(the story of) Imprinting — excerpt 1
NOTE: (the story of) Imprinting is an ongoing long story project I was working on from late 2007 to 2009.
Like candlelight, like a fluttering bird, that image flickered in the back of my head, cupped carefully in a concave spot where the turmoil of my troubled mind could not reach. After six years, it still was a wonder to me that I could see the image vividly, even just for a brief second, in front of my eyes when I open a new book, or when I glimpse the colored cloud at the entrance to my dreams, or at the brink of waking. It seemed to swim across the ocean of my heart, gliding in and out of every forgotten memory. After all these years, still, I remember that softened, dark, wet silhouette, and the stress of cold wind that swept my face when a child left me.
It was December 23rd, a usual night, the sky, polluted by the blazing city light ofTaipei, bleached into a muddy indigo grey. The mass of traffic moved like a dull Tetris game, blinking a dazzling red and neon yellow, beneath the vibrant multicolored outburst of the surrounding skylines. The massive shadows of the street trees onZhung-Xiao East Road were trimmed with the tiny light bulbs emphasizing the seasonal festivity. Swarming on the sidewalks were the spatters of young people who had managed to catch up with the American fashions, each arm in arm with a lover, shopping for still more things.
What kept me on the street so late was the air, the air that was carefree yet enveloping of the people who breathed it in and out. Such air, like that I am once again breathing here inBostonfive years later, drifts like fog from one city to the other, obscuring people’s passion for bonding, sequestering them in a semi-conscious celebration of solitude. Here it was: the masses on the street, walking and talking in great harmony, yet with no belief in one another. Embraced in this air of the masses I felt lonely — so lonely that I almost felt secure. For a young girl who had been sheltered by her family, the taste of independence and solitude was sweet and yet oddly familiar. As I wandered through that sparkling toyland, I was enjoying a somber walk alone devouring the ridiculous but wonderful smell ofTaipei’s inauthentic Christmas.
I slipped into the large book salon I always went to after my weekly composition lesson in the evening. On the first floor circuit, a piano trio was streaming out the velvety phrases of Mendelssohn. Carrying my portfolio case on the shoulder, I supposed I looked as artsy as this place.
A delicate scent rose from the basement bar-café-kitchenette, the infusion of rosebud, burgundy, and fudge, with ganache. Behind the escalator were the glimmering shades from the wrapping paper shop, the handcrafted goods piled galore, dry flowers, blown glasses and other pleasant gadgets. On the second level were the organic perfume department, the record store, and the stationery collection, before the bookstore surged into sight.
The bookstore was packed with people as it normally was in the evening. Several high school girls dressed in green shirts with black plaid skirts or trousers were sitting on the stools right next to some new translations of Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. Next to them was a bearded middle-age man, his fingers stained with ink, narrowly eyeing something thick on the top shelf. Some teenagers leaned against the large glass windows, heads dangling, sickly stunned, sucked into the comic strips in their hands. Slightly moving, the crowds of college students and businessmen and women were all over the alleys betweens the shelves and in front of the counters. It was quite an effort to squeeze my way through the concentration of people in order to get to the back of this large bookstore where the restroom was located. Before I enjoyed my casual browsing I had to finish Number One —- the large sweet soymilk I had earlier dried up in a single gulp was obviously doing its work.
An “Out of order” sign hung on the door of the Ladies’ room. Frowning, I turned my head and decided to try the other one on the basement level. I strode across the whole floor, descended several flights of stairs, and again strode across the whole floor, this time in the basement where they served European deserts and pastries. Over the bar, on the black-painted brick walls hung a number of film noir movie posters, including one for Hitchcock’s Psycho. I passed through several shelves of books on photography and filmography, and eventually reached the smaller Ladies’ room which luckily was available. I pushed open the door, found a stall, pushed open another door, and entered.
By now maybe you’re a little confused. Usually there’s nothing so interesting about a toilet experience that someone would spend her precious ink on it, but in this case there is. In classic horror films, there are two scenes that predominate: Western cinema discovered the dark fright of resident phantoms in holy churches, while Japanese andHong Kongdirectors, on the other hand, were particularly fond of eerie surprises in bathrooms. The latter, in my opinion, perceives the dynamics of surrealism, creating a tension of dark humor and haunting, unforgettable experiences.
Just as I flushed the toilet, I came out of the stall and stood in front of the sink; from the wall-sized mirror I saw a pair of glinting eyes staring out at me.
I gasped. No sound came out from my mouth; all I felt was a rush of cold blood gushing through my head. Then came the abrupt silence; remaining numbness spread toward my fingertips. I did not stumble; the tap water streamed its way through my fingers, then down to the sink. I looked at my face in the mirror, my senses coming back. I stared back at that pair of eyes —-
Pearly black, an opossum’s eyes, so dangerously still that I thought they’d fly away at any second as though they had a life of their own. But no, they belonged to a child. The child was dressed in a sweater with green and red and gold stripes, the sleeves bagged at the wrists; draped atop was a plaid, brick color jumpsuit which looked aged, cut off at the ankles. I moved my gaze up once again to the child’s face —- a small face that could be cupped in my palm, a small nose and small mouth, dark eyebrows trailing the almond shape of the eyes. The lines were soft yet lucid, like when you use charcoal to draw a face and smudge the lines only on one side to create shadows. The hair was very short, thick bangs heaped atop a quite hilly forehead. A little boy? Or a little girl? I turned and saw this little figure standing rigidly behind me and next to the wall.
“It looks like maple syrup.”
The child spoke. The voice rang with a nice resonance, though it wasn’t high for a child. The lips moved with a minimum of movement. I had just noticed the delicate shape that pair of lips had; though pale and slightly chapped, they resembled two frail petals, a telling quality. I moved my eyes up and down quickly once more. Yes, about 136 centimeters tall, the little girl was nine or ten years old.
“It looks like maple syrup.” The little girl spoke again, her eyes fixed upon me.
“The color of this restroom is like maple syrup.”
“Uh? Why?” I was astonished. My response was equally odd, but I found myself drawing closer to the child. There was no need for fear. I bent down and looked into her face.
“It looks like maple syrup, you know. The color of this restroom.” She looked a bit uneasy now; between her thick eyebrows I saw a tiny crumpling. Suddenly I felt hurt as well. Turning back to look at the mirror, where the child’s figure was still reflected, I scanned the room once more.
An enlarged reality, a light too dazzling that puzzled the soul who stared at it –
that which I saw in the looking glass.
Though dizzy, I dared not blink….
wall-to-wall tiles slowly collapsing….
and crumpling over the top of me.
Excruciating to be so small.
I pictured the solid earth with its thick green carpets and upon it tiny clusters of dots like ants that were our savage human ancestors; the earth spun and spun, and over time the clusters grew bigger and the green carpets became thin and burnt brown. The human beings grew more plentiful but smaller and the ethereal presence that gave shape to the human civilization was crumpling, just like this restroom.
The great destruction… And yet I am still washing my hands.
It was beautiful, though. The ginger tiles on the walls were gently splintering into crusts, and from between the crusts were oozing tiny streams of liquid amber. Floating all around me were icebergs of shimmering gold; they must have flooded in through the door unnoticed. Then I heard a tinkling, rustling, quenching sort of murmur of a clavichord coming from nowhere; it sounded so familiar, yet I couldn’t recall where I’d heard it. It is from a distance. No, it’s muffled. It’s behind the mirror. I stretched out my right arm and touched the mirror with two wet fingers. The mirror creased, like water disturbed. Trilling inside was a shadow. My hand waded through the water and pulled out the little girl; her clothing soggy and hair drooping, she stood in front of me, looking up. Tiny gems skirted her wet eyelashes.
She looked at me. She didn’t blink. The music stopped, and the play began.
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(Ⓒ Copyright Mu-Xuan Lin 2007-2010)