Red Lantern

Jenny Shen, MS3, Psychiatry

           Ah neu. Rhymes with adieu. But ah neu is not farewell. It was my grandfather’s pet name for my younger self because I had cheeks the texture of glutinous rice flour, the type used in those marble-round, sesame-filled tangdeu Grandma would make every year just in time for the Lantern Festival dinner. A big ordeal it was: all red and silk and well-wishing.  Before the roosters crow, as the living would say, she’d have already started pouring water into the dune of flour in a steel basket twice the size of my head, and once the farmers have cut the rice stalks, also as the living would say, she’d have already smeared each disk of dough with a layer of sesame paste. As grandpa thumbed through his newspapers, I would watch her powdered hands rolling flat disks into balls, growing rounder and rounder between the sky and ground of her two palms as they rubbed away all corners.  Was this how the world was made, I used to wonder, just an endless kneading like this?  In the Shanghainese dialect ah neu refers to this same kneaded texture of rice flour dough. My younger self took pride in these cheeks and would often, especially during these annual dinners when all the uncles and their families came over, scrunch up all the fat of one cheek into the perfectly round hole made by my fingers’ curving. “Look look! I have a tangdeu on my face!”

           I died when I was four years old, at the busy dinner table during my fourth annual Lantern Festival, amidst sanguine well-wishing.  Uncle Zhi, who had the loudest laugh, took me up into his lap as if his muscles wouldn’t allow him to do anything but, where I was meant to stay for the remainder of the evening.  I made stick figures with the unclaimed chopsticks, occasionally snitching peas from his bowl. Across the lazy susan sat the flower of the family, who was then eighteen. Pale skin, straight black hair, lips the color of lotus. She sat with her back straight and shoulders taut, collarbones peeking out from above her lace collar, wrist poised so the chopsticks in her fingers never rose too high from the brim of her bowl. Whenever I remembered she was sitting there – that is to say, every five minutes – I’d show her the tangdeu on my cheek, and every time, she’d give me the same look of amused disapproval. In retrospect, that must’ve been tedious for her.  In the zodiac, I was the snake and she the rabbit, that fragile, soft-footed, blessed creature that, as legend went, the Goddess of the Moon had claimed as an eternal pet. I’d been told that my cousin and I held a strong resemblance, and that when she was four years old, her cheeks were well worth pinching too. (I was assured that unlike me, however, neither she nor anyone else was ever christened ah neu.)

           I wore a red silk one-piece made with an extra long slit over my diapers, for convenience.  I’d been potty trained by then, of course, but that didn’t mean accidents couldn’t happen, especially on such a festive night with twenty-some raucous family members all gathered in one room.  And for this particular evening I was allowed to let my hair down, which wasn’t a big difference, my forehead sharply cropped by bangs as short as bamboo shoots.  I looked like everything else that night, glowing and red and round, when the real tangdeu slid into my throat and stayed.

 

           It’s been the equivalent of twenty living years.  Since death, my thoughts have developed and grown like wild vines, at the same speed and in the same way as those alive.  Without external stimuli or social contact I’ve come to covet friends, family, a woman’s body of my own.  Not too long ago, I started seeing my cousin differently, or maybe I had simply started seeing her. That unchanging physical form seated at the table began to haunt me, and I’ve been wishing more and more to look like her. The living call this envy, but I call it hunger.  We are both static, me the left-over thoughts of a dead body, reduced to the immaterial piece of consciousness so ignorantly termed spirit, and she a timeless chiseled statue with motion of neither body nor mind.

           But my younger self did not care for physical forms. I did not need to. When I was four and she was eighteen and lovely, I did not care except that she found my cheeks entertaining. On festival day our peeling red door jittered from all the knuckled da da da! of neighbors – old lady Li from the end of the corridor, Mr. Ma from upstairs, beyond the winding stairs that groaned every time he carried groceries with him, and all the Cheng kids from across the hall, where the smell of their soybean stew always forced grandpa to close the windows. Bundles of ripe banana and grapes exchanged at the doorway in flashes of yellow and purple traffic. That was how we shared in the celebration of autumn, of harvest, of the full moon.  And in the open night street were bulbous red lanterns hung from doors and windows and what would be, on a regular day, the bamboo sticks for washed clothing hung out to dry – dripping trousers and faded blouses that smelled of milky soap. These sticks that usually sliced the sky into pointy triangles morphed, that night, into stalks sprouting fire-lit crimson bubbles. 

           The ones decorated with calligraphic riddles hung lower than the rest so that the children might divine their future on prosperity, harmony, or romance as they shuffled down the street.  I was inside seated at a table, playing with chopsticks and showing off my cheeks, keeping my fingers clean by rubbing them on my clothes, eating the tangdeu that grandma had made that morning.  Those red lanterns – I see them still, they are always there, just as everything else with mass - the people, the food, even the dimness of dusk because the sun and the moon and the stratosphere have mass.  A spirit has no mass. 

           I know what happened next, but as for what I can see, that’s limited by the stubborn pause at the moment of death, refusing to ever resume play. Afterwards, I simply know that my cousin was the first to notice, and to scream. And then chairs topple and legs straighten and abandoned chopsticks roll roll roll off the table clat on the floor and still roll roll roll toward heavy feet. The world stopped when I died.  I don’t mean this in an egotistical kind of way.  But when you die, your consciousness splits from your body and that’s that.  Without a body, you are massless, you are immune to the effects of time and light and space.  Nothing progresses because time drives progression.  From the perspective of the spirit, neither growth nor decay happen.  The concept of happen itself does not exist. 

           Nonetheless, thoughts like me can still go places, in a way.  I am approaching the familiar red door. Already I can smell the rice sacks from the hallway. The yellow light is dormant in a trapezoid at the doorway. I look in and see the curls on my younger self, light brown, covering the tops of my orange-slice earlobes because they were not long enough to dangle or swish or kiss my neck like that of my cousin. As always, not even air is moving. Space does not change when things that should by nature move no longer do. 

           It is my fourth Lantern Festival and Uncle Zhi has me on his lap. The needle of the clock is frozen in rigor mortis on XII. I linger here and focus on the peoples’ eyes, searching for life and knowing I won’t find any. As for my cousin’s form, I’ve learned to keep it outside my field of vision lest I grow hungrier. All three of my aunts are laughing at something my grandpa just said, just three unbroken laughs, mouths wide open yet soundless.  Aunt Li is in the middle of a gasp, her usual reaction to the slightest hint of gossip.  How full of life something so simple as a gasp really is.  Everything about it – the quickness, the immediacy, the communication that happens with such easy body language, not to mention how many nerves and  muscles it must take to conduct so much in concert.  No one who’s died can gasp.  Nothing surprises, nothing is immediate, communication loses signification, and I have neither nerve nor muscle.  I turn my back on the frozen scene in the room of chatter forever hanging in mid-air.

           On the streets, as I weave among the immobile children, I look up at the lanterns whose light is the only thing that still seems to breathe a sort of life, a sort of intentionality. Of course, the flames are motionless, but as a consequence the brightness never dims. I have long ago memorized these same old riddles because paint does not drip or fade, and the cloth does not need to worry about the heat of the sun. Night is a permanence here. 

           But what is this? I don’t remember one hung so low. In fact, these words do not look familiar at all.

Traverse the ridge for pleasure
The tunnel for enlightenment
And the twin mountains seeking
An ephemeral companion.

 

           I experience surprise for the first time in twenty years.  The flame within flickers and the words darken, shadows pulling at the strokes of calligraphy. A flickering flame? I experience disbelief, doubt, a twinge of apprehension.

           “You like?” 

           It is first just a voice coming from inside this lantern, but soon the outer cloth slips loose and unravels.  Instantly, I am looking at a long strip of red silk hung vertically from the bamboo stick overhead, the other end just reaching the ground.  It doesn’t stay this way.  I notice her breasts first, as they are the first to protrude out of the fabric.  In no time, the rest of her body stands in stark relief under the silk.   The cloth falls purposefully, revealing moonlit skin too pale for life. 

           “Ah neu,” she breathes as she takes a step closer. I don’t want her closer.  She is threatening and I now experience fear.

           Don’t call me that. 

           “Why?” Her lips thin into a curve, glisten transiently, and I wonder where I’ve seen them before. Hair, straight black bundles like two thick dozing cobras, kiss her neck, but not only her neck. The emerald veins of her chest play vine over marble clavicles, bending as streams do around engorged breasts before settling at the soft bowl of her hips. Unlike all the other humans around here, she does not wear clothes. 

           Who are you?

           “Someone you left behind, back at the dinner table.” Her feet are lunar crescents, treading softly toward me. She seems to only walk on her toes, ankles hardly containing the excitement of taut tendons underneath. As I think of the next question, as I feel the obligation to ask her as many questions as I can to delay whatever attack she has in mind, she is already halfway through me. I experience fullness as I fight the invasion that seems to stretch, tear, and scorch what fading existence I have left. I am now something I have not been for twenty years.  I am physical pain.

           Get out!

           But within me I hear her sigh. “Out of where? You are nothing but a ball of perception and nostalgia.”

           When I do move, she utters a small cry of pleased surprise. 

           I can take you somewhere far from here and throw you away, leave you behind, I threaten. 

           “Fine.”

           Before she inhales her next breath we are at a place, at a time, specifically where and specifically when I don’t know, don’t care. And she. Where is she? 

           I hope you have fun here, I offer, half-hoping for a response. There is only that of these rice stalks swishing, hissing at me. 

           I am in the middle of a vast stretch of land growing nothing but rice, so tall and numerous that they puncture the horizon as needles puncture flesh. All around me these stiff stalks sway, dripping sunlight off each virgin grain ripe for the picking. 

           A giggle. 

           I search. Only rice.  They say rice is fertility and life.  They say rice is pure.  But I remember what killed me.

           “You’re missing me already.”

           What do you want?

           “I want to give this body to you. You’ve been in desperation for quite some time now, haven’t you? I see the way you look at her. You are jealous. You want her body for yourself.” I feel dignity sinking. She says, “Why don’t you take this one.”  I know she meant for that to come out as a command, not a suggestion. 

           The stalks whistle in encouragement as they bend back on each other into a mattress of patterned spikes in the wind. I remain wordless and thoughtless. She stops talking as well. All I acknowledge – shamefully – is that I don’t want to resist what she has in mind. If she has a mind. And I realize that I have zero self-control in the face of temptation.  Maybe this was all inevitable from the start.  Take a being with a singular desire and dangle that object in front of her.  Even easier if said being hasn’t had to exercise self-control in twenty years because there was absolutely nothing around.  The solipsist becomes a beast when she finally walks out of her mind. 

           When she invades me a second time, I sense her weight before anything else, impregnated at my core, writhing in the pleasure of rebirth. First, descent, the tip of her head emerging from skin folds that are mine.  I am growing physical skin and the materialization spreads out from there, down legs I’ve never seen, up an abdomen and breasts and neck and arms.  Skin, but also pulsing vessels, solid bone, slippery cartilage, fizzling nerves.  After a subtle rotation her shoulders are out too, then her arms, tucked together in front of her chest.  After that, the rest is smooth, like a serpent, torso long and legs straight, feet tense and parallel with her calves. Once I am completely free of her, she, in her entirety, remains on the soil in what could almost look like exhaustion if not for the gleam in her strangely large pupils. They beckon. The stalks underneath her body spill grains of raw rice and I want that, all of it, the empress lying amidst mortal sustenance.

           As I had predicted, decided, or accepted, I don’t resist. When I fall on her I fall with absolute abandon as if she isn’t even there. I’m a monster with a human body missing my head and I know where to get it back.  When I fall I shut out vision and hearing and touch.

           There is a break – no color, no sound, no warmth. Twenty years ago was the only other time I was this impenetrably surrounded by nothingness.

           And suddenly it all explodes when her cry bursts from her chest, squeezed out of her as if my weight were real. Color soars as black turns to shades of gray to pastel orange and finally I see her hair again as a dark brown stream now spread underneath her, spraying in all directions, the softer locks lifting just a little in the wind. They glow red as if a very small lantern caps each strand. Her eyes snap open and I watch her watch the sun above us watching us, and as we shake she does not look anywhere else. Before the first cry fades I feel her breasts pushed up against a rising chest – I rise with her – then another cry breaks loud and echoing.  Phoenix song.  The Chinese have worshipped the phoenix and the dragon for two thousand years and I wonder if I alone know what it’s like, hearing phoenix song.  It’s not a sound heard before death.  It’s not a sound made by the living.

           And we are back down again. At the third cry, she finally shuts her eyes, leaving no seam open through which I can find a trace of her large pupils. As she pants her front teeth dip into sight, revealing whiteness so translucent it is almost aqua underneath the murky redness of her lips. Shy tip of the tongue moist and timidly trembling, behind her teeth, hiding yet inviting. I bear down and take her entire mouth.

           “Mine.” I can talk, but am wheezing heavily.  And that is the first word I utter.  “Mine.”  How infantile, how true.  Possession is luxury.  “Who are you?” Vocal cords trembling at a broken frequency marked by obstruction. 

           Now, she gives no reply because where her mouth had been there is only perception and nostalgia of old words and cries. Now, I am the one grunting. At every descent my tongue brushes against the back of my teeth and I have to swallow often so spit does not collect and drip.  But knowledge of how to control a mouth is coming back quickly.  Under her forehead, now webbed with hair stuck in what I lick and taste to be sweet sweat, her eyes are still shut in concentration, creases deepening along eyelids muted by sensation. I lick because I have a tongue.  But I want those eyes.

           So I take them. And her nose too. The vapor of rice and the smell of mud circle around us like anguished magpies over a site of death. Ca-caw! they shriek.  Ca-caw!  With another grunt I take the rest of her head. Something is definitely thudding inside this segmented tube, stuck. With a nose now, I am able to take a deep breath through my nose and expel the obstruction through my throat. Out my mouth. What shoots out resembles a marble but as it rolls further along, weaving among the stalks, I realize it is sticky and soft because with each revolution more dirt layers its surface. A four-year-old would choke on this without making a sound.

           With quivering elbows and wrists – mine and mine – I hold myself up in arachnoid delicateness as her legs spread, bend, and snake around me tighter until I cry yet again, this time with alarming amplitude. 

           When all is silent, there is no longer any body under me. 

           For a moment I simply lay there, raw grains itchy under my heaving belly. Heaving. Heaving. I cannot stay here. What was imbalanced is now balanced.  I have taken what was taken from me and I have returned what I had taken from earth. 

 

           Shanghai.  Lantern Festival evening. Nothing has changed. Children are still frozen, laughter like flies treading air, anxious to land. But where is the cloth of the red lantern she had shed? When I turn my head to search around me, my feet tangle as my arms reach out for support. Real weight is a new and dizzying thing. There, between a tossed candy wrapper and a gutter, the bloody skin she had shed. Unlike everything else, it is moving in the breeze, squirming at times, but fabric is light and so it slithers, this tormented python. I pick it up and wrap it around me, for my new skin complains of the chilly night. Directly I head to the familiar red peeling door. 

           The scene is the same as always. Family pictures on the wall, most of which are of me and grandpa and grandma, slurping on homemade watermelon juice, me holding up one of grandpa’s cigarettes and pretending to smoke it, me naked with tummy fat layered like bed sheets in the bath basin half-filled with water and topped with empty coke bottles thrown in for tot entertainment. Always rising, always hot, steam blurring sight above the soup. My cousins and aunts and uncles leaning into the table for food or each other for secrets and gossip and news. Grandpa still seated and always joking. My cousin, lashes hiding her gaze, wearing that smile of a lady with perhaps the secret of a lover from school. And my younger self, eyebrows just that tiny bit higher than usual, closer than usual, lips parted the way they would to taunt another child, hands balled into fists, bangs too stiff with hair too short, teetering on Uncle Zhi’s left thigh. But her eyes. Gleaming, pupils too large. She is no longer looking where she always looked, but at me. This is the only difference.  And as I stare back at her staring at me in the fixed expression of unmistakable asphyxiation, I gasp.  [End of story]

 

 

 

Author’s Addendum – A Dialogue

 

Freud: Oh good, “addendum.”  We get to hear your thoughts behind all this. 

Author: Well, maybe, assuming I actually know what went through my head as I wrote it.

Freud: No worries.  I have a protocol I use to analyze stories.  After all, they’re really just the author’s daydreams.  Freud extricates a tattered Moleskine notebook from inside his coat.  Licks the tip of his pen.  Now, tell me, why grandparents?  Where are her parents?  Why the emphasis on the eyes?  Who is the cousin?  Why asphyxiation?  No no – he raises a finger to shush himself – first answer this.  Why rice?

Author: Well, it’s just the ingredient in tangdeu.  Shrugs.  Freud cranes his neck, expectant.  Um, why else… I guess I like how it’s also a symbol of fertility?  Y’know, for the irony.

Freud, disinterested: Uh huh, sure, but why?  Do you happen to harbor thoughts or wishes you deem shameful?

Author: I don’t believe so.  No.

Freud: Of course.  He sniffs. Why would you tell an old psychoanalyst your shameful thoughts?

Author: No that’s not –

A knock.  The door opens to reveal a broad-shouldered gentleman smoking a cigar.  Smoke completely obscures his face.  We know him as Roland Barthes. 

Barthes: Bon soir, mes amis. 

Freud, visibly straightening up: A Frenchman.  What business have you here?

Barthes: An assassination.  Freud and Author eye each other nervously.  But I did not mean to interrupt.  Please, do go on.  My business can wait.  

Author: Erm.  All right then.  As I was trying to say, I don’t believe there’s anything shameful I’m trying to express with this story. 

Freud: So why did you write it?

Barthes clears his throat and the smoke from his cigar thickens.  Ashy turbulence surrounds his whole head.  Freud furrows his brows in annoyance.

Author: I suppose for a couple of reasons.  If you wanted a context, it’s an assignment for my class.  But as for what I wanted to express, well I can tell you I wanted to say something about death and the splitting of the self. 

Freud: Well go on!  Tell me more!

Author: visibly uncomfortable.  We cannot tell whether it’s from the increasingly smoky air or Freud’s insistence.  Well y’know, maybe at one point I wanted for the rice field to conjure up the image of the Edenic Garden. 

Freud: Ah, and the splitting of the self?  The recreation? 

Author: Maybe.  Sure.  I didn’t think that far.  I mean, no one sacrificed a rib.  Tries chuckling.  No one joins her.  It is getting very hard to see the scene as Barthes’ smoke saturates the stage.

Freud: So, the snakes – coughs – several things were compared to snakes.  Was that intentional?

Author: Mm… I’m afraid not.

Freud: desperation is creeping into his voice. But surely, the quasi-sexual – coughs more violently than before – operation they go through?  Was that not meant to be a resolution of tensions between you and your doppelganger?

A shot is heard amidst the smoke and a weight thumps to the floor. Silence.  Then, the static buzzing of a radio transceiver. 

Voice1: Is it done, Boss?

Barthes:  Ne me dépêches pas, Beardsley.  The mission is not yet complete.

Voice2: But boss, we’re getting hungry and the car’s running low on gas!

Voice1: Oh shut up, Wimsatt!  Let him do his work!

We hear Barthes switch off his transceiver.  All is quiet for a moment. 

Author, under her breath: So it is.       

Barthes: Couldn’t have done it without you, mon chérie.  Barthes finally extinguishes his pipe.  The smoke dies down, revealing Freud’s body on the floor.  Barthes and Author are both looking down at the dead psychoanalyst as if studying a newly unearthed fossil of a flying amphibian. 

Author: Well, I should get going.  Barthes deftly blocks the exist.  You’re not seriously doing this.  He doesn’t budge.  Look, I’ve done my part.  You got what you wanted. 

Barthes: Oh?  How do you know what I wanted?  You’re not becoming an intentionalist now, are you?  After all I’ve taught you?

Author: Funny.  No.  I just want to leave now.  Michel is waiting for me at the train station. 

Barthes: Is that so?  You’re leaving with him, of all people?

Author: She is visibly anxious. Her left hand makes the smallest move toward her left back pocket.  Why not?  Again she starts to leave, but Barthes blocks her path once more.

Barthes: But you won’t let me let you leave, see.  That is the problem.  That is the problem you yourself created several lines up. 

Author: I don’t understand.

Barthes: You typed, “Barthes deftly blocks the exist.”  EXIST.  You know how a Frenchman like me interprets a phrase like ‘block the exist’?

Author: A typo.  Obviously I meant “exit”.  Her voice quivers.  She slides her thumb into her back pocket. 

Barthes: Typo?  Typo on the page?  No, dear, no no no.  The word has been written, and what is written is the Word.  And I only follow the Word. 

Author is too slow.  Before she can make a move, Barthes has made his.  Her body falls on Freud’s and is still.  We note a thin strip of white paper halfway pulled out of her pocket.  Barthes reaches down and unfolds it.  It reads, “Barthes heaves a sigh.  We are unsure whether it is a sigh of sadness, weariness, or boredom.  He folds the strip of paper along the same creases and, almost tenderly, slips it into Author’s outstretched hand.  He exits stage left.”

 

 

Bibliography

  1. Barthes, Roland. "Death of the Author." Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
  2. Beardsley, M.C.  Wimsatt, W.K.  “The Intentional Fallacy.”  The Sewanee Review,Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul-Sep, 1946), pp 468-488.
  3. Foucault, Michel. ""What Is an Author?"" Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. By Ronald Schleifer. New York: Longman, 1998. 
  4. Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. "The Creative Writer and Daydreaming." The Uncanny. New York: Penguin, 2003.