“The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. We at TMR hope that you are all safe. Winner of the 2012 Editors’ Prize in fiction, “The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear” by Rachel Yoder delves into the insanity of generational patterns, and the difficult undertaking of trying not to repeat the past; it is also today’s selection.
The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear
By Rachel Yoder
Eliot had wanted to hike in deep, but the trails were all closed that day and clouds were blowing in fast from the west, whole countries of weather that slid over Whitefish and roiled there in the sky. Even the mountains felt small.
He was hungry. It had been weeks of beef jerky and trail mix from the panniers on his bicycle. His legs had stretched out taut and ropy from the miles of pedaling through the Montana mountains, and then the early spring prairies filled with pink flowers, past a river jammed with logs, on that stretch of road where it seemed as though his bike would nose up from the pavement and fly him over the meadows and mountains and, further south, to the red soil of the canyon lands. He carried with him a pinecone big as his foot and a smooth white rock he’d pried from the mud at the edge of a clear lake. He carried with him the space of big sky country. He had taken it into his body. But come Whitefish, come the national park signs and printed regulations and asphalt, come the Ponderosas spiking up into the expanse of blue, he had, against his will, shrunk back down to the size of a common man. By the time he reached Osha on the porch of the visitors’ center, he fit perfectly inside a familiar idea of himself.
“Can’t believe you didn’t read about it, hear someone talking, something,” Osha had said as they stood there on the porch of the visitors’ center looking out over the near-deserted parking lot. “Took the hand of one hiker and the thigh muscle of another. Protecting its cubs, they think. They got it today but still have to confirm it’s the right one. A team is coming over from the university in Bozeman for the dissection.”
“Can I see it?” Eliot asked. Osha laughed a little. He squinted at the sky.
“Yeah, but we should go now. Before they get here,” he said. They walked around the building and then down the back stairs to a service road that cut through the trees and further back into the woods.
Eliot hadn’t seen Osha in ten years, not since college. He’d only heard updates from time to time, Scandinavia at a Norse shipbuilding school. Traveling with sherpas to the Tibetan interior. A month-long hike through the Chilean rainforest for a single day with some neural science guru. He ran the ecopsychology program now at the park, dressed in cleanly pressed government-issue beige-on-green.
“Never thought I’d see you in a uniform,” Eliot said.
“Right?” Osha said, laughing and touching the metal on his chest. “I get a badge.”
Eliot tried to run his hand through his hair, which had clumped in dark, greasy hanks. Stubble sanded his neck and sunken cheeks, and it was almost as if he could feel his skin wrapping around the contours of his ribs and the ropes of sinew running through his legs. As if he’d been shrink-wrapped. As if all the air was being sucked from him by an invisible machine. He could smell himself. He knew there was an insanity to the way he appeared. His thoughts that day had been of blood and damage.
“So you started in Idaho, man?” Osha asked. “How long have you been riding? And why? I mean, just for fun?”
Eliot made a laughing sound. They walked in silence, watching the long legs of light stretch between the boughs.
Before the bike trip, he’d been on vacation with Becca. Idaho, at his dad’s cabin. A last go of things. One more honest attempt. Canoeing and long afternoon walks, lovemaking in and out of sleep, late breakfasts with small white cups of strong coffee and runny eggs. But it hadn’t worked, hadn’t even been meant to work if Eliot was being honest with himself. More like leave things on a high note. More like Eliot had been hopeful, but he just couldn’t anymore.
She had gotten on a plane back to Arizona, silent as he hugged her in the airport. She wouldn’t look at him and turned, stripping herself of her belongings, sliding her belt out of the loops with one hard pull. Her long hair swung blackly as she walked away.
He rode over a hundred miles that day and then stepped off his bike to feel his knees bend, muscles voided of strength. There was a soft give to the earth as he landed and stayed that way for some time, unable to rise.
“I’ve been planning it for a while, but then Becca and I broke up, and I extended it,” Eliot said. He rubbed his palms over his eyes and felt the grease on his face. Osha leaned back and turned his face to the sky, letting out a ribbon of breath.
“What was it, ten years?”
Osha nodded. They walked in silence. The day was sunny but held an undertone of coldness left over from the long winter. “I don’t know where I’m going. I just know I’m headed south. Is that crazy?”
“Sure,” Eliot said. The sounds of birds rang like bells far above them, and in the darkness beneath the trees, the way the clean light sliced and flickered in blinding lines held the feeling of water, of a cold church.
Osha unlocked the door and swung it wide for Eliot as he entered.
Eliot had ridden all the way out to the park because he wanted high, thin air, to hike up to the edge of a cliff and then have one of those moments where you find yourself stunned by what’s spreading out for miles and miles all around. An unplanned moment. Proof of grace. He had needed to feel the acid burning in his muscles and to walk beyond it, to keep going until all that mattered was breath and a rhythmic thud, until his thoughts became soft and muted, summer clouds suspended far out at the horizon.
What he got, though, was a musty little outbuilding, fluorescent lights, a metal table pulled in from the staff kitchen, the pungent smell of hair and oil and something more, something sweet and rotten. A blue tarp barely covered the body.
Its hind paw slipped from beneath the tarp, and Eliot paused. The pads were calloused and dirty and black like worn shoes. Its claws had the look of something prehistoric, something made more of rock and ore than of flesh and blood. This was a creature forged from the remains of other animals, from beaks and teeth and hides. It could not have not been born.
“So in Scandinavian folklore, they think people can turn into bears,” Osha said, standing at the head of the covered pile, motioning to Eliot. He raised the tarp to show him the bear’s face. “They used to have these ceremonies after a bear was killed where the fur was treated with herbs and oils and then given to warriors. It was supposed to make them able to chew through shields, stuff like that. That’s all I can think about when I see something like this. Such a shame.”
Eliot turned to the body as if in a dream. Its head rested on a pile of dirty towels seeping gore, the fading edges of which formed a pink corona around the animal’s skull. A clean hole broke through the head just beneath the ear in layers of dark fur and bright bone and, further in, shades of red and gray and beige. The fur covered it, shiny and thick and soft like a toy. The bear looked nothing like the idea of a bear.
“Could you imagine if this were a person?” Osha said. “Imagine.”
Eliot nodded. The claws. They could go straight in your arm and out the other side.
“It doesn’t really seem . . .” Here Eliot paused. Could a mountain die? Could gold? “It doesn’t really seem dead, in a way.”
Osha looked at him, then took the tarp in silence and raised it higher to reveal the trunk of the animal.
“They’ll cut into it and try to find the remains,” Osha said. “But the body has to be under lock and key, you know, since there’s such a demand for black market gall bladders. Like any of us would do such a thing.”
Black teats peeked through the fur. Eliot took a step back.
“What about the cubs?” he asked. Osha winced.
“They’ll fend for themselves as best they can, I suppose. Worst case scenario a male finds them and eats them. But that’s worst case.”
“Jesus,” Eliot said, staring at the animal’s coat, which shone almost red in the downing sun. The luxury of its colors and furs and snout and tongue all descended on Eliot at once, and quite suddenly it was as if the queen herself had been laid out here before him in her heavy pomp. It was the end of everything. The kingdom was set to storm, or at the very least turn dark and strange.
This. All this. And somewhere in Arizona, Becca was bleeding on a couch. “Pregnant,” she had said in the message that morning as he held the grimy pay-phone receiver away from his face. He listened to their old answering machine play her voice with all the resonant emptiness of a woman calling from the bottom of a dark well. “Abortion” reverberated toward him, the sound waves almost visible. “Two pills and then it’s done. Come now. I’m fucking serious.”
Osha insisted he stay the night, but Eliot wouldn’t.
“Beer,” he said to Osha, who nodded.
“But before you go . . .” He motioned to the cluster of cabins set back in the woods as he locked the shed door. “I actually can’t believe I still have it, this letter I wrote you when I was in India. I didn’t have a mailing address—I think you had just moved or were going to, something. It’s a good letter, man.”
Of course he had an old letter. Osha of the late-night stories and wrinkled letters from around the world. Eliot waited outside as he rustled around in his cabin. Early season birds called to each other. Through the trees, the cabin with the bear pulsed with a sickening gravity.
Osha emerged with an envelope in hand, striped blue and red around the edges.
“This,” he said, holding it up in the air with one hand. “I’ve been carrying it for, what, six years? Not until this very moment was it supposed to reach you. That’s how things work.”
Eliot took the letter and grabbed his hand, pulling Osha to him and slapping his back.
“You are a goddamn hippie,” he said. They laughed, and Eliot thanked him, thanked him for showing him the bear and thanks but he needed to go, he needed to be gone, and he went as quickly as his legs could manage, back to his bike and then pedaling on the hard asphalt, away from the park and the bear and out into the cold, clear air where he could finally breathe again. He had been holding his breath for what seemed a very long time so as not to awaken whatever it was that was sleeping, and now he breathed and pumped and breathed and breathed and breathed.
He was overcome by his hunger. Even though he couldn’t afford it, he wanted a steak, purple rare, with cheap beer he could buy by the can. Back in Whitefish, he wound up at the Moosehead, where a jukebox played songs about sangria and perfection over and over again as he folded himself into a booth.
He ordered from a burnt blonde with a long braid down her back.
“Rare,” he said.
A few minutes later she put a beer down in front of him.
“First one’s free,” she said without smiling, then turned and, as she walked away, moved her ass in a manner so as to suggest she knew he was watching.
He sat and he drank. Two dusty cowboys murmured at the bar as a young, freshly-washed couple in expensive belts and ugly ergonomic shoes politely examined photos on the walls, then the cowboys and the longhorn skull behind the bar. They sat with their hands clasped in front of them on the table and held themselves in deliberate postures.
Somehow all this—the day and Becca and those clean, happy people—he blamed on his father. Actually, it wasn’t the day exactly that he blamed on him, but what he would do next, go to Arizona and be with Becca, even though the bike trip and the distance had all been to finally get away from her, make the break, end the hulking thing that had been their relationship, a thing they had both counted on as being forever but which had finally turned heavy and dark.
He wasn’t like his father. His father had left his mother with five kids and a teetering house at the ocean’s edge in the cold and the wet of Washington state winter. His father was a cliché, off with the legal secretary to leave Eliot, the youngest child, the only one to listen as his mother rambled to herself behind her bedroom door night after night. All the others were off at college or married. Eliot had been the mistake and remained the mistake, the awkward giraffe of a boy who watched silently as his mother folded and unfolded cloth napkins at the kitchen table for hours.
“Mom,” he would try.
“I had no idea I’d be this busy,” she would say.
He switched to whiskey. The steak tasted of blood and he ate.
Some places, people could really respect a piss shit of a mood on a man. Some places, a man could actually feel like a man instead of the memory of one, where the meat was cooked right, which was nearly not at all, and beer was cold and shitty and canned and you could open a door and walk outside and everything spread away from you like a beautiful goddamn kingdom.
When he was done, he pulled the crumpled letter from his pocket with a wave of nostalgia and warmth and brotherly love. He should have stayed at the park with Osha, should have stayed with him and shot the shit, played cards, listened to his stories about bear men. The light of the bar had turned golden, and the blonde moved silently among the tables, bending across the wide planks of wood to move a cloth slowly against the grain, her long braid rubbing against her back and falling over her shoulder in a choreography that made something deep in Eliot move and stretch.
Trails of blood pooled in the ring of his plate, swirling with grease. His focus sharpened and blurred, sharpened and blurred, until the blonde was there and smiling, can I take your plate? He wanted more whiskey, and she brought him one along with a tall glass of cold water. He looked down, and the letter was still in his hand.
Osha’s longhand was elegant and faded, and Eliot blinked and then blinked again to focus on it. Eliot, he wrote. I have to tell you what just happened.
He said he was in India, on his way home after a year studying at a monastery. He had been on retreat, translating Sanskrit texts. He’d lost his confidence in the modern world, in the idea of personal agency, in technology, in free will and family. I don’t even know how to think about love, he wrote. But the translating hadn’t really worked. He was still miserable, way out in the western hills of India. Cosmic darkness he scrawled at the bottom of the first page.
Over the mountain in the next valley, there was this tribe of wild monks and they were, you know, dirty and naked and had these unbelievable dreads. I never actually saw the monks, but I heard enough about them. They were devoted to overcoming disgust. That was their pursuit, to not be disgusted by anything, and they spent their whole lives doing this. The main way they practiced was by eating human flesh. Acolytes would walk for hundreds of miles to get there and be sacrificed. I saw a few of these guys walking past the monastery on the road that ran over the mountain.
So I’ve been silent for three months and watching these guys walking to get sacrificed and trying to dig out from this feeling of being buried, and then I come to Delhi for a week before going home (tomorrow), and in the market tonight, with all these smells and the lights. How can I explain? There was no comfort there. And I’m walking back to this shitty room I’ve rented on a narrow, dark street—I’m sure I’m going to get killed—and I just happen to look down through a bright basement window. Inside there’s a woman who’s naked and bathing. She was washing her hair, I think, with her back turned to the window. I stopped and stared at her, because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a year, in my whole life. She brought me back. This just happened moments ago.
He lowered the letter to the table with an unsteady hand.
He’d caught a fish. It was in Idaho. A silver flash of scale and sunlight breaking through a cold stream. But it wasn’t the fish. It was air becoming water then movement then scales then light. Alchemy, he had thought. And now he knew there was not some sort of separation, that estrangement was not essential. He could nearly touch this thought, so palpable and plain. He would never be able to explain it to anyone else.
He wondered if he was too drunk. He decided that he simply couldn’t be. Everything was at it was, as it should be. And the blonde. He was certain she wanted to fuck him.
She watched him from behind the bar, drying pint glasses with a dirty towel.
“All good?” she asked, approaching the table to take his plate. “Another drink?”
“What are you doing tonight?” he said.
“Oh, you know.” She glanced at the front door.
“I’m on a bike trip,” he said. “A long one.”
“Sounds fun,” she said.
“My body is eating itself,” Eliot said, clutching his hands to his chest. He meant this as a joke or banter, as lightness. “I can feel it eating everything away.”
She shifted her weight to one hip and pointed again to his empty glass.
“You know, my friend, he used to live in India, and one night he saw this beautiful naked woman through a window, and it restored him. I mean it was this miraculous experience. She was so beautiful.” He held the letter out to her.
She tipped her head to one side. “You’re saying your friend was leering at some naked chick through a window?”
“Well, yeah,” he said, drawing the paper back to himself. “I mean, no.”
She tilted her head back. She laughed.
“You don’t get it,” he said.
“Dave,” she said, turning to the bartender, and it was over then.
Outside, he stared at the pay phone across the street with the wavering concentration of profound drunkenness. Chin tucked, breathing through his mouth, he swayed like a white aspen in a high wind. He could hear his mother. Not his fault—no one’s fault really—but definitely his responsibility. She had always been his responsibility.
And then he was on his bike. The air was cold and awoke in him another person. He tried to think but soon forgot the question. Soon, all that mattered was speed and darkness. He pedaled blankly. At some point he became chilled and began shivering. He had to piss, so he did. It coursed hotly down his white legs.
It was late and the moon was nearly full when he stopped by a sloping tallgrass meadow. He bent in the ditch and vomited.
“Fuck,” he said, running a hand through his oily hair.
The ride had not done him well, especially the last sobering leg of it, as Becca edged her way back into his mind, their final year together living in an Arizona hotel her father owned, an Old West place that perched on the very top of a mountain in a tiny, defunct mining town-turned-tourist trap. One narrow road wound through the galleries and knickknack shops and biker bars crowded on the narrow, tilted skid of rock. Eliot had thought this would work. Becca could make her jewelry to sell to tourists and work part-time at the one diner in town, a precarious place built on a wedge of land.
It had started off fine, with Eliot driving down the steep switchbacks each day to any number of odd jobs, temporary construction or lawn care, whatever he could find, Becca making shimmering necklaces and coming home with a pocket full of tips. But soon enough, she couldn’t leave the hotel without him.
“This is the kind of town you can fall off of,” she had said, ripping at her nails and cuticles, her face wet from crying.
“Stop,” he had said, putting his hands on hers to calm them. “Just stop.”
The steep stairs, the supposedly haunted houses propped on the side of the mountain, the road that threatened long, arcing descents at every turn. It would be so easy to just keep your foot on the gas and launch, a slowly turning body against a wide swath of blue. She was in bed when he left in the morning, and she was in bed when he returned in the afternoon. The velvet curtains stayed drawn. She became the very idea of weight, a statue of a woman, something too heavy to live in such a high place.
“You need to imagine you’re a cloud,” he would tell her, stroking her head as she leaned into him. “A bird.”
He was responsible. For the good days, the bad, and she did not disabuse him of this thought that yes, he was responsible, for everything, always. “Eliot, I mean it,” she would say, pleading with him from bed, her hair mussed and T-shirt falling from one shoulder. Pleading don’t go and stay and I’ll make you breakfast, then jumping from bed and pulling eggs from the mini fridge, turning the dial on the hot plate. Just stay with me and stay and stay. . . .
It all came back to him with a moment of thought, a moment of lapsed discipline, and then he could feel the pall of it enshroud him. He loved her.
The light from the moon cut deep shadows in the ground around him. He pitched his small tent there in the grasses and, inside, sipped water from a bottle that smelled of citrus. He had no strength.
On the ground he turned and turned and fought his way into a restless, half-drunk sleep. In the twilight between the night outside himself and the night within, a picture materialized of a pale acolyte, barefoot, walking a dusty road through green hills that rolled and extended inside a lushness that made him want to cry out. He understood the desire, pulsing and horrible, a near-sexual urge to be consumed for the sake of something outside yourself, for this wisp of color and light. Against the darkness of half sleep, the wisp moved like breath.
When he finally fell away, he dreamed he was riding his bike back and forth between two distant dark canyons. He kept leaving behind his food, and he’d have to turn around to go get it only to realize it was ahead of him, so he’d turn back around and try again. All the while he felt his body shrinking and worried he would become desiccated before he ever found something to eat. He pedaled harder, but the shrinking only sped up. And then his mother was serving him oatmeal with no taste in a chipped bowl, and he was back in the cliff-top house in Washington, and she told him about the placenta that came out after him. It looked like a tree, she said. It was thick and deep red, laced through with veins. She held both her hands up in front of his face with her fingers spread: a tree, Eliot. A beautiful tree.
He awoke cold, in the deepest part of the night. He watched his breath billow in the full moon light filtering through the thin tent, trying to will the urge away. His head was thick and eyes smeared with the dregs of drink. He felt his way to the tent opening, crawled out with his eyes closed, a hard thunder of pain swelling in his head. He stood and pressed his palms to his temples. Gently, he opened his eyes, then froze with the ice of adrenaline.
There, so close he could see its filmy breath, an elk, steaming in the moonlight, its black eyes reflecting lakes of mirrored ice. It stood even stiller than the night around it. A calf moved between its legs, bucking its head against the underbelly.
In the meadow behind it, an entire herd, lit with the light of the full moon in a tableau otherworldly and terrifying, so beautiful for its strangeness he wondered if it was possible this was some hallucination: a message or a sign. The hundred elk had been feeding, all of them now perfectly still in the sloping meadow. A massive bull stood at the edge of the herd, its rack spread above its head like giant hands. His skin rippled, and the muscles between his front legs tensed.
But it was the mother that made the wave of cold roll through Eliot. Beads of sweat bloomed on his forehead and lip. He’d heard stories of springtime mothers charging and trampling men trying to take photographs, brash men who had edged too close without understanding the danger.
He did not move, nor did the mother. The calf suckled beneath it, nosing its face into the musky warmth there, then turning to look at him. He could see the foggy breath of the beast moving around its nostrils, could see the contained chaos in its eyes, its head turned just so, ready to run at him, or away.
But it wasn’t the mother. It was the bull. The animal took off in a moment so swift and wild it was as if the entire world around Eliot was pulled up by the roots and launched into the sky. The herd lumbered away from him, the sound of them hitting deep inside his chest. They disappeared into the pale trees, the beat of their canter growing soft, until Eliot was alone again in the meadow, shivering, cold with sweat.
Eliot awoke with one thought that started softly as he sat up and remembered the elk, then grew rapidly, like cells multiplying in the air. A flight to Arizona would more than max out his credit card. He had no money for an abortion. He had already borrowed money from everyone else, owed more than he’d ever be able to repay. Christ. He was going to have to call his dad.
He unzipped the tent and stretched his legs in the grasses of cold dew. His head balanced heavily on his body, and the coldness of the morning stung his eyes. A train would be cheaper. Slower, but cheaper. And maybe deliberateness was what he needed. A purposeful movement with a sense of an ultimate direction. He would need to call Becca, pack up his bike, get a ticket, figure out the train schedules, find the goddamn depot itself. He had a sense of the right direction, so that’s where he went.
Smokestacks rose in the distance against a pink early morning sky painted with still, white clouds masquerading as mountains, what looked like a faraway range brought into being as if by a giant, long-felt yearning. A chill breath of vertigo swung through him: this false range of mountains, a sense of distant protection that, all at once, became nothing more than a beautiful illusion. He pedaled toward it, toward Becca and the blood.
As he pedaled, though, his thoughts turned not to Becca but again to his father, a father who had not wanted to be with Eliot’s mother, and still he’d stayed. She’d gotten pregnant and then they had Eliot and his father stayed, for thirteen unlucky years he stayed. Eliot closed his eyes and felt the wind. You have to imagine you’re a bird. He pedaled and breathed and thought and couldn’t place what it was, the feeling he had, something about his father. It kept rushing away from him.
Rachel Yoder grew up in a Mennonite community in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio. She now lives in Iowa City with her husband and son and is a senior agent at The Tuesday Agency. Rachel earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. She currently serves as the Literary Programming Director for Mission Creek Festival as well as a board member for the UNESCO City of Literature. She is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process, which features first and final drafts of stories, poems, and essays, along with author interviews about the creative process. Her work has been awarded with The Editors’ Prize in Fiction by The Missouri Review and with notable distinctions in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Rachel’s short story “On Innocence” was a runner-up for The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award.
“West Lake” by Sara Schaff
BLAST, TMR’s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In “West Lake,” Sara Schaff’s protagonist meditates on uncertainty, female capability, and finding community as a stranger in a foreign land.
by Sara Schaff
When I was nine months pregnant with Lili, I took the train to Hangzhou to punish my husband. I put myself up in the Sofitel, with the intention of living under soft sheets before I became a single mother. When I stepped into my clean and shining room, I felt a little flash of shame about my privilege, which had allowed me this sudden retreat from my life as I knew it.
And yet I was not ashamed enough to avoid room service the next morning. The young woman who brought me my tray of Western breakfast regarded me with frank surprise and, eyes on my belly, asked me where my husband was. “Beijing,” I replied, unfazed. “Working.” Which was true enough, but still I searched her round face for signs she understood the subtext. She only nodded and left me to my eggs and toast.
I spent the next two hours in bed, eating tiny bites of food and going over the tormented expression my husband had worn three days earlier when he told me he was in love with a Belgian woman, someone he had met on his frequent business trips to London. I did not know what she looked like or anything about her. When I asked for details, he refused to tell me, saying it wouldn’t make me feel any better. This only enraged me more. The fact that I could not even picture her in his arms made the betrayal feel worse, I told him, because in this way he had deprived me of even the pleasurable misery of hating her face.
At some point as I lay in my king-sized bed, tray of food to the side since it wouldn’t fit over my stomach, Lili began kicking so hard I almost thought I was going into labor. I knew the only way to soothe her was to move, so I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around the lake.
Xihu, which I had first walked around with my English husband before he was my husband. Willow trees and temples reflected in the lake’s glassy surface. The day was hot but bearable. Tourists and locals strolled with small dogs and children. People were friendly and greeted me with smiles and the occasional cheer. I was very large then, but of the opinion that I walked gracefully. Though emotionally I felt weak and depleted, I had never felt physically stronger, and I wore good shoes—running shoes, though I no longer ran—and didn’t care that they looked odd with the black cotton dress I’d packed for the trip.
In spite of all the calculations I kept making and remaking (how long before the pregnancy had the affair started, the extent of my stupidity, etc.) as I walked around the lake, I experienced real moments of joy. It was easy to see why Xihu had inspired generations of poets. Something about the water and the rhythm of my walk made me especially aware of the syllables surrounding me, the tones of my adopted language that I had once found so difficult but now thought very beautiful.
On that first afternoon in Hangzhou, a family from Shandong province approached me and asked to have their picture taken next to me, the lake as shimmering backdrop. Once I had written home self-indulgent letters about my loss of anonymity in China and my discomfort at being found remarkable. The “New Colonialism” was what my husband and I called it—the way white people in China were made to feel special for doing exactly nothing more than walking around.
And now here I was, doing exactly nothing aside from walking around while pregnant and white. Yet this family’s brief encircling of me almost made me cry from relief. They each in turn told me I was beautiful and fat, laughed at my Beijing accent, and corrected my pronunciation of their village when I said it.
Because of their kindness and the beauty of the lake, I had my first glimpse of a manageable future without my husband. I believed that I would be fine and that my daughter, destined to be born in Hangzhou, would also be fine. At the very least, her Mandarin would be better than mine, and someday she could make fun of me for that.
I realized it sounded a little unhinged, coming all this way to deliver my child, but I never doubted the decision. I’d been happy in Hangzhou before, with my husband, who had taken me here to convince me to marry him and move to China many years earlier. Now I wasn’t sure whether it was the place or he that had worked some magic on me. There was a strange kind of logic to delivering our child here without him.
Mostly, though, I didn’t want him to see his daughter’s face the moment she was born. I certainly didn’t want him to see me, at my most naked and animal, while probably fantasizing about his Belgian lover’s perfect body and perfect comportment, unblemished by either pregnancy or betrayal. Without informing anyone but Xu Yan, my closest friend in Beijing, I had already made arrangements at a hospital here, one that served the expat community in the region. Xu Yan had recommended the facility because of its accomplished staff of midwives from both China and Australia. She knew I’d always found the Australian accent amusing. At that point, I felt entitled to be amused.
For those days I waited for my daughter to be born, I spent all my afternoons walking around the lake. After each turn, I stopped in at a café called Starfish, with a green and white logo that would get any coffee shop back home into serious legal trouble. The coffee was terrible there; it tasted like sweat, but I liked the steaming pots of tea and the tables right next to the water. I always had a book tucked into my small purse, though I never read much of it. Instead, I stared out at the glassy surface and watched the little paddleboats gliding across it.
The evening Lili was born, I felt winded and had to sit a long while so I could catch my breath. By this time of day, the crowds were thinning. As I waited for my tea, I put my hand on my stomach and felt Lili rolling around. Through my skin, I rubbed what I thought was her sharp little ankle.
I wondered what my husband was doing, aside from going mad trying to figure out where I’d gone. How earnest and aphoristic he had sounded the last time we were here together—China is the land of opportunity now. I want to make a life there with you! It’s hard to spot the suspicious clichés when you desperately want to get back to the hotel and take off your clothes.
Now the sun was setting behind the distant hills. Something stirred in my peripheral vision. Potted juniper bushes lined this section of the promenade, and in one of them a rolled-up newspaper stuck out out of the soil. It was the newspaper that had stirred, and it did so again, this time a quick and insistent jerk.
That’s when I saw a man hunched between that pot and another, his legs dangling over the edge of the stone walkway. He was slight; his feet didn’t touch the water, which was high that summer. When he turned his face from the lake, blowing the smoke from his cigarette in a slow exhale, I saw that his skin was lined and dark. Dressed in a dusty suit jacket over black pants, the hems frayed, he sang quietly to himself and tapped his cigarette-free fingers against a bag of woven plastic. The seams of the bag were stretched to capacity. I wondered about the contents, where they’d been packed, how far they had traveled to arrive at this corner of Xihu. The man nodded his head to the rhythm of his quiet song, and as the sun disappeared, he became a silhouette against the lighter water.
The newspaper flopped again, and the man turned to it, mumbling. Dropping his cigarette into the lake, he stood up, then picked up his bag and the paper, which I understood now was a fish, recently caught. He saw me staring and nodded, then stuck the fish into the pocket of his baggy pants and walked away.
Though I resented my husband for his desertion, I was actually content to be alone. I had been an only child, and though sometimes a lonely one because of it, I had become accustomed to hours of silence, or hours filled only with the sounds I made: reading aloud to my dolls, inventing songs, snapping twigs in the forest to build myself a log cabin. It had been easy enough to become the wife of a rich man who was often traveling. I kept myself busy with painting our apartment, inventing new meals to make from the produce at the local covered market, and going to yoga class, where I met Xu Yan the year I moved to Beijing with my husband.
At first, Xu Yan and I joked about our status as tai-tais, wives to wealthy husbands, and we played the parts nicely, with our manicured nails and beautifully tailored clothing and trips to the salon to get our hair darkened or lightened or blown out.
But the truth was, Xu Yan was not a real tai-tai at all. Her husband was a professor at the prestigious Bei Da, and though doing well, he certainly wasn’t as rich as the Western and Chinese financiers in the capital. Besides, it was actually Xu Yan who was the success story in her family, when it came to providing a certain kind of lifestyle. After her son started school, she had worked quietly on her own business, making intricate, looped pearl necklaces and exporting them to North America and gaining such acclaim for her designs that I rarely saw her anymore. Her work had been profiled in what I thought of as our local paper, the China Daily, but also in international fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle.
We still met for coffee and sometimes our weekly yoga class, but Xu Yan was usually in New York or Paris or Toronto, wooing clients and attending fashion shows and getting new ideas for her latest collections.
Before I became pregnant, I confessed to Xu Yan my fear that my husband might be sleeping with someone. I did not say I thought it was probably one of the Chinese women who worked as his assistants. Such affairs were not uncommon in my husband’s office, or in our circle of friends. One of my husband’s colleagues actually called it an “occupational hazard”—leaving one’s Western wife for a younger Chinese woman. He did not seem to see the implicit racism or sexism in coining such a phrase, something my husband pointed out in a taxi ride home from that colleague’s apartment one summer night, our first summer in the city. Another aspect of New Colonialism, we decided. And I think we felt both comforted and superior for recognizing bad behavior in our fellow foreigners.
I thought I was aware of my own blind spots. My Mandarin was passable, but I was basically illiterate. And aside from Xu Yan, I had no real Chinese friends. No real foreign ones, either. Most expats annoyed me. I told Xu Yan it was because I couldn’t stand the flock mentality. In reality, the foreign women who annoyed me the most were the ones who reminded me of myself: privileged sidekicks to their CEO husbands, mildly bored with their free time, quick to complain about the air quality any chance they got.
After I told Xu Yan my fear about my husband’s affair, she had pressed a packet of herbs into my hand and told me to make a tea of them every night before bed.
“Then what?” I said. “I magically wake up, and my husband’s not cheating on me?”
“Don’t be a fool.” She didn’t smile. “You’ll just sleep better.”
“Then you’ll have the energy to go out and get a job.”
I did sleep better. I did get a job—as a guidance counselor at a small international school on the outskirts of the city. I liked it, except for having to sit in traffic to get there and back. A few months into the job, I got pregnant. When I told Xu Yan, she lit up. “Wonderful!” Still smiling, she added, “Don’t quit your job.”
In the movies, when your water breaks, it’s this dramatic, definitive moment—like Niagara Falls between your legs. But for me, it was just a gradual dampness, and though I thought it might be getting close to time now, I did not hurry.
Now that the sun had disappeared, Xihu looked dark and mysterious—except for the glimmers of purple and green from the light show just north of me. The show began every afternoon as the sun began its descent: electronically controlled fountains close to shore would expel in time to elevator versions of Moonlight Sonata and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
In Beijing, I had a good doctor, a man from Shanghai who had trained in the United States at SUNY–Buffalo. He had posters of the Bills in his office, and I teased him about their losing streak, but he didn’t mind because neither of us actually cared about American football. He had delivered Xu Yan’s son, who was now thirteen, and I think she half-recommended him because he looked like Cui Jian, the Chinese rock star Xu Yan had adored as a teenager.
He advised me that when my water broke, I need not panic and rush to the hospital. I would probably be more comfortable at home, walking around the hutongs of my neighborhood. And so, in my temporary home in Hangzhou, I took one more slow walk around the lake, clockwise, the way the pilgrims perambulate around the monasteries in Tibet. Though I am not religious, the light show and music and the dark around the lake satisfied in me a need for prayer.
I felt relieved that I was on my way to a flock of women to see my child born into the world. Initially, my husband’s betrayal had felt like a betrayal by all men. Yet it was my doctor’s words in my head as I walked to my hotel, packed up my belongings into my small suitcase, and carried it down to the lobby. When she’s ready, she’ll let you know. When she’s ready, you will be, too. My doctor’s words, but Xu Yan’s voice.
In a matter of hours, I would be holding my child in my hospital room. By then, it would not feel like revenge but an opportunity. My husband, probably huddled with his lover in our chilly aristocratic apartment, had never turned down an opportunity. The life that came after this was hard to imagine, but it didn’t matter if I could imagine it or not; the next moment would come, and the one after it. I would call my husband eventually, and he would be angry. Let him be angry, it was the least he could do.
“West Lake” is from Sara’s second book, The Invention of Love, forthcoming in June 2020 from Split Lip Press. Her first collection, Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books), was a 2017 CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in Fiction. She’s an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. Read more of her work at saraschaff.com.