Two Lyric Essays

Chen Li

Artwork by Samuel Hickson

Baudelaire Street

Life is worth less than a line of Baudelaire's poetry. Thus I may as well simply call the few streets that I routinely pass by, "Baudelaire's."

My Baudelaire street starts at dusk. When you put down your briefcases or school bags, when you turn on your TVs or video game consoles, I, hand in hand with my bicycle, slowly leave my childhood.

I would ride past a dental casting clinic, where the self-taught pseudo-dentist uses his instruments to quickly stop your toothache, or to pull out your decayed tooth and fit you with a denture, which leaves you with gum inflammation within a year and in more pain than when you went in.

I would ride past an oyster-omelet shop, where the mom is frying oysters and the pop is adding eggs—picking them up from a basket, squeezing them open and throwing the shells out, as if he were a robot. Their son is busy collecting the eggshells from the floor and giving them to the doctor's wife next door, to be used as a nourishing face mask every morning and evening.

I would ride past San's family electronic toy store. I stop abruptly in front of their doorway, stand on top of the bike and shout loudly, "Long Live the Republic of China!" All the passers-by look at me in astonishment. Only she, who's in her room, knows that what I really mean is: "I miss you!"

I would ride past a wealthy family's house, with a sign on its doorstep that says "private garage, no parking please."

I would ride past the house of an even wealthier family, with a sign on the ground next to its entrance that says "parking is prohibited in front of the garage."

I would ride past a small eatery that sells fried tempura and pig's blood cake. I can't help walking in, for hidden in pig's blood is our drool; besides, their lovely daughter is my classmate from primary school.

I would wait for my primary school classmate to hand me another pig's blood cake when her parents aren't watching. I would ask her parents, "Does A-Hui still work at that American firm in Taipei? When is she coming back?"

I would ride past a bridge. At the end of the bridge always stands a man that looks like a battered old leather suitcase, dragging behind him a bunch of battered old leather suitcases.

I would ride past a bar. Sometimes the male accordion player would come out, and greet me warmly, "Little brother, let's be friends." I would smile warmly and leave. I had come to know long ago that the girls in the bar aren't worried about him, because they say he loves boys more than girls.

I would ride to the corner of Fraternity Street. I pause there for several minutes, waiting for a woman wearing gold, wire-rimmed glasses to elegantly reverse her light blue car; two out of three times she would end up bumping into the signboard erected on the side that advertises healing stones.

I would ride past a cotton quilt store.

I would ride past an aquarium.

I would ride past a sexy lingerie store that many men pass but few women enter, where a lot of beautiful lingerie is hung.

I would ride up to a sushi and sashimi snack bar. I stare at the colorful neon signs in front of me, until I hear the female owner of the jade shop on the opposite side of the street speaking in a whisper to her husband, "Watch out for this youngster who stops here every day—is he after our stock?"

I would ride swiftly past you.

I would ride swiftly past my adulthood.

And ride back to my childhood. Because I know life is worth less than a line of Baudelaire's poetry.

Mushan's Blacksmith Shop

The blacksmith of Mushan's Blacksmith Shop is getting old.

At noon, he sits napping at its doorway. In the balmy sunshine, his gray hair sparkles with the same silver glints as those on his reading glasses. He and his old hillbilly assistant are both dozing, one in a chair, the other by the fireside. He is probably yet again dreaming of me holding a spinning top and asking him to make a strong axle so that I can slam other kids' tops beyond recognition. Or maybe he wonders again why the crazy truanting kids are standing barefoot on the main road at high noon for a showdown of manly valor, until rawish red shards of candied and glazed plums roll out of their mouths and drop onto the scorching asphalt pavement.

To the left of the blacksmith shop, across narrow Citizen Street, is the small town's former distillery and a row of tall coconut trees, the tallest of which is its chimney. Since the distillery relocated to the new urban district, the chimney looks more like a lonely Royal Palm, towering over the vacant buildings as the guardian of the town's sky. He recalls that under the coconut trees were a line of pedicabs waiting for passengers. In the year that he became a father, his wife cried out in pain at midnight; he dashed across the street and woke up Old Li—who was asleep in his pedicab—and who then rushed them to Xu's Ob-Gyn clinic, where his wife gave birth to their eldest son. That winter it was unusually warm, and the clangor of striking iron was particularly solid and pleasant to the ear. He even worked late into the night. Well, for the sake of his wife and his son, he had to keep his nose to the grindstone—it's all because he didn't become a father until after forty.

Back then, young ladies who worked at the Happiness Teahouse would always come, in their pajamas, to eat oyster vermicelli outside the shop in the early afternoon. Around the corner, the mad woman "Tin-pot Clinger" was once again giving cookery lessons to the kids who had gathered to play marbles. "Tin-pot Clinger," do you know her? She was actually a well-educated teacher, and quite neat and chaste, unlike those loony women who were unkempt and always sleeping around. It's only that she suffered from an emotional blow. So you've never heard her telling stories? Alas, today's children only know about going to MTV lounges and electronic toy stores; nobody buys axles for spinning tops anymore.

Everything is changing. In the past, when typhoons came, only the section of town around the distillery got flooded. Nowadays, ditchwater and rainwater all converge in front of the shop. Those pedicabs—no, they're iron bullock carts now—almost turn into motorboats. Two successive mayors are both from around here. Last time around, the son of the coffin shop owner was out campaigning. The folks of the Citizen Street community always come together in fair weather and foul: everyone cast a vote for him. That kid is very aware of the decorum; he hand delivered MSG to every household in return. Election campaigns back then were much simpler; it's nothing like these past few years when you see campaign vehicles and flyers everywhere, with some newer vehicles sporting green flags and green ribbons. Hmm, it's all the same however they do it. In the old days, there was only one party, and only one person stood for election. That was just fine—things were quiet and efficient, and we still got freebies.

He's been to that coffin shop. One year, a typhoon blew a foreign ship from the inner to the outer bay, slashing it in half and leading to the death of several foreigners. The coffin shop sent for him and had him deliver some thicker iron nails to the shop to fasten the coffins. Two weeks later, he returned to collect his due. While he was walking into that dark, long, and narrow shop—Oh My, what the heck—someone climbed out of a coffin! Turned out that was the master of the shop; he said it was a cool place to take his midday nap.

The blacksmith of Mushan's Blacksmith Shop is getting old. At noon, he sits napping at its doorway; he dreams of that row of coconut trees being sawn open the way coffins are. He wakes up, and sees the young ladies from the Happiness Hair Salon playing badminton at the end of the street. His old hillbilly assistant has already set up the fire in the furnace, taken out a red-hot piece of iron, and is waiting for his orders. The old blacksmith raises his hammer, aiming at the big hammer of his hillbilly assistant, and once again starts making his anvil ring: cling, clang, cling, clang.

translated from the Chinese by Ting Wang