‘These were / all the gold coins that he laid by in a life of poverty, / saved up in the vault of his mind’
The first installment in our “Fluid” portfolio takes on the liquid nature of memory, and how stories can become a flood that sweeps away the present, if only for a moment. These tales have a power all their own, and live on long after their telling—although without the right teller, they might lose their force.
To my grandfather
by Zhu Zhu
Translated by Dong Li
Old, old like a boat facedown on the shore,
for cargo it held echoes of stormy waves;
old like the oldest house on this street,
through the window flashed an impenetrable darkness.
Mostly he slumbered on a sprung wicker chair,
his snore ceaselessly pumping bellows in the kitchen,
now and then you would see him raise a heavy arm
to shoo a fly that clung to his nose tip.
When night fell, the kerosene lamp
was turned up bright, deep in its sooty glass top,
his aged frailty would drain away
like water smelling of rust from a whetstone—
Then he would start telling us stories.
His hoarse voice was like a flood tide of a river
that passed shoals of asthma and abandoned docks,
out of fogbound gorges into ancient battlefields.
Along the way staunch men gripped tight to plows,
whose eyes glared even in dreams, hearing the rising tide
as if hearing the bugle call, they immediately
threw themselves into another endless fight.
Each clash of swords and neigh of battle steeds
would stir roaring waves of dread in my mind,
and within a tent that leaned in the autumn wind,
a stream in a woman’s eyes, wet my cheek.
Stories older than himself,
those stories that he heard when very young
from the very old, and stories
brought back from faraway journeys, these were
all the gold coins that he laid by in a life of poverty,
saved up in the vault of his mind,
never misplaced, and every night
their jingling made a delightful sound.
Now he sleeps long under the earth,
like a radio with its waves
the black walnut box that holds his ashes
has vanished in the deep of the earth, and now
the stories are wrapped in stiff bindings
like specimens, neat and perfect, lined up on shelves;
at times I linger, blow or flick off settled dust,
and page through quietly, searching,
but I know all along, never again
will there be true stories and those who tell them,
night so long, empty like an unfathomable abyss, after the lights
go out, no more suspense rises in the heart, bright like a morning star.