études (2)

I. & II.

The odor-laden noises of cows and chickens, the patchy autumnal colors sloping up in any direction — made a tourist of me.  The caked sod road followed the carved irrigation ditch, past countless paddies swarmed with thin blades which were shadows in the dusk, past stout figures who looked at me like I was some sort of professional heretic, as innocuous as loathsome.  Their hunched backs were timeless relics, I thought, destined to live forever in the this region.  I smelled the honest sweat of work all around me, and with discomfort noticed my own clean smell.  It must be obvious that I spent the day away from the fields, I thought as a laughing man passed on a bicycle, it must be.  Some way along the path bloomed, diverged into seven spindly branches, and I followed one around the bend past a robust hedge of hydrangea.  There was no one around, not even the smell of sweat.  In my mind I pictured Guang, his farmhouse — his wife and children clothed in the nobility of dry human sweat and runoff from murky water, serving us strong wine, the seasonal vegetables and a freshly killed chicken.  The first touch of water was cold on my toes, and driven by the most forceful desires, it became obvious that it would be better to submerge all the way in, to let the stagnant brown water surround every inch of skin until there was no more horizon between water and air, just cold water, with no point of reference from which to recall a fear or exercise a comparison.

I fell, breaking the plane of the water, for an hour.  During the length I thought about hotels and vacations, snowcapped mountains and a beach hugging the skyline, and turned over in my mind something I had once known but chosen to forget: the cardinal rule. The primal power of property in a world where land and possessions subsume religion, government — everything except your firstborn son — and no sooner had my last follicle of hair dipped below the surface than twenty peasants pounced from the hydrangea with guns pointed at my nape.  As they screamed at me in crude grammatical structures — my soaking figure — I felt the warmest relief.  I was a failure through and through.  The water was, miraculously, already dry from my shirt and slacks — not for nothing were these clothes worth two or three of these hominid mercenaries‘ lives — and like the palms of my hands, they refused to hold dirt and were white.  Guang would miss me, I thought (but maybe then the chicken would be spared her barbaric ending).

We sloshed through (invariant) fields in the darkness.  With willpower I accepted the warm mouths of leeches and focused my vision on the distant, small light (just as the three wise men followed a beacon to Bethlehem). I regretted striking up with this gang of insufferable peasant youths — but they had a religious zeal about them.  I found them loafing around like young men so often do in this area, nursing liquor bottles and setting animal shit on fire, at the intersection of the irrigation streams.

They turned up at me, faces beat by the sun, hands all covered in putridness, and what could I do but make conversation with those tragic hominids?  I let on that Guang had invited me over to celebrate my birthday — from then there was no shaking them.  These were men who believed that everything happens for untold reasons, that love or miracles are likely on certain astrological days.  We took a shortcut through the paddies. The dark faced youth were animate, brimming with stories about relations with their cousins, animal husbandry, embarrassingly misguided anecdotes about the outside world, their deepest secrets for how best to tend to crops and light excrement on fire (it turns out that each act is the best practice for the other).  We arrived at Guang’s farmhouse. Now they were arguing about who would enter the house first, consulting the night sky like deranged spiritual journeymen.  Two young men each stole a chicken from the fenced coop next to the farmhouse and brought them out to fight.  Bets were placed, and the men spat out folklore such as, “Black chickens are fierce during the third phase of the moon, but only when the hydrangea bloom.” The wives of the men — also their cousins — sprang out from the hydrangea bushes and added to the commotion with their reedy voices.  “White chicken! White chicken!” they cheered, although plainly it was the third phase of the moon and the hydrangea were blooming in all their gaiety.  Guang and his cousins stumbled out of the hydrangea, wildly narrating stories about tall mountains and beaches they would never see (treacherous figures doomed to forever lie with keeled backs), each one soaked from head to toe in water from the paddies and brandishing a rifle aimed at my nape.

I told Guang I was leaving. Guang bet on the fight.


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