Qiu saw his reflection in his father-father’s sword when he drew it toward his neck.
It was one of those days. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. It was just one of those days. His wife didn’t die. His children were, for the most part, healthy. He didn’t yell at anyone and no one yelled at him. Sure, he didn’t get the job he interviewed for, a post that would return him to the countryside, but such denial was nothing new. It was just one of those days. Maybe, if something, anything happened. But it didn’t.
His son’s little hand in his own, they walked down Horse Guild Avenue, where the hustle and bustle, the exuberance for the Double Ninth Celebration rose higher than the oriole’s song. He himself tried whistling, put Chao Luan-luan’s poem “Creamy Breasts” to the tune of “A Dream Song,” but even that didn’t work.
He felt something on his shoulder and stopped. Chao looked at him, giggled, and pointed.
“Here, let me get that for you,” said a strange man, his face an ugly mess of proportion. He wiped off the bird shit, then cleaned his hands on his patchwork trousers before sauntering on down the road, saying hello to everyone he passed.
On any other day Qiu may have thought this was good luck. He’d looked above him and saw an oriole perched on a roof beam. Ironic, really, that the bird should shit on him the day he wore his robe embroidered with peach-blossoms. It was autumn, after all, not spring. He ran his hand through his snow-streaked hair and, extending his hand to his son, continued on.
It was that kind of day. The kind of day when you do something nice for someone and he doesn’t trouble himself to express a single ounce of gratitude. The kind of day when you begin to question humanity and its selfishness and wonder if you, too, are as selfish and inconsiderate as others.
Qiu watched his son’s head turn to keep his eyes on the acrobats on the street, and though he dragged his feet, Chao followed his father.
The kind of day you just want to go home, and go to bed, to forget about the day and look forward to the next. But even that would not help, for he knew tomorrow would be just like today as today was just like yesterday.
He didn’t think about how he spent all that time studying. How much money they spent on his education. He didn’t think about how many posts went to someone else, someone less qualified, someone less dazzling with their commentaries on the Classics or less able to write a poem on the fly.
No, he didn’t think about any of that. He thought, rather, about shapes. First about rectangles and squares as he looked at the city sprawl around him. Then he caught a willow tree and asked himself what shape it was. He thought about cassias and mulberries and apricots and pears. He thought about their leaves. Sure, one could say a particular leaf might resemble a triangle or a circle, maybe an oval, but such were approximations at best. Come to think of it, he said to himself, nothing nature creates “has” a shape and to claim something, like a mountain, is, say, a triangle, is really to impose upon the mountain something it is not.
And wouldn’t the same apply to just about everything? he asked himself. Why is a leaf “green” and not “blue” or “chi-hu-tao?” Why is a dog “dog?”
Qiu and Chao turned a hard corner, the wall separating the Inner City from the Outer before them, the pediatric pharmacist just down the road from Old Cao Gate on the day when writing even a simple poem would not bring a smile.
After picking up his son’s medicine, Qiu, walking through the streets bisecting Heaven on Earth at precise angles, his son’s hand in his own, thought more about words and came to the conclusion (and the realization that would lead him looking at his reflection is his father-father’s sword before resting it against his neck) that words themselves are impositions and thus communication was, at best, questionable.
“You want to get a mooncake?”
“Yes daddy,” and so the father took his son to Ching’s Cake Shop and stood in line for over an hour. He didn’t say a word until he told the baker he’d take half a dozen.
At home he slid open his wife’s screen. She was a good woman, a plum of a wife, a good homemaker. So Qiu, figuring it was his duty, embraced the woman with whom he’d tied his hair. She asked him if something was wrong. He lied, kissed her on the cheek, and slid the door closed when he left her there to her embroidery.
The blade’s story, of course, survived beyond his father-father and when he drew it, he wondered about the lives of the men who’d held it. Ancestors, ghosts in the blade. Ghosts that now haunted him, for he knew, now in the autumn of life, he had not lived up to the family tree and it needed a little pruning.
Every man wants to make his son’s life easier, better than his own. Qiu had not done so and when he saw his reflection a tear glistened in the polished steel.
Words are impositions, he reminded himself, communication and understanding, nothing but questions one could only answer with guesses. And even death is just a word.
His hands trembled at the prospect of leaving his wife and children, leaving them with nothing. Every man wants to make his son’s life easier, better than his own. The blade nicked his neck and the warm trickle bled into his white robe.
He shut his eyes, gritted his teeth, stayed his hands.
“Daddy,” said Chao from beyond his father’s screen. “Can you come play with me?”
“In a moment son. Take your mother and I will meet you in the courtyard.”
The little pitter-patter of feet down the hall; his mother’s screen opening, then closing; his son naming the new fish in the pond; his mother approving.
The dribble of blood down his neck, the slow stream of tears down his cheek.
He named one after his father, and added Shing for “victory.”
Qiu dropped the sword and slumped into the chair at his desk, his fat tears tap tap tapping upon the polished cherry wood. He took a single sheet and covered his brush with ink and he wrote and this is what he wrote. In so doing, in writing about this one day, he realized writing readied him for death.