By Pingmei Lan
That summer when Chairman Mao died I saw a funeral for the first time, a national one. It had gone on for weeks. Everywhere I turned people were wearing black armbands and making white paper flowers. The usual sea of blue Mao suits seemed to be foaming, churning, shaping into dark and light swells. Thousands of mourning wreaths blanketed Tiananmen Square, eventually spilling down to the sidewalks of Chang’an Avenue. For days, then weeks, it looked like snow in summer.
Then an old farmer came to Beijing riding a donkey cart. He cried over Mao’s body while waving his copy of the Little Red Book. The Chairman looked down at this loyal subject from an old photo gracing the wall of the red Tiananmen fort. A half smile flashed permanently between his smooth pink cheeks and bright black beauty mark. The farmer made the news after crying for days and passing out, his fingers brittle and curled over the good book.
I didn’t understand that kind of devotion and grief, having just turned seven that spring. And the only thing I knew about death was from the old maid who lived across the hutong.
“My lover died and came back to life,” she said one day.
I walked away without answering. I didn’t know if she was crazy. I didn’t know if she was talking to me.
She was sitting on her doorstep, watching the clouds move and threading her fingers through her hair. Everyone in the hutong gossiped about how she had gotten that creepy head of white hair when she was only twenty-six.
She never ate salt. (Eat your salt or your hair would turn like that.)
She lived in a cave for ten years and ate mushrooms that grew on the walls.
She was a white snake who turned into this thing when she ate the magic ginseng roots from the Manchurian Mountains.
I preferred to think of her as having been born that way, with a connection to the underworld and hair frosted by Yan Wang’s brew to prove it. Her eyes too, they had this dark pull, at once mercurial and warm. Her lashes were pale and shiny like the hooks fringing a Venus flytrap. I imagined men who inched closer, willing to latch on. They’d follow her into this other place, where gremlins made decisions to either feast on the dead or send them back to life untouched. The old maid — no one knew her name, so we called her that — was the only one who could sway that decision one way or the other.
Read Pingmei Lan’s story in its entirety from our Fall/Winter 2018 issue, available for purchase here.
Pingmei Lan grew up in China where she developed a love-hate relationship with crowds, artificial lawn ornaments, and Chinese food for breakfast. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Tahoma Literary Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and others. She has been named a recipient of the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Currently she lives in San Diego.
The Rorschach illustration at the top of the page is by the artist and illustrator Vincent Le.