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Excerpt

“Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)”

Jane Pek

April 9, 2021 
The following is a short story from Conjunctions: 75, Dispatches from Solitude. Jane Pek was born and raised in Singapore. She now lives in New York, where she works as a lawyer at an investment company. Her short fiction has appeared in Brooklyn Review, Witness, Conjunctions, and The Best American Short Stories. Her debut novel, The Verifiers, is forthcoming from Vintage/Knopf in spring 2022.

I.

A few hours ago your last descendant died. She held only a whisper of your essence—or, as one would say in this scientifically rigorous present, only a minuscule percentage of her genetic material was derived from yours—but, of them all, she was the one who reminded me most of you.

She was a documentary filmmaker, the third generation of your descendants to be born and raised in America. Her work examined ways in which the technologies of her era shaped people’s lives. In her twenties and thirties she lived in China, where she made a series of films about the state’s electronic surveillance system, the tools used by the government to monitor its population, the balance to be struck between security and personal freedom. Her documentaries were as fair as they could be, in my view, taking into account the inherent biases of her Western upbringing and education. The Chinese government, which after all this time remains deficient at accepting criticism, disagreed. After they revoked her visa she returned to America and settled in San Francisco.

You would have enjoyed San Francisco, I think. Its pastel hues and precipitous slopes, its anarchic spirit, the lapping glitter of water all around.

I befriended her later in her life, when it became clear she would have no children. I presented myself as an admirer of her work and a student of Chinese history; also, an immigrant from Hangzhou, where I knew her own family was originally from. We grew close. I made myself indispensable to her. At the end of her life, I was in the hospital room when the lines jagging up and down across the screen of the vital-signs monitor subsided. Humans have developed the custom of measuring the distance a person stands from the border between the living and the dead. They watch each step their loved ones take toward that one-way crossing, count down every last breath.

*

I suggested to your descendant once that the technologies highlighted in her films were really no different from what people living during the Ming dynasty or any other historical period of China would have called magic. Then, they had been watched by ghosts and demons and deities, their sins recorded, their actions influenced; now it was the turn of facial-recognition software, online-history tracking apps, predictive algorithms. She smiled and said that I was in the company of brilliant minds: a famous writer and futurist had proposed a similar idea many years ago.

I didn’t tell her that I’d met this writer on a beach in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, even more years ago, or that he and I had struck up a conversation while sipping lukewarm beers and waiting for the waves to settle. At one point he was describing his vision of the future to me, space elevators and communication satellites and personal devices that contained near-infinite reserves of information, and I said all that sounded much the same as the way things had always been, Chang-er floating to the moon, texts charmed to display whatever knowledge the reader sought, an enduring invisible world overlaid upon the physical one.

“Magic, you mean?” he said.

“That’s one word for it,” I said.

Mostly we had talked about what we were both there for, which was to go diving. He asked why I had chosen this relatively obscure beach. I told him I had heard that the remnants of a medieval Hindu temple lay submerged in the vicinity (the work of Portuguese colonial forces, which, after looting the complex and killing its priests and pilgrims, had gone above and beyond to lever it over the cliff edge into the bay). Later, when the sea had calmed, I swam between broken columns and poised bronze goddesses, over inscriptions of faith splintered across the rocks. Now and then I still search for such relics, even if I don’t bother documenting them. Nostalgia, I suppose. In the green silence of the water I could sense the shimmer of the eternal. I hoped that when the writer found these ruins—I might as well have drawn him a map, with all the hints I provided—he would as well.

*

II.

The night before your wedding, the last night I would have with you, I surrendered my pride on the altar of desperation and asked you why in all eighteen hells you were doing this.

“I want to have a child,” you said.

“Wait,” I said, “seriously? Since when?”

“Since Xiangyang, maybe,” you said. “It’s hard to tell, these things.”

Back then we didn’t think in terms of time. Our references were geography and action, places we had been, things we had done. In Xiangyang we had talked a jilted, impoverished artist out of jumping into the Hanshui River, and spun a pretext to give him a hundred taels of silver: we would ask him to paint our portrait. We wore our best dresses for it, you in white and I in green, tinted our cheeks and lips, put pins in our hair. We never collected the painting from him. We prided ourselves on traveling light, and, anyway, we saw no use for it, a record of things that would never change.

Xiangyang was several Ming emperors past, a hundred stops ago in our travels through China. We looked for enchanted artifacts, analyzed and cataloged them, sought to understand the wondrous within the human realm. Until we stopped in at West Lake to follow up on rumors of a jade bracelet that could heal its wearer (a fake, it turned out) and you met the man you decided would do for a husband, I had never considered that we might not live like this always. For a moment I thought that I must not know you at all.

You had been hoping it would pass, you said, like a thunderstorm, or an inept dynasty. “Also, children frighten me. They need so much, and they are so easy to lose.”

I placed my palm on your stomach, between the twin ridges of your hips. “All right,” I said. “A child.” I imagined your belly swelling the way those of human women did, the creature that would tear its way out. Yours; and not yours. “You don’t have to marry him for that.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to him. Or to the child.”

“What about to me?” This was why I hadn’t wanted to ask. I’d known I would succumb to self-pity, and that it would make no difference.

You told me you had calculated the fate of the man who would be your husband based on the ten stems and twelve branches of his birth. He had a delicate constitution. He would pass in twenty-four years, before his fiftieth birthday.

I didn’t say anything.

You said, “What is twenty-four years to you?”

I said, “What will twenty-four years be to you?” I wasn’t thinking twenty-four. I was thinking fifty, sixty, your skin drying to parchment, your hair thinning and graying, your frame stooping ever closer to the ground in which you would—if you did this—someday rot.

You touched my face. I waited for you to ask if I would give up my own immortality, if I was willing to step with you out of the wilderness of myth and into the terraced rice fields and tiled roofs of history.

“You don’t have to stay,” you said.

 

I told some version of this story to a man I met in a tavern in rural Shandong. A spirit trading in her immortality to have a child with a human, asking her companion to wait twenty-four years until they could be together again. I was on my way north to Beijing, to bring your son back home following his placement as top scholar in the imperial examination; the boy might have excelled at composing eloquent Confucian nonsense, but he would have been picked apart by bandits the moment his horse trotted beyond the city walls. This man was traveling south, returning to Suzhou after visiting a friend. The tavern was empty except for the two of us. We ended up drinking together, probably for much longer than we should have, talking over the noise of the torn paper windows flapping in the wind.

When I was done, the man said, “But so . . . what happened? When the twenty-four years were up?”

I laughed. “Nothing.” Seen in a certain light, now, I could appreciate the glinting, mocking edges of our story. The wine probably helped. It felt potent and tasted foul. “She died within two years. The birth was difficult for her and she never recovered.” Neither of us had thought to calculate your fate, in addition to your husband’s. After all, we had walked through fires and dived off waterfalls, dismembered demons, batted away the assorted Buddhist monks determined to save us by destroying us so we could reincarnate as lovely, pliant daughters and wives and mothers. What could possibly happen to you while ensconced in domesticity, running a medicine shop with your constitutionally challenged husband? It turned out you were fucking terrible at being a human.

My fellow traveler poured me another cup of wine from the jar we were sharing and told me a story as well, of a young man who had been in love with a prostitute but lacked the wealth to redeem her from the brothel. Instead, she was acquired by a textiles merchant and he took her away with him to another province. The young man expressed his sorrow through any number of histrionic poems. Twenty-four years later, no longer young, he was visiting a friend in a town in that province, and found out, by chance, that the no-longer prostitute lived close by, and also that the merchant had died and she was now a widow.

“Twenty-four years!” I said. “Really?”

He smiled. “Don’t you think that’s why we met today?”

“What did—,” I almost said you, since it was obvious he was talking about himself—“he do?”

“Nothing.”

I said, “He no longer loved her?”

“He did,” said the man. “He chose his love over her.”

Nine days after your son and I arrived back in Zhenjiang, your husband collapsed while in his shop. At the funeral I heard your voice beneath the drone of the Taoist priest reciting his interminable scriptures, asking: What is twenty-four years to you?

Quite a while later I read a story about two snake spirits in human guise. The white maiden and the green maiden, they were called. It’s part of a collection of folktales by a late-Ming writer and poet from Suzhou. In this story the white maiden lives in the depths of West Lake and attains immortality from ingesting some magical pills that a human boy accidentally swallowed and then vomited out again. The green maiden’s equally immortal state is never explained. The boy grows up to become the white maiden’s husband, their early sharing of bodily fluids a portent of compatibility. A turtle spirit in the form of a Buddhist monk has it out for the white maiden—he was also in that lake, and wanted those pills for himself—and traps her in a pagoda. The green maiden, her faithful companion, hones her skills for twenty-four years and succeeds in breaking the white maiden out of her prison. After which, the white maiden returns to her husband and her son, their medicine shop, her bucolic life. Nothing further is said of the green maiden.

III.

At some point between your death and your husband’s, I returned to Xiangyang to look for our artist. Age had petrified him; I barely recognized him beneath its encrustation. When he saw me he told me I bore a remarkable resemblance to someone he had met long ago.

“I painted their portrait,” he said. “That girl and her sister.”

I imagined how you would have smirked at that, the notion of us as sisters, and for an instant it was like I was standing at the bottom of a very deep well, its lid skewed to expose a hallucinatory glimmer of sky. “That’s so funny,” I said, “because that’s why I’m here.” I explained that I worked for an art collector who had heard of the painting and was interested in acquiring it.

“You’re sixty years too late,” he said. “I gave it away. Couldn’t stand to look at it.”

I said, as calmly as I could, “Why?”

“I couldn’t get it right.” His arthritic hands curled open and then closed again. “There was something about the two of them. The way they were. I couldn’t get that into the portrait.” He stopped painting altogether shortly afterward.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

He shook his head. He told me his friend—the same one he had given the painting to—got him a position at a trading house, and within ten years he had made enough money for ten lifetimes. “Best decision I ever made,” he said, “after not drowning myself over a whore.”

 

It took me almost three hundred years to find that damn painting. From Xiangyang I followed the mercantile route that the cotton trader who had taken the painting would have, floating south and east on overladen barges down the Hanshui. By the time I located a branch of the man’s family he had been dead for decades, his possessions scattered across his three concubines and fourteen children. Meanwhile, your son sold the medicine shop, returned to Beijing, rose to become a senior official in the Ministry of Justice, and—in what he must have thought of as a personal political coup, but with less-than-ideal timing—married your granddaughter into Ming nobility right before the Jurchens stampeded into the capital. I was in Changsha, checking on a lead from an art dealer, and I had to hustle to Beijing to extract her and her newborn from that shitshow. (I left her husband behind, which was better for all concerned.) I parked them in Hangzhou, the last place we had lived before I lost you, and there your family remained until the final act of the Qing dynasty, a modest clan of tea growers on the slopes surrounding West Lake, safely hidden in the undergrowth of history.

My search led me, eventually, to Guangzhou, the port city on the Pearl River where the Qing had consolidated all maritime trade. There I learned of an English missionary who fancied himself a guardian of Chinese culture and how he had convinced the painting’s erstwhile owner, a recent convert to Christianity, to give it to him for safekeeping. In our great capital of London, he said, we have a special building that stores treasures from all over the world, to make sure they won’t be lost, or ruined, or stolen. He had fled for England on the last clipper ship out of Guangzhou before the British navy began bombing the city during the Second Opium War.

And that’s where our portrait is. Room 33 of the British Museum, in the company of a red lacquer box depicting a spring landscape and a commendable forgery of a Jingdezhen porcelain vase. The placard beneath the painting highlights the delicacy of its brushstrokes and the insights it provides into female friendship during the Ming era. Our artist was too harsh on himself. He might not have understood us, but he did manage to set down what he saw. You are smiling at me. It was something I said, I don’t remember what. I used to think that as long as I could make you smile, the world would be a fine place. The colors of our dresses glow against the dun background and behind us the clouds swirl like at any moment they could lift us away.

There’s something I must confess. When I finally saw the painting, I might have—sort of—cried. I never had, previously. They brought you away in the bridal sedan, and again in the coffin, and both times I watched you become the centerpiece of their human rituals, composed and costumed, almost unrecognizable to me. So then, three hundred years later, to be undone by patterns of ink on silk, swatches of white and green paint, a memory of an unmemorable day: it was quite alarming, actually. Thankfully, the man standing a few feet away from me in the gallery said, no doubt after observing me sniffle for far too long, “You seem like you could use a drink.”

He could have suggested a dagger through my eye and I would have taken it. “Do you know a place?” I said.

He looked startled, which might have been for any number of reasons: my forwardness, my speaking English—I had picked it up from the sailors on the long voyage over—or the accent with which I was doing it, which must have made me sound as if I had grown up scuffling for survival on the docks of London. Then he laughed, and offered me both his arm and his handkerchief.

The establishment where he took me was gold trimmed and gaudy, with mirrored walls and fat, winged babies painted across the ceiling. He salvaged my opinion of him by ordering me an enchanting drink. It was a translucent green, as if lit by a hidden flame, and when I sipped it I could taste anise and fennel. After the first glass, he told me, I would see things as I wished they were; after the second glass, as they were not; and, finally, as they truly were.

As we drank he asked me what I had seen, looking at that painting. Beauty, I said, and how it passed.

“Young people are supposed to defer such dour thoughts to the old,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “I just look young for my age.”

“The ephemerality of beauty is indeed a tragedy,” he said, “but surely not in art. The painting will preserve those women’s beauty forever.”

“While they grew old and died,” I said. “That’s even worse. It should have been the other way around.”

He and I were both well past our third glasses by then, so I told him the story of the hermit on Taishi Mountain who would remain alive for as long as his portrait was intact. The version I told was the one you and I had followed from village to village throughout Henan Province, seeking to determine its authenticity: a scholar official, fallen out of favor with the first Ming court, who begged his portrait to assume the burden of aging for him so he could serve as a historian of the dynasty from its founding to its fall.

“Fascinating,” said my drinking companion. “The Ming dynasty ended in . . . what was it, the seventeenth century? What happened to him then?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “The story doesn’t get that far.”

We had found him, this hermit, and you coaxed him into showing us the painting. The person depicted in it looked like some ill-tempered ancestor of his who at the time of the portrait sitting was still alive solely to spite all expectations to the contrary. Once he was done with this history of the Ming, the hermit told us, he would burn the portrait. He had no wish to live forever. On our way down from Taishi Mountain I said to you that I was sure he would come up with another reason for living before he laid down his ink brush. You don’t think being eternal can start to feel tiring, after a while? you said. It hasn’t yet, I said, and we have several hundred years on him. We made a wager: the loser would procure a water dragon’s pearl for the winner. But then you died, long before the last Ming emperor did, and I never went back to Taishi to check.

I spent the rest of that day walking through London, admiring, despite myself, its gardens, its cathedrals, its prosperity, its purpose. It reminded me of the grandest days of the Ming, when lantern displays ignited entire mountainsides and Zheng He’s treasure fleet measured the breadth of the oceans. In King’s Cross Station I saw the twentieth century roaring toward us, all steel and smoke, insatiable, and I thought of how the Summer Palace had burned for days after British troops set it ablaze to punish the Qing government for outlawing the import of opium. When I returned to Hangzhou I put your great-great-grandson on a ship that landed in California shortly before the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law. He hated America, the vast and relentless otherness of it, but he never once tried to go back to China.

Quite a while later I read a story about an Englishman and a magical portrait, written by an author as noted for a controversial lifestyle as his literary skill. This Englishman’s wish to remain young and beautiful is granted: his portrait will age in his place. He spends his days and nights seeking pleasures and indulging them. While his physical appearance remains unchanged, his painted likeness grows increasingly old and hideous. The Englishman believes this reflects a cosmic judgment being levied on his personal moral choices. He doesn’t consider the possibility that the painting is simply showing him, as such a magical artifact does, what he would have become had he continued to age in typical mortal fashion, or that even his most callous acts are nothing out of the ordinary for a person of his breeding and his means, or that the cosmos has never noticed what humans do to themselves or to each other.

 

Imagine a qilin—you were always partial to those annoyingly pious creatures—which lives in an enchanted garden. The keepers mandated to care for this qilin feed it delicacies, brush its mane, polish its rainbowed scales, and all the while, these keepers, they’re also secretly siphoning away the qilin’s magic for themselves, because they can. Visitors from beyond the garden are permitted in so they can gaze upon the splendor of the qilin and applaud the keepers for how well they are tending to their charge. The visitors bring stories of the qilin back with them, and that’s how, over time, poachers come to learn about this remarkable animal, the grace of its antlers and its jeweled brilliance, an irresistible challenge.

When the first poachers scale the wall of the garden, the qilin is outraged. It puffs up its chest to scorch them with its righteous breath of fire, and . . . nothing. Nothing at all, except the emptiest, most embarrassing wheeze; and the rest of the poachers, waiting outside the walls, hear that sound as well, and they understand what it means. They overrun the garden, wound the qilin with their arrows, entangle it in their nets. The qilin’s keepers try to stop them and are either killed or persuaded to acquiesce. Once the qilin is on the ground the poachers carve away its ornamentation with their knives. There’s something for each of them to take away and sell: the antlers, the mane, the dragon scales, the cloven hooves. They leave the qilin alive, though. This way the qilin’s ornamentation can grow back and they can return and cut it away again, and again, until this arrangement settles into normalcy, until the qilin’s purpose becomes, in the very first place, to bring the poachers wealth.

Now a horde of children crowd in. They see the garden as their playground, the qilin as their amusement. It will be fun, they think, to play at being keepers. They dress up in the uniforms they have stripped off the keepers’ corpses and argue over what they should do with the qilin, flopping about in its own blood and excrement, until someone gets the idea of opening it up because who knows what treasures it might hold? The children rush to rip open the qilin’s belly and start grabbing at what’s inside. The kidneys, the entrails, the liver, the heart. Because they can.

So you can see how what I did to your great-great-grandson, for him, seemed the obvious choice. Certain exile versus probable extinction. But I’ve come to suspect all I did was stretch the thread of your lineage tighter, and thinner, and in the end it broke anyway.

IV.

You know, I used to think about all the questions I would ask you if I could. Whether you had indeed run the numbers on your own fate but decided not to share, and if so whether it was to spare me or because you thought I would try to stop you. (Of course I would have.) Whether, if you could have seen how this would go down, one brief fuse of a human life lighting another until everything went dark, you would still think it was worth it. (You’d probably have said yes regardless of what you truly thought; you could never bear to be wrong.) Whether you didn’t ask me to join you because you were afraid I would say no, or, maybe, that I would say yes. (I still don’t know what I would have said. But you should have asked, you should have.)

This morning, though, I have no questions left. I leave the hospital and take a walk through the city. Up and down its hills, past the swaddled homeless on its sidewalks, along the reclaimed curve of its bay, under its gray-scale sky. The fog drifting in across the water is the Pacific Ocean’s marine layer cooled to dew point, and also all the ghosts waiting to be remembered before the morning sun burns them away. You’re gone now, six hundred years gone, but guess what: I did stay after all.

__________________________________

Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)” by Jane Pek, reprinted with permission of Conjunctions. Copyright © 2020 by Jane Pek.




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