will become light and fly away. Only it won’t, because you will eat it.”
“Okay,” he said. “What about this one?”
“That pear is a pear on the outside, but inside it carries something very special. Do you know that I also carry something special?”
He looked at the pear, at her, but could discern nothing.
“I see,” he said. It didn’t matter whose fault it was, and they would never know. The girls could not get pregnant. “I’ll send for the doctor straightaway.”
“No need,” she said, “I’ll do it myself. All the doctor does, after he rapes you, is shove a stick up there and poke around.”
“You’ll get an infection.”
“That will happen anyway. Then they take out my insides. Better to do it myself at least.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It is unfortunate that he does such things under the aegis of healing, and that he is necessary.” He doubted she understood. “I will give you the money. You can go away too.”
Her sea-blue eyes narrowed. “What?”
“I must go to Nanking tomorrow. Tonight is our last night.”
Was it fear or sickness that made her face so white?
“I can’t protect you anymore,” he said.
“You protected me?” She rolled away and looked out the window, where there was nothing to see, just blackness falling on heaps of wooden beams and scrap metal. Her thighs and buttocks, pale and dimpled, shifted downward toward the thin silk.
“That pear, that other one you must eat, is filled up with my blood. It’s clotted and sour, but you have to eat it all.”
“I will,” he said, and lifted it to take a bite. The flesh inside was white and crisp. It tasted as sweetly bland as the melted snow that flowed down the mountains in early spring.
Fiction writer and recently retired Beijing expat.
You've recently left China. Three words to capture that feeling?
Two souls now.
In The Gateless Gate, Mumon writes of Seijo, the Chinese girl, who had two souls, “The moon above the clouds is the same moon, The mountains and rivers below are different.”
Most memorable moment from your first year in China?
Maybe the weeklong rollercoaster that began with the frustration of getting my purse stolen at erstwhile Sanlitun mega-dive Tun, likely a consequence of its 50 RMB open bar, losing only 400 RMB cash, my 300 RMB phone, and my innocence; followed by the triumph of negotiating a new phone purchase at a cheaper price and getting a SIM card without the required documents, in Mandarin, for the first time.
Moment you realized China was an important part of your life?
Probably not until my planned “gap year” was over and I couldn’t bear to leave. It took me three and a half more to escape Beijing’s gravitational pull.
Moment you realized writing was an important part of your life?
I’m going to be a cliché and say pretty much as soon as I was physically able, which is about as far back as my consciousness goes. I wrote “books” and put them together with with duct-taped spines. I was mostly into ghost stories. I was also working on a “novel” about Atlantis around age 11. I made it maybe 15 pages in, which seemed pretty good at the time.
Your writing history/notable writing projects:
After writing short fiction for years, at Grub Street and related groups when I lived in Boston, and in the writing group in Beijing, I’m now working on a novel partly set in China. It’s about feminism and science mishaps and the banality of manifested fantasy.
Favorite word to use in writing:
“Susurrus.” It came to me in a dream. I used it only once, but the joy experienced was more than the joy of 10,000 “whisper”s. Though both are pretty onomatopoeic.
A metaphor to describe what writing is?
Dream kinematics. Sometimes you're running, which in a dream is always impossible; you’re never getting anywhere, moving as if through viscous liquid. But sometimes you’re soaring, transcending waking life.
Anything else you wish to say?
For those of you in Beijing, eating cheap and delicious food 2-3 times a day, hanging out in hutongs and drinking $1 jumbo yanjings or anise-scented IPA, hearing messy rock bands at venues so small you feel you’re on stage, arguing with elderly neighbors in pajamas….enjoy every moment. Wear a face mask. And if you still haven’t, please learn Chinese.