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from the August 2016 issue

From “The March of Time”

And so the answer is revealed, to the riddle asked only once in a lifetime (one of the biggest questions in life, perhaps the biggest): your husband Chang Te-Mo will appear again after his death. What kind of ghost will he be? (And here it comes, here it comes, the question in return: “What kind of person was he?”)

After the body is cleaned, it’s time to escort him to the morgue. You tell him, “Chang Te-Mo, it’s all right now.”

For the last time, you turn the lights off for him. (You’ve been left behind; for you, there is no longer such a thing as the traveler who returns.) Without him, even in your homeland of the mortal world, you are a refugee. At the tail end of the fleeing hordes, you follow behind the doctors and nurses and mortuary staff, entering the lift single file. (When the malignant tumor appeared in his body, both of you had to go up and down this building like refugees from the end of the world, and now you’re practiced at getting in and out of elevators.) You push the button for the ground floor, and the metal doors slowly slide shut. (In this moment, you’re both in the same box.) Passing through the space between you, your gaze alights on his expression, simple, calm. (You refused to let the mortuary staff cover his face.)

You understand that there can only be one answer: whatever kind of person he was, that’s the kind of ghost he’ll be.

After he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with late-stage esophageal cancer, the time limit calculated by the doctors worked out as promised, a whole six months. What they had no way of predicting was: this patient would not spend his time on the brink of death, nor would he appear to.

In the middle of the night, as the rest of humanity began to dream, he plucked out his feeding and oxygen tubes with the majesty of an emperor. “I’m leaving.” His voice was firm and serious, not a negotiation but a decision. The sound of a finale, willed into arrival. (What does it even mean, to prepare for death?) How fortunate you were, to hear it with your own ears.

Deep within yourself you plead with him for a little more time, not a year or half a year or three months, just till dawn. Long enough to contact your fellows garrisoned outside the walls. Accompanying a patient is like an encampment around a city, soldiers and generals coming and going, and you a new commander, having to retreat to the wall from time to time to weep bitterly. By contrast, he was relaxed and calm. (“It’s my life, what are you crying about?” you could imagine him saying.) That’s how he was in this world, speaking slowly and expansively, reminding you all along, “You’ll perish if you’re afraid of death, and also if you aren’t.” Or else he’d say mockingly, “As the saying goes, if the sky wants to rain or your mother wants to remarry, there’s not much you can do about it!” In the extended version, he’d add a line: “Stick your head out or pull it back, the guillotine falls just the same.” You interrogate the invisible passersby, “Did you see that? You divinities from god-knows-where, did you see that?” This mortal crashed between yin and yang, and you wished to ask the spirits if they feared him. (Bad-tempered individuals are the simplest of all.)

At this time, the window shows a swath of gray, the barometer dropping. Soon the solitary voyagers of legend will strike their tents and move on.

The wanderers hit the road again. You have permission to travel with him only as far as the morgue, where he will be required to remain for the night, crossing the no man’s land between living and death. The mortal journey has reached its end. It’s true, only family deaths count as tragedy. The poet Tao Yuanming happens to have spoken for you in his Elegy—“My relatives may have grief remaining, but others have returned to song.” (The dreamer departs, but so does the man with no dreams. He chose to embark on his journey alone. A mere mortal, you couldn’t resist trying to hold him back, silently pleading: of all the organs of memory, sight is the last to form and the first to go. Even if you don’t mind solitude, your friends and relatives from beyond this city’s walls are hurrying toward you, wait a little longer to see them, take their faces away with you.)

The lift plunges down from the fifth floor, arriving at the morgue. He must remain here alone. In a conversational tone, you remark, “You like being on your own, don’t you? You’re getting your own way again, old boy.” (Chang Te-mo, I can’t help you put the lights out. “You’re dead, and they say you have no will of your own now.” The mortuary lights are centrally controlled, and this place is never dark.) And so you break your earlier agreement: “Whoever dies first, the survivor will be responsible for turning off the lights.” (You unfolded those words from time to time, as if putting books out to sun them.) You’d always thought you’d both close your eyes for the last time in your familiar bed, and now you think, melancholy, “So that isn’t how things work.”

No place is more silent than the morgue. (The final stop in a game of blindness, a clanking noise—the sound of an ending? And still you turn off the lamp of life for him.) Gently, you stroke his face, placid even in death. “(Can you hear me?) We’re going now.” (AAAARRRGGH! Good-bye. In The Gods Must be Crazy, an anthropologist is passionate about African tribes, but doesn’t speak a word of their language. Driving down a hillside, his brakes fail, with lions and tigers and rhinos chasing after him, and his despair, anger, joy, and disbelief are all expressed as AAAARRRGGH!)

Aaaarrrggh! After being admitted, his body displayed a sensitivity and resilience you’d never seen before (where was all this earlier?), and you almost believed a miracle was imminent. (Though you hadn’t forgotten—he never believed in nonsense like miracles.) The final sprint—right in front of you, he hurled himself into the sea, to be himself. (It’s not like making a movie, snatching the last few moments of twilight before the dusk, the time of the wolfhound.) You witness with your own eyes the soul passing through the body, like in the legends, and how in that moment its weight is determined. A miracle.

(The first night of the seventh month arrived. The two of you walked from the tall building, released—but not feeling as if you’d been hostages.) Ryunosuke Akutagawa said that life is worth less than a single line of Baudelaire. (Chang Te-mo said, “I’m leaving.”) Put his name in and it becomes shorter. Life is worth less than a single line of Chang Te-mo.

The beginning and end happen at the same time, flame and water have the same origin, the poles where darkness and daylight coexist. You’re a fire-worshipper, and you’re beginning to hold a symbiotic belief: life is worth less than a single line of Chang Te-mo.

Is it better to live a story? Or to make one up? (The silence has been activated, right on time. You will no longer discuss him in front of others.)

You hold the steering wheel tightly and stare straight ahead, looking at the jumbled images projected onto a black screen in the distance: a dartfish, broad dorsal fin like the Concorde, tail fin a crescent moon, resisting the current as it rests for a moment above a rock crevice. The water is the best place to float, free of gravity. Yes, it’s entered your lives, and you understand clearly that it’s the time of travel, the time of illness. (Your travel map has thrown up one analogy: previously, in March 1998, Chang Te-mo was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. Not superstitious, you gave up the chance to analyze this further, falling into the following puzzle: when a man is diagnosed with two different types of cancer five years apart, what are the odds of his being admitted into the same hospital ward?)

The wandering column of vehicles speeds even further into the dark night. (Traveling side by side. An ark furnished with food and wine, said Lawrence in The Ship of Death, “for you must take the longest journey, to oblivion.”)

(“Walk and walk, stand up and walk.”) Each time, this provoked you into gales of laughter. He was fond of these cross-talk punch lines. Also: “Two steps forward, three steps back—that’s as good as not moving.” Pronounced in a Shandong accent, nonsense sentences. When nothing was going on, he liked to say, “What’s up? If you want to do something serious, go land on the moon.”)

The wanderer hits the road, following the path laid out in his wandering map, a sacred text for generations. You hear the words, “Whatever kind of person you were, that’s the kind of ghost you’ll be.” Life and death.

Traveling side by side. In the first year of his reign, the wanderer started the countdown. (The booming noise of noontime—this day would soon be over.)

New life stacks on top of old, and the path rears up a cliff face. From now on, your way home will take you, like meandering water, toward the vestiges of Chang Te-mo.

時光隊伍 © Su Wei-chen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Jeremy Tiang. All rights reserved.

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