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from the August 2016 issue

From “The March of Time”

時光隊伍

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.

時光隊伍

謎題終於揭曉,關於人生最大的詰問,你的丈夫張德模死後會出現:他會是怎麼樣的鬼?(來了,來了,反詰問:「他是怎麼樣的人?」)

淨身完畢,送他往太平間的時辰啟動。你告訴他:「張德模,現在沒事了。」

最後一次為他捻熄房燈。(你是留下者,對你而言,再也沒有去而復返的旅者了。)失去了他,現在的這個人世原鄉,你淪落成為難民。落在巨大逃亡隊伍尾巴,跟在醫護殯葬業者後頭魚貫邁入電梯。(惡瘤附身,你們如亡命天涯忽上忽下樓,你因此練就進出電梯好身手。)你捺下樓層數字鍵,金屬門緩緩闔上。(你們在同一個盒子裡了。)穿越身體間隙凝視他面容簡潔坦然。(你不讓殯葬業者蒙住他的臉。)

你明白了,答案只有一個:是怎麼樣的人,就是怎麼樣的鬼。

進醫院就證實食道癌末期,醫生估計的時限如期兌現,整六個月。他們無法預料的是,這名患者居然沒有彌留時間也沒有彌留現象。

人們入夢的半夜,他自行拔掉鼻胃管和氧氣管,王者降臨:「我要走了。」不是商量是決定。結局之聲,說來就來,(哪來預備死亡這件事?)你如此幸運,得以親耳聆聽。

但你仍在內心請求他,再給你一點時間,不要一年半載三個月數周:「請等到天亮。」你才好和駐紮城外等消息的隊友聯繫。陪病如駐紮守城,調兵遣將,你是新帥,不時退避牆垣痛哭,他倒優游從容。(「我的命你哭什麼?」你知道的他的話。)世間總總他說事緩則圓,一路提醒你:「怕死也是死,不怕也是死。」還有他的老詞兒:「天要下雨,娘要改嫁,由他去吧!」要不:「伸頭一刀縮頭一刀。」你質問隱形的導路者:「看到了嗎?你何方神聖看到了嗎?」這名凡人闖陰走陽,你倒是要問問鬼神怕不怕。(脾氣壞的人最簡單。)

這時候的窗面,節氣下降。傳說中孑然獨立旅者要拔營了。

流浪者上路。你們只被允許送行至太平間,他將在那裡停留一晚,過渡生死場。世俗的路已到盡頭。是的,非只你的家人死掉才算悲劇。陶淵明〈挽歌〉好巧的為你發了言──親戚或餘悲,他人亦已歌。(入夢者離開,無夢者,亦離開。他決定孤寂啟程,你是凡人,你忍不住想挽留,默聲哀求:人的記憶器官,視神經最後完成,也最先離開。即使不把孤獨當回事,城外親朋快趕來了,再等會兒吧,好帶他們的面孔上路啊!)

電梯由五樓下降,太平間到了。他將獨自留下,以平常交談語氣,你說:「愛獨處嘛!老小子,這下又讓你得逞了。」(張德模,我不能幫你關燈了:「你死了,他們說沒有自己的意志了。」太平間的燈火統一管制,這裡不熄燈打烊。)終於違背了先前的約定:「誰先死,活人要負責關燈。」(你們隔段日子曬書般陽光下攤開曬話。)一直以為我們會在自己睡慣的床上閉眼,你悵然想著:「原來並不是。」

沒有比太平間更安靜的地方了,(盲目遊戲終站,喀啦一聲,結束之聲嗎?你仍為他關了生命的燈。)你輕撫他死了也仍坦然的臉:「(你聽見了嗎?)我們走了。」(哎呀呀呀!再見了。《上帝也瘋狂》裡熱愛非洲原始生活人類學家,語言不通,山路下坡剎車失靈、獅子老虎犀牛後頭狂追,無奈、生氣、高興、信仰不同……一律:「哎呀呀呀!」)

哎呀呀呀!進了醫院,他的身體展現前所未有的敏感與強韌,(早幹嘛去了?)你幾乎以為神蹟降臨。(並沒忘記,他從不相信神蹟這勞什子。)最後衝刺,當著你面,將自己海拋,做他自己。(哪裡是拍電影拼鏡頭搶最後黃昏狼狗時光一定會在白日將盡。)你親睹傳說中的靈魂穿透身體,重量被瞬間丈量出來。神蹟。

(第七個月第一個深夜降臨。你們離開大樓,被釋放,卻沒有當人質的感覺。)芥川龍之介說,人生不如一行波特萊爾。(張德模說:「我要走了。」)以張德模為名,更短,人生不如一行張德模。

結束與開始同時發生,火水同源,黑夜與白晝並存的極地。你是拜火教徒,你開始有種共生的信仰:人生不如一行張德模。

是活成一篇小說好呢?還是虛構一篇小說好呢?(沉默計時已啟動,你將不在人前談論他。)

你握緊方向盤,直視前方,觀看到遠方黑幕播放序號錯亂的影片:瑰麗塘鱧,背鰭寬大對稱如協和飛機,尾鰭月形,頂流棲息礁石區洞穴上方。水裡是最好的無重力浮游場。是的,納入你們的人生,你很清楚,旅行時間,生病時間都是。(行旅地圖拋出過一次隱喻:之前一九九八年三月張德模罹患膀胱癌。反迷信,你們放棄了解讀的機會,落入現在這個迷思:一個人五年內因兩種癌症住進同一間病房的機率有多大?)

流浪車隊朝更遠黑夜駛去。(並行旅程。方舟裝滿食物和酒,勞倫斯〈死亡之船〉:你踏上最長的旅程,向下漫長地航向遺忘。)

(「走著走著,站起來就走。」你每次都被這話逗得大笑。他喜歡的相聲詞兒,還有:「走兩步,退三步,等於沒(發ㄇˋㄛ音)走。」以山東腔,廢話句,他喜歡就因為沒事兒:「幹嘛?要做正經事登陸月球去。」)

流浪者上路,去實踐他的流浪地圖,世世代代族群的聖經,你聽見了:「活著是怎麼樣的人,死後就是怎麼樣的鬼。」生即死。

並行旅程,倒數計時,流浪者元年啟動。(午時之聲擂響,這一天即將過去。)

新人生疊架舊人生,路軌上一座巨大攀岩,以後你回家,如迤邐之水流向張德模生命遺蹟。

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