north of the earth (an excerpt)

Dong Li

when the child was a child he ran with his arms swinging the rice field flooded he slept by a kerosene lamp

the lamp not yet lit through the small window the night blued flickering light on a mountain overlooking the village where the unspeakable dead were buried or rotted on their own on a clear blue night their bone pieces glittered curtains were never drawn the villagers felt that glittering light through their closed windows then they switched on the kerosene lamp on the sill looking into the window their faces floated above the mountain in the night world mirrored in the window they looked into their eyes and the eyes looked back at them and seemed no longer their own

on the mountain eyes had nowhere to hide and nowhere to speak their sadness so they opened their dead eyes through the eyes that were still alive as they borrowed night light as the kerosene lamp flickered blue all the village children were asleep under dead watch everything that was and was not mirrored into the night slowly drifted to dawn and the living opened their doors to a new day and the dead buried in light

back to the kerosene lamplight his tailor father was sewing a shirt the pedal back and forth on the sewing machine stitch after stitch the night swung back and forth when the light flickered he closed his eyes motionless in the overbearing darkness of the mind no screaming was heard the room so spacious on a moonlit night upon opening his eyes the scraping music of bamboo knitting stick upon stick loomed on his aching back and the pedal moved again on the iron board she was behind him knitting a scarf for their sleeping child

in the midnight hour the child could hear wind tapping on the wall or was it the whisper of his sisters humming from the faraway mountain

in the confinement of the house in the solitary break before day

in the confinement of the solitary body screaming night

a loud cry pierced through the doorway people swarmed in

a moon hanging on faces a moon hanging on the windowsill the lamplight flickering

were the sisters singing were they there to watch

his father choked his mother threw up bitter water

under a night sky the child woke to a world left by his two sisters who did not wait to see him in the spring they stayed above on the mountain and flickered their way through the window when he was asleep when the night shone so brightly he shaded his eyes and turned his back to the window as his mother rubbed his back along the soft spine then a soft squeal then his mouth smacked shut

his parents married late and were eager to have a boy child when the first girl came so came the drought the flood the lack of food sugar and salt everybody yearned for men women child and other children on their way to burden the families who scraped off pots and pans layer after layer a year after another long year

three years of natural disaster whose bowel was not bawling

rice thinned in husks and waved to wild wind rice plant withered three years and hollowed in cracked earth

then roofs cracked in a year of drought

cracked hands in biting wind blistered feet on the sewing pedal rust shuttled between stitches and glittered rust dust on the shirt and shoe soles left a metal trace from door to door curtains were drawn no more grabbing mothers necks no grasping the face to lick off tears shade off the eyes hands bound behind back wrapped in reeds the sisters were climbing uphill to where eyes through window holes could still reach

would the night reach the day

would the day settle before night

the village doctor had nothing to say the girl child coughed on the pillow pill after pill two winters came to an end their neighbor wound her body in a rag put her in a bamboo basket carried her to the mountain overlooking the village she was left there to rot

a girl child a flower ghost brought sorrow to a family lacking a boy child lacking a name

a night-blooming cereus blossomed and perished in the night

the girl child was barred from the village from the family doorway gone like a cold stove no one was about to stir and put firewood under the cold stove so black and bright

the village the clouds at night the mountain beyond the village a pair of daughters on the water the night-cereus bloomed and let the children past daylight into the window where a sleeping child breathed in blue

a deep shade of blue bagged under parents’ eyes

tenderly ghost watch

as the ghost girl child flowered on the mountain so flowered the grandparents’ blood on a handkerchief the devil coughed ready to take them out of their bodies out of their house out of their village to join perished children

a child sewn into weathered foreheads a child burning in the parents’ shrinking hearts a child ready to eat grandparents

the parents went to the temple with abundant incense to set fire to cover the mountain where their first girl was left

would fire cover night would light pierce sorrows

a litany a mantra a chant reverberated in the head

burn the daughter who weaved a siren’s song to lure the old through the night window

burn her roping hands burn her frozen thighs burn those white teeth that once chewed and choked on precious brown sugar water

burn her clean bones to light the stove to warm the kang where the little brother breathed

burn the eternal fire so that the brother might survive and live long to watch over the mountain the night so clear the heart shuddered in the spacious cold

he did not come yet still in a dream in the shit world in the deep of the warm earth

days would pass

kneeling to that small squared sky for the happiness of a son to come to wash off the demons of a dead child ready to eat grandparents

the night lingered

long and long sorrow passed onto wind to night eyes that flashed in the window

kneeling on the cement floor a stain of blood then a bloody stream sliding along ridges of her cheekbones a smoky patch of a sky a buddha held in closed hands a second daughter

across puddles of thick blood the girl child did not wake to her night

a swing between eyes a split of a dewdrop on a bending leaf the child jumped backward where she came before into the shit world where she flowered

mother’s belly bloated the child refused to see the world as the night-blooming cereus bloomed in time as her sister walked and reached for her in the faceless dark

a pair of girl children on the water the night cereus past its day into the window where a sleeping child heaved blue

a childless mother sobbed in bed her face covered under quilts a childless father sucked a long pipe against the door frame smoke ringed wrinkled and dispersed near the black eaves then he stood up stretched his arms cleared his throat and walked to a burnt rice field greening in the morning light when the sun still hid under sky’s edge when the day roiled in fog

two girl children in the blurring depth of a fogscape their little eyes pupilless watching on an unplowed mountain

open the door to the day to let the night pass

rain poured

rain mothers’ grief to shatter the sky to break the devil’s throat

rain poured and knocked down all the rice plants as spring started anew again

on the leveled earth rice husks sucked on rainfall and flipped straight into the sky

rain he came to this world with lots of rain

buried in the flooded field father gathered his palms of rain and splashed it onto his face already blurred in dispersed fog he was rubbing his fingers back and forth on his cheeks he was plunging in slow motion face into water ears into soil his open hands whisked past sponging rice sprouts

mother held onto the doorframe and looked far to where father stood and disappeared in the rice field to where the sister ghost fires blended into a slowly lit sky to where they flowered and wilted in the parents’ mind

would the ghost flowers come back would the ghost flowers eat unborn children in the shit world again

like drowning he felt like seeing a boy child drowning she felt a rice flood running her breath away like a wave in an ocean

ocean bound the child was named in the year of the dragon

let the dragon swallow all the ghost flowers in the shit world for a never return

never to drown again in the night world

the parents prayed day after night

sea dragon in the spring rice field spinning in the center of the house sweat rolled on his father’s forehead into night the pedal on the sewing machine rushed spinning stitch after stitch his mother slipped into dreams of night flood before a full moon waned on the windowsill the lamp was never lit again

the boy child opened his eyes to days ahead of him

as the child crawled toward the doorway a ghostly breeze flipped him to the floor hands and feet up toward the ceiling then in bed for days

hours on end his father walked hill after hill to a nearby town for brown sugar to no avail he walked farther to the county cooperative hours on end he walked back with empty hands then he carried the child on the walk with the waning child on the back they brought back a couple kilos of brown sugar the child kicked the butt of the shit world

no one touched the brown sugar no one licked the sweet air as the sugar dissolved in warm water

the boy child opened the door of happiness grandparents lingered their days

as the child toddled his way again to the doorway the parents made him a wooden carriage on which he could sit and move the wooden wheels around the house his grandparents looked after him during the day when the barefooted parents had to labor in the field that was assigned to them by the village committee

then nobody had time to labor in the field

a brutal wind from the north swept through the countryside and knocked down everything everybody rice husks left in the field to rot

under the red red sun rice grains burst to light that nobody was there to collect

ghost fire never lit again

shrines smashed to pieces the mountain a mess

days

a decree from the north gathered the villagers in the square

nights

locked in their paper-sealed houses where did time go

when the child listened to his mother who patched stories from memory from other mothers when the child moved his eyes along with his mother’s eyes on a half-burnt page stained in black and white characters when three years of natural disaster dwindled on scraped stomach a turn of the screw a chill down the spine a red book opened in that square

was the book the night

save and revolt

no end to a revolution no end to a morning of whistling rice husks no end to sister ghost fires on the mountain whispering up the stage down the skull the eyes gorged on earth arms bound behind whipped backs

was it flood or was it rain

rice fields littered with spiked husks a square of villagers dancing out of tune reciting the red book at the top of their lungs everything covered in dazzling sweat

was blood covering everything

the spring riot the never-ending march lines clearly drawn between men and women between children and other children

the day smeared the night as the night blasphemed the day

waves of high hats kneeling on broken knees

pots and pans flipped people were shooed out of their houses herded into the schoolyard they stepped on shards from smashed windows which glistened under the sun

the village was barred from the mountain from ghost fire from the nearby town and county cooperative hill after hill the red guards stood the night and the day they were there to save the country

rice bushels rotted into the rioting earth

the loyalty dance occupied day after days

one—hands on the chest

two—hands on the jaws

three—heads up

four—arms swinging left and right

five—index finger against index finger thumb on thumb for a heart shape over the chest

six—hop on the toes of one foot the other foot kicking back

seven—hands pushing the heart shape up and up toward the big sky

when the guards were bored with the loyalty dance the recitation competition rolled

he learned to read red poster characters on the walls he listened to people shredding their voices for the high praise from the north

four big heads on the murals where tankfuls of rice and wheat grains gleamed by bursting smiles of the young guards on their way to the square to have a glimpse of the great old man waving on a tower casting shadows on forbidden stories

after the sack and the loot time to save and revolt

after the old eunuch tweaked the dried tits of the empress dowager after nine fleets of navy ships sunk in the eastern sea after opium softened the heads and knees of a dynasty that once galloped over the great walls of the ming after the palace crumbled to ashes still burning to the last stones that pounded in the hands of slaves that had never stood upright in their prime after democracy and science swept the four corners of the earth after peasant revolutions after weaponized intellectuals after the strait-divide after the long march across mountains of snow after the northern capital finally fell to long-waited peace after panchen’s in-house arrest after dalai fled through the himalayas after the fields emptied of people after the mountains filled with the unspeakable dead after a line of intellectuals on smeared high hats after a square of people screaming words to cover their rumbling bellies after night after n-ight was it light was it l-ight

days would not congeal birdless

cloudless sky miles around sorrows ever long

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