Witch's Brew

Chu T'ien-wen

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Do you know why the Bodhisattva lowers her gaze? It goes like this: I once met a solitary traveler.

I too was a solitary traveler. A double-decker transported us to the hotel, a titanium silver high-rise that looked suspiciously like a futuristic city. The entrance was narrow, so was the check-in counter, but shiny bright, like cold steel. I looked up as the elevator soared into the air, where a vast open space greeted my eyes. An extravagant lobby dome led to an even higher place.

Our wait in line to check in wasn't especially long, but long enough to reduce the cool, futuristic city to a refugee camp. People began looking for bathrooms or went to get something to eat; some were squatting, others were sitting atop scattered luggage. After the keys were handed out, two odd travelers stood out, me and, off to the side, the hat lady. So we had to share a room.

We shot glances past each other, in that instant exchanging a message: "Don't, please don't say hello. Don't, do not ask my name. I'm here to relax, to turn myself into an empty-headed idiot, or a wild beast. So just treat me as a chair, a lamp, a desk drawer, anything you please. Just don't treat me as a fellow human being, because I will not say a word to you."

Ours was a Phantom of the Opera tour, two days and three nights over a long weekend at a five-star hotel, plus the theater ticket. At a price of under twenty thousand NT, it was "a way to reward myself and take in a show in Hong Kong," so I quietly joined the tour.

Why quietly? Ah, because I was afraid I'd be laughed at.

There were plenty of people who'd do that. First in line, the girls in my office, all ten years my junior, who had been working since graduating from college, now earning around thirty thousand a month. The red wine crowd, who skimped on food and clothes to become connoisseurs. As a matter of fact, they'd been drinking red wine even before the importers hyped up the market, because of the health benefits and fat-busting effects of the tannins, though they drank other types of wine too; actually, the alcohol was secondary in importance to the glasses. They made meticulous distinctions between brandy snifters, wine glasses, and champagne flutes. A Shirley glass was for wine, a liqueur glass, of course, for liqueur, and a long, narrow Collins glass for sparkling wines or cocktails with tonic water. There were also rocks glasses, tumblers, and sours glasses. I carefully followed their lead, but there was one time at Li Jie's birthday party, when I was unable to stand the way the beautifully wrapped birthday presents were carelessly ripped open and the wrapping paper trampled underfoot, so I began gathering up the gift boxes, satin ribbons, and silky butterfly bows, like salvaging a historic relic, so preoccupied and flustered that I poured Medoc into a rocks glass rimmed with salt for a drink of Absolut vodka and lime juice. I even took a sip! It was a 1990 Medoc, a gift from the birthday girl to herself, which she'd generously offered to share with her drinking pals.

I was doomed. I'd violated a secret rite and calamity was about to strike, as I sensed the gazes congeal and concentrate on me, a mixture of incredulous shock, unforgiving condemnation, and mournful grief. I was out.

Do I begrudge them? No. They were no different from members of men's clubs that, since time immemorial, have had so many bizarre, private or open, ritualistic rules they are quite laughable. Those women have come a long way, finally reaching a point where they have a bit of spending money; they work as hard as they do to create a way to distinguish themselves. Ai, people all toil at distinguishing themselves with such little tricks so as to be different from others.

So then, the second group who'd laugh at me would be Qiao Yin, Wang Jiaojiao, and the like. Qiao Yin and her colleagues were ordinary girls, so ordinary that, how shall I put it, that it was depressing. Take, for example, page 47 of each Friday's newspaper, in the spot devoted to personal experiences of people who traveled alone. It never failed to amaze me. My god, someone who lives in Guanmiao, a backwater, actually went to the South Pole. Where is Guanmiao anyway? Or, this one by someone from Zhongpu, who said that the hostels in Norway, in addition to a kitchen for travelers to cook their own meals, also offer dinner at a reasonable price, fifty krones (about 250 NT). One rainy day he returned, cold and hungry, from a trip to one of the fjords. As he lined up for dinner, he blurted out: That smells delicious! The old serving woman understood him—no language barrier at all—and, with a sympathetic smile, gave him more salmon than the others. Yes, all ordinary people, and they never joined a tour to travel abroad.

Qiao Yin, Wang Jiaojiao, and the others lived with their parents and didn't seem to have any immediate marriage prospects. All year long they worked hard, saving up enough vacation time to travel with friends, returning only after spending all their money, and immediately making plans for their next trip. Collectors of visited places, they sneered at tour groups. Wang Jiaojiao, a solitary traveler, would go off with enough money for a month or more, during which time he'd turn off his computer and cell phone.

One year, from late summer to fall, I received nine postcards from Wang, all posted from small towns in Provence. A 4.9 franc stamp was affixed on each card alongside a sticker that said "priority handling." Two post office stamps appeared in the middle of each card, a round one with the date and town's name, and a square one with the town's unique pictorial symbol. No writing on any of the cards, only the name, Jiao. He was displaying his personal style through laconic eloquence, although in fact we were not close. Every time I fished one of his postcards out of a stack of junk mail, I was as puzzled as if I'd encountered a Zen ko'an. Why send these to me? Did he think I shared his wanderlust or did he consider me a confidant on the far side of the ocean? I began to get annoyed after the third, the fourth, and then the fifth card. He'd set his sights on me without asking my permission to be either his fellow traveler or his confidant. Whichever it was, I didn't care; I just didn't want to be his whatever.

I was feeling sort of sullen when I went and bought a DK guide to Provence. Using triangulation, I managed to get a pretty good idea where he'd been. Obviously on a small but precise itinerary, he was moving through western Provence, in the Rhone River area, and on to Vaucluse. Extravagance personified. I thought about replying (I had his Taipei address), but decided against it, though I did map out traces of his travels and in the process, my hesitation gave rise to a vague sense of concern for him. Later, we ran into each other. To be absolutely accurate, we tried to avoid each other's gaze but didn't quite manage. My face flushed as I made my confession. "Is that so?" he responded coolly, as if I might be lying. I couldn't stop talking, wanting to show that his nine postcards hadn't been wasted on me, but he replied with the same nonchalant "Is that so?" I wondered if maybe he'd recently been in Beijing. Why else would he adopt such an affected tone—Is that so? Is that so? I felt as if a rash had broken out on my skin, but I continued to talk a blue streak, like incoherent feverish gibberish. In the end he gave me a way out: "Let me know before you go, and I'll lay out the best itinerary. You'll have a great time."

Wrong, all wrong. The nine postcards were real and they had landed smack in my hands, after which they'd become heavy and substantial, weighted down with my concerns and my thoughts, like applying layers of paint on lacquer. They began following me around. But then, during our chance encounter, he acted so carefree, so casual, soaring into the air on one end of a seesaw, while I thudded to the ground on the other. He walked off and I got to my feet, only to watch my other self angrily storm up to him. "Stop pretending," I said indignantly. "Don't pretend that nothing happened between us. Otherwise, why send me those postcards? Were they all for show?"

Ah, well, I just stood there instead, feeling lost and ruing an obscure missed opportunity to communicate. Worse yet, the tenor of our interaction was set from that point on: he was forever cavalier and I was eternally clumsy.

The third person who'd laugh at me would be Chen Cuiling, an old college friend. I had to wonder how, just because she married a senior executive at Evergreen, she would, like an amnesiac, forget how we'd once lived, and naively suggest, "That's not a bad watch band, but you ought to get a Gucci bag to go with it." She then went a step further by egging me on: "But the really in item this year is 2005, Chanel, which is making a comeback. It sells for only a little over fifty thousand in Taiwan, with a body-friendly design that allows you to use it as a pillow on an airplane. It looks like a bone, or a tersh [tush]. Judging by its shape, you'd think you couldn't put much in it, but let me tell you, there's so much room it's scary. You can put in your pocket book, your wallet, your business card holder, and a glass case, as well as your cell phone. And there'll still be space for a book or a notebook, things you cultured people like to carry. The main thing is, it has many compartments, and one of them uses waistcoat strings instead of a zipper. It looks like a real waistcoat. Just awesome! You really have to get one."

Two decades and counting, and Chen Cuiling still pronounced "tush" as "tersh," and then she'd pause waiting for me to correct her. There was also the term binge drinking, which came out as pinch drinking, after which she'd roll her eyes skyward, waiting for me to say, "binge drinking." Then she'd repeat it correctly before continuing the conversation. In recent days she seemed intent on forcing me to take up communism, and that put the crude thought in my head, "Sure, and since you have so many bags, why not give me one?"

She once dragged me to an afternoon tea at the Sherwood Hotel with some ladies who lunched. For three whole hours they talked about nothing but the latest LV show in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay, where they'd unveiled the new Epi bags, with matte and shiny fabric crisscrossed to form horizontal lines that mimicked the look of wood grain and water marks. There were seven styles all together that year, each coming in three colors—taro purple, vanilla white, and khaki green—with new hardware, like titanium buckles and elastic drawstrings. One of the ladies owned a bag from the gold buckle era, and couldn't stop complaining. "I've always been partial to its understated feel, but gold buckles? What were they thinking?" Yes, everyone knew what she was implying with that comment: "See. I bought my Epi bag long ago. Mine was the first; I owned one long before you did."

How could you distinguish yourself from others if everyone showed up with a titanium-buckled bag, a stainless steel watchband, silver rings, and a metal-zippered jacket? The tea got cold and the food made me sleepy, as I sank into a prolonged meditation. What would happen if everyone in a particular class owned Hermes leather goods? Of course, they could compare the age of their bags, or the mellowed sheen, as well as the suppleness and creases in the leather, which in turn would show that they weren't nouveau riche; that they knew what was pretty and what was not; that they were aristocrats; that they could produce beauty and sorrow, blooming flowers and ruination. What about the middle class? Ai! The middle-class has such bad taste; their trees are small and their walls new, ordinary and uncultured. So, so I shouldn't even think about asking Chen Cuiling for one of her name-brand bags, for the same reason that I couldn't chide her by asking why she didn't donate an LV bag to aid victims of the recent devastating flood in Mozambique. The ladies abruptly dispersed like startled birds and beasts, leaving me to slowly wake up from my woolgathering. It turned out that they had to pick up their children from school, and they were gone in an instant. Someone had left behind a robin's egg blue (it was called Tiffany blue, of course) scarf; yes, one of those gigantic, 60-by-180 centimeter pashminas, yet soft and light enough to loop through a lady's ring. As if finding Cinderella's glass slipper, I took it home to see if it could indeed be strung through a ring. If Chen Cuiling had known that I'd joined a tour to see a musical in Hong Kong, she'd surely have laughed her head off; they flew first class on Eva Air to Vienna to attend performances by the three tenors.

The fourth one to laugh at me would be Ah-ka, the owner of a mini-theater. His beady black eyes would lock on me suspiciously. "What kind of nonsense is that?" he'd say. Phantom of the Opera? That's so corrupt."

The fifth one? Myself.

Because, you know, there's a type of tear that rolls down without sticking or leaving a trace, as if running down waterproofed material. Like with ET, when it says good-bye to the earthlings, and something that appears to be the heart in his chest lights up and turns bright red. The characters in the film are overcome by tears, and so is the viewer. As she cries, she thanks the friend who hands her a tissue, "I'm hopeless. My tears are cheap, they mean nothing." It's like tickling your nose with a feather to sneeze; the dry tears disappear after rolling off your skin.

I've shed tears like that for too many sappy plays, but Phantom of the Opera was different—it left an indelible impression on my very first encounter with the dark angel.

Take mermaids, for instance. Even before I'd learned how to read, my mother often regaled us with happy tales of princes and princesses. Sometimes she'd doze off, leaning so far backward as she snored loudly she nearly toppled over. But we'd wake her up with our insistent, relentless questions, Then what, Mom, then what happened? At moments like that an unusually sweet glow would appear on her smiling face. After I grew up, I realized that her actions hadn't been all that different from being startled awake in class or in a meeting, and then doing all sorts of silly things to show you weren't really sleeping. But back then we gazed at her with great anticipation. It would take a long time and many incoherent digressions for her to find her narrative way back to the story, though she might actually fall back asleep with the hint of a smile. So imagine our surprise when the mermaid made her first appearance in the midst of this one of these hazy, sleepy states. Rather than marry the prince, she turned into sea foam as the sun rose. My young sister began to wail. Mother bent over to pick her up, but she wouldn't have it; she kicked her feet and fell back on the tatami, howling nonstop and sending tears flying. The baby of the family followed her sister down onto the tatami and began to wail beside her. The way the mermaid removed her veil, resulting in a tragic, awe-inspiring scene on her very first appearance, made a deep impression on my innocent eyes.

The phantom first appeared to me during puberty, when my body was growing in spurts, causing me to shrink into myself, hunching over like a shrimp and wishing I could shed my outer shell. One afternoon during summer break I rode my old tank of a bike to see a movie at a theater four bus stops from our village. Anytime there was a new movie, I went, which was how I stumbled onto this particular one; to this day I can't recall which version I saw, but at the time I felt that the phantom was really and truly to be pitied.

The girl, whose name was translated as Jisiting in Hong Kong, and her fiancé had everything going for them—youth, beauty, and love. Everything good was in their grasp. Even at my young age, I could see that the fiancé was a fool, but Christine's faith in him never wavered as she waited for him to rescue her. He affected a swagger, as he got what he wanted, while the phantom had nothing; except for his unsurpassable talent, which in fact brought him only suffering, his life was a great void. How keenly I felt his pain and bemoaned the injustice in the world. Feeling both hot and cold, I walked out of the theater and was immediately assaulted by the July sun. To get home, I avoided the roadway and pedaled my old bike onto a path flanked on one side by a dense grove of bamboo whose slender poles arced into the air, and on the other a large pond that, shrouded in a purplish miasma, was giving up its surface to invasive pond lilies. The phantom always wore a cape, like an oversized wing, appearing in a sliver of light and completely captivating me. He was in the wrong and he belonged to the dark realm, and yet I was on his side.

Time raced by like the proverbial white pony leaping over a narrow chasm. Phantom of the Opera returned to stage, with the added gimmick of a giant chandelier of unfrosted crystal hanging above the audience and crashing to the stage. Though confined on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I learned details of the new staging as the production made its way around the world, finally arriving in Asia, in Hong Kong. Go see it, I told myself. Would the phantom of years before be the same phantom? Would I still be on his side?

The dark secret in my heart was not to be shared with anyone, not even my family. Yes, even my family. They'd have been next to laugh at me if I'd told them the true (and foolish) reason for my trip to Hong Kong. Instead, I said it was a free tour package from my company, which would go to waste if I didn't use it. I explained casually, almost as if bored.

In any case, all the forces combined to exert their influence on me, resulting in my quietly joining a tour group and leaving for Hong Kong.

What a burden, what a lack of freedom, to always be living under everyone's gaze.

So when the hat lady and I were given the same hotel room, the message that passed between us was crystal clear: "Freedom, freedom, freedom."

We took pains to avoid each other's eyes, fearing we might expose our true selves as humans, not objects, if we did. Being human and sharing the tools of human communication, no matter how miniscule that might be, created a conflict for solitary travelers.

We, no, I took the key—it was a real key, not a magnetic card, and walked into the room. I congratulated myself for stopping by the bed near the bathroom and placing my suitcase on it as a declaration that it would be my bed. I didn't want someone else sleeping nearby when I used the bathroom, a neurosis shared by Jacqueline Kennedy when she married into the family. She'd turn on the faucet when she visited the toilet to make people think she was just washing up. Her mother-in-law treated that as a joke, often bringing it up at the dinner table as a verbal appetizer, to everyone's great delight. A fine case of domestic violence. Jackie O's subtle torment would end only with her death; a Japanese invention called an otohime—Sound Princess—produces the sound of flowing or dripping water, the pleasing melody of cascading water on mountains or chirping birds to mask the unpleasant noise. And that set me thinking again. Was this a manifestation of the Japanese Carthage group's magic just prior to the bursting of the economic bubble? Its wizardry had once been invincible, unstoppable. Film critics considered the ETs in ID4 [Independence Day] to be representations of Japanese, storming the earth with their powerful flying saucers and, like a solar eclipse, swallowing up the Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, and the Twin Towers (fiction can never catch up with real life, as the Twin Towers would vanish from the earth in September 2001).

And so, without resort to negotiation, the hat lady and I drew a territorial dividing line: she would have the side by the window; I would have the bathroom side.

The closet lay in her domain, as did the trashcan. Vigilance and prudence told me to use only two hangers, which turned out to be a superfluous act, for the hat lady had no use for them; instead, after a productive shopping trip, she simply opened the bags and tossed her newly acquired clothing into a pile. Or she upturned her handbag and scattered its contents over the bed. Too tired to check out the spoils of conquest, she lay down on top of her loot and fell asleep with her shoes on. Cautiously I snatched up the remaining hangers and meekly crossed the border to get clothes or hang them up, keenly aware of the invisible, yet ironclad room divider. My side of the border was barren as a desert and her side as chaotic as post-earthquake devastation.

The doorbell rang, so I went to answer the door. Buried under a pile of shopping bags was the hat lady, who wedged her way into the room. Her round, olive green hat had been replaced by a bell-shaped version made of hemp. Her obviously new backpack was already crammed to the bursting point. She thanked me and I said, "You're back."

"Thank you." "You're back." "I'll bathe first." "Sure, go ahead." "Why don't you take the key?" "No problem." These infrequent utterances sounded barely human, more like witches' incantations that turned us into objects that were capable of avoiding each other in a cramped hotel room, where we moved around but never made physical contact.

The key was still at the reception desk one night when I returned exhausted from shopping; obviously, she was still out. But when I opened the door—Wow—the area across the border was littered with ripped-open boxes and torn wrapping paper, as if a burglar had visited the room. The hat lady had returned to unload. Apparently, she'd quickly tried on her new outfits in the mirror prior to leaving for another round of shopping before the stores closed. She couldn't have spared a moment to gather her stuff together; tops, pants, underwear, and thong sandals lay strewn everywhere, just the way they'd been taken off: collapsed, squatting, running. She'd also made a quick visit to the bathroom; evidently suffering an upset stomach, she'd pulled the roll of toilet paper too hard, leaving a trail of it drifting across the floor. The bar of ivory-colored soap was drowning in the sink. I had to admire her ability to turn the bathroom counter into a flood zone. But my heart lurched, as if stung by a wasp, when I saw the trashcan.

Yes, the trashcan.

Over a long period of time I've developed—pathologically, I admit—my own trash sorting system, one that has controlled me and one I use to measure and read people, and to study objects.

Have a look at the hat lady's bathroom trashcan.

She mixed three different items together—toilet paper, torn pantyhose, and an empty yogurt drink with a straw still stuck in the box. No one would think of putting these things together while they were still alive—what I mean is, when they were usable, before being turned into trash. They had their own places, based on a particular order, and after being used, they deserved to be treated accordingly.

translated from the Chinese by Sylvia Lin and Howard Goldblatt

The original Chinese is used by permission of 印刻出版。