THE bag that hung on the wall contained the old man’s leftover thoughts. They were mostly questions. From time to time, the bag spoke in very faint whispers. But long ago, the old man had decided not to listen.
When it first began, the whispers seemed to come from nowhere. The old man would pace his room for their source, stopping to press his ear to the wall, to look under pillows and chairs and behind pictures. The murmurs faded into and out of existence like the buzz of attacking mosquitos that vanish into the air. Then one day, he noticed the bag. His frail arms lifted it off its hook and brought it slowly to his ear. After a moment, he jolted back, sat down and stared a long while. When he was young, he had dutifully ignored his wild thoughts. But in the back of his mind, curiosity and love still stalked him like willful misbehaving children—laughing from behind closed doors, peering at him through windows and from the rotting rafters of his home. The bag had asked: Where is your family? Do feelings die if we can’t share our thoughts?
Now the old man, whose name was Li Desheng, had a visitor, a stranger actually. The two had run into each other that afternoon at the annual week-long market for traditional Chinese medicine, art and wares which drew tens of thousands of people from hundreds of miles around. So many vendors came each spring that after the snows melted into streams, 200 meters of trails needed to be widened up the shallow mountain slopes to make room for their stalls. The vendors were blasting their pitches into tired old faces and spellbound youthful eyes when Desheng felt someone tugging on his sleeve. He turned to see an elderly man looking at him sullenly. Desheng recalled from previous years a couple brief encounters in which the same man had lacked a certain generosity of spirit, as when he saw him ignore a crying child who had become separated from her parents. This time, without even saying ‘hello’, the stranger began sounding off about the high prices of the medicinal mixes, wondering how they had risen year after year to the point where they were now mostly out of his price range. The bear bile, the five alcohol poison (snake, scorpion, spider, frog and plants), and the ling zhi mushroom were all up at least 50 percent. Desheng suggested he could find many of these things for free in the mountains. But the stranger dismissed the idea. Foraging in the wild was not civilized.
Desheng observed that the wood sculptures were not of the same quality as in years past. The stranger shrugged. Though Desheng wasn’t sure about the depth of the man’s knowledge of all things Chinese, he had at least found someone to talk with. It was in fact so unusual for someone to have a conversation with him that he extended an invitation to the man to come to his home to drink some sun-dried brown-leaf pu’er tea. The two of them went to Desheng’s house, and in the large main room that made up both the kitchen and dining room, Desheng and the stranger talked for a long time. But the stranger was longwinded, Desheng grew tired of his voice, and indeed, not being accustomed to visitors in the first place, completely forgot he had one and fell asleep.
When he woke, the sun had set and twilight filled the room. With his poor eyesight, he could only just make out the hand-painted blue and white porcelain vase on the table that had belonged to his wife, or the pictures on the wall of his mother, grandparents, brothers, and children. Even his collection of poetry books and some pieces of furniture were barely there. Only in his mind’s eye could he clearly see the room: spacious, but cluttered with antiques his wife had collected while she was alive, relics from his own life, and a few heirlooms from his ancestors.
He heard breathing. The form of a man was outlined against the opposite wall. He recalled the afternoon in the market and realized that the stranger had not left. When Desheng began to speak, his voice left his mouth sweet and slow, like sap from an old huà tree.
“I am old and doze easily,” he said, politely making an excuse for his guest.
“Really?” replied the stranger. “But I think you’re my age. When I first saw you in the market, I said, ‘there he is, a man exactly my own age. We could be twins! I must talk to him!’ No, you are just a little tired my old friend.”
Desheng grimaced. “I am as old as the wind that howls at the cellar doors, but that must find someplace else to howl, because a lonely old hound that nobody wants, and that is not allowed out because it farts too much, thinks it has found a friend in me and starts to howl back.”
The stranger scratched his beard pensively. After a moment, he leaned forward and spoke again: “You are like a beautiful ancient lake on a sunny day, full of colorful fish and laughing children, with chirping birds on the branches of the willows along its banks…”
“How delightful,” said Desheng, beginning to smile.
“…under which a sinkhole opens,” continued the stranger, “leaving an empty crater with a government official waiting at the bottom to sing karaoke with you all night.” The stranger grinned.
“He might make better company.” Desheng frowned again.
There was a whisper too soft to hear.
“What was that?” asked the stranger, sitting up straight.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Desheng lied.
“I’m sure I heard something. Is there anyone else here?”
The two men sat among the odds and ends that cluttered the room: pots and pans, chopsticks, sifters, tea, tea whisks, small bottles of home remedies and medicinal powders. The last light of day drifted into the room.
Desheng heard another whisper, then jumped up from his chair.
“What are you doing?” asked the stranger.
“I have to pack,” said Desheng. “I must see someone.”
“You are going to see someone? When was the last time someone saw you?”
“What a question!” said Desheng. “People do sometimes pay me some attention.”
“But you’re almost a non-entity.”
Desheng opened the closet door and took out an old Mao Zedong suit that had been popular in his day. He shook out some wrinkles and quickly slipped it on. Then he picked up a match.
“Now what are you doing?” asked the stranger.
“I was going to make some light.”
“But I can see fine! And don’t try to change the subject. Where could you possibly have to go?”
“To visit my daughter. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
“Where is she?”
“In the United States, studying.”
“What is she studying?”
“My daughter is studying Chinese Painting and Art History,” Desheng said proudly.
“Why is she studying Chinese Art History in the United States?”
“She says she can paint her feelings more expressively there,” Desheng shrugged.
The stranger scoffed. “Any accepted thought can be freely expressed in China! At any rate, does she really need you? And the time and cost of such a journey–”
“I’ll stowaway on a ship,” said Desheng. “I already have the visa and dollars and her address. She lives in a place called ‘Kansas’.”
“Many young Chinese get Ph.D’s in the United States in a sensible field. Finance and Economics, for example. A strange girl your daughter.” The stranger shook his head. “Anyway, if you leave, you might not come back. Why not just stay in China?”
Desheng waved away the idea with his hand. “She’ll graduate soon. And I should attend the ceremony.” Desheng paused. “Besides, maybe I’d like get to know her better.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” The stranger scratched himself and appeared lost in thought for a moment. “As a famously pompous American immigrant, who like you, prioritized career over family all his life, once said, ‘The great thing about family life is that it introduces you to people you’d never otherwise meet.’”
Desheng struck the match and in a sudden harrumph the stranger disappeared; the lingering light of day fell to the floor and shattered into 82 jade shards that emitted a very slight glow. Desheng stood still and squinted at the floor for a long while after the match had burned out. He picked up a broom and swept the shards into the center of his kitchen. Then he took the bag off the wall and guided the jade inside it. In the darkness, like a blind man who confidently knows every cranny of his own cluttered home, he made his way to the door and left to begin the long trip East.
Desheng took his seat on the night bus. Nobody seemed to notice. On the way he slept, occasionally waking as the bus picked up and dropped off travelers who lived far from any official stop. He sometimes tried to peer out the window, but in the darkness he could not see the farms and small towns passing by.
It took 10 hours to arrive at the coastal city. Desheng got off the bus in the center and started making his way to the port. As he passed a large university, some students were inviting tourists to come visit their art studios and perhaps buy a painting. Others were asking tourists if they would like to chat over a cup of tea. The pictures were manufactured, and the tea prices artificially high, but the students were learning to make money. They appeared not to notice the tired old man carrying his heavy bag as he passed.
After a couple hours, Desheng found the port. It covered a huge area with dozens of ships of all sizes docked for loading and unloading. The old man asked around to find out which boat was leaving for America, but everyone was very busy and kept at their work without responding. He walked back and forth along the loading dock until he overheard two men saying that one ship was ready to depart for California. Desheng walked unobtrusively up the long gangway and set down his bag on the deck as he looked around for a place to rest. A Chinese customs official turned around and, ignoring Desheng, picked up the bag and opened it. It began murmuring. His eyes widened. He shouted to another official who rushed over to listen. The two fell into an intense discussion about whether the thoughts were legal for export. Their strident conversation attracted the attention of some PSB officers on the dock below who began arguing with the customs officials about who had jurisdiction over thoughts, generally. The officials, distracted as they were by their own mooting, did not notice as some nearby dockworkers silently shuffled away, or as Desheng picked up his bag and left to find some restful quiet.
Suspended about 10 meters above the ship’s deck, Desheng saw a small orange boat with a ladder leading to it. It looked like it could hold about 30 men. Desheng climbed inside and found lots of bottled water, some strange kinds of dried food, and a few cushions – almost everything he would need. He lay down on one of the benches and fell into a deep sleep.
The trip took 10 or 12 days. Only once, on the first day, did a crewman come in, and only for a minute to quickly inspect the provisions. He was apparently too busy with his work to notice the old man. In the evenings, Desheng stared out the window. The beautiful sunsets over the western horizon made him think of home.
When the ship docked at port in California, Li climbed down the ladder to the deck, then slipped passed the sailors and down the gangway unnoticed. He entered a building and found two lines of people with two large signs hanging at the head of each one. One of them looked like this: “FOREIGNERS” and the other like this: “U.S. CITIZENS AND PERMANENT RESIDENTS”. Desheng got into one of the lines and scuffed along until he arrived at a window with an immigration officer behind it. The officer looked at Desheng for a moment and said “Passport.” Desheng did not respond, so the officer repeated the demand in Chinese. Desheng took out his passport and handed it over. The officer leafed through the pages for a minute and then yelled something at someone standing nearby.
Desheng turned to see another customs official only a few feet away. He motioned to Desheng to follow and led him to a windowless room with only one white table and a few green plastic chairs. He took a seat and motioned for Desheng to sit down across from him. Then he leveled his gaze on the old man.
“We’re trained to recognize all types,” he said brusquely in Chinese.
“What do you mean?” asked Desheng.
The officer ignored the question and began his interrogation.
“What do you do in China?”
“What did you do before?”
“I haven’t thought about that for a long time.”
The officer narrowed his eyes. “Well, you might want to start now.”
“I think it was agriculture,” Desheng said staring back.
“You think?” The official leaned forward. His questions came rapidly while Desheng answered slowly.
“Yes. I’m quite sure it was agriculture.”
“Any international trade?”
“Oh no, not like that. My family were farmers … yes.”
“Why did you decide to come to the United States?”
“It’s only because of my daughter. I’m going to see her graduate.” Desheng smiled pleasantly, but the cascade of questions continued.
“What is she studying?”
“Chinese Painting and Art History.”
“The University of Kansas.”
“Are you a member of the Chinese Communist Party?”
“My membership expired.”
“Why are you traveling so lightly for such a long trip?” The official nodded towards Desheng’s bag.
“I don’t need much.”
“What’s inside your bag?”
“Would you open it for me, sir.”
The old man hesitated for a moment, then lifted the bag off his shoulder and onto the table. He loosened the tie, letting it fall open in the direction of the officer. The officer leaned forward for ten or fifteen seconds with his ear to the opening, then he sat up and looked at Desheng.
“Where did these come from?” he asked.
“From my home.”
“All of them?”
“Yes, are they a problem?”
The officer paused for a moment. “They’re not a problem in this country, sir. You can close it.” He pushed the bag back toward Desheng. “A lot of people wander through here lost in some way,” he said.
Desheng bowed his head, then slowly leaned forward and raised it back up: “Sometimes a silenced thought can turn into a feeling that does not remember where it came from.”
The officer stamped Desheng’s passport. “Welcome to the United States, sir.”
The old man exited customs and found his way to a bus station selling tickets to all parts of the U.S. He caught a bus going eastward to Phoenix before continuing on to the heartland. The two-day trip passed quickly and before he knew it he was in Lawrence, Kansas.
It was 6 a.m. and still dark out when he arrived at the old red brick building where his daughter lived on the top floor. Desheng was unsure whether to knock. Perhaps it was too early, would he wake up the whole house? As he was considering this, he heard a voice call his name from behind. He turned around to look, but there was only darkness.
“Don’t go in, Desheng. There’s nothing for you there.” Desheng recognized the voice as that of the stranger from the market.
“You failed to dissuade me before!” Desheng shot back to the air. “What makes you think you can succeed now?”
“I only want what’s best for you and your daughter. It’s as impractical to express your ideas now as the day you first thought them. They will only leave your daughter confused. And then imagine your disappointment.”
Desheng turned around and rapped lightly on the door… It slowly creaked open. He called out, got no reply, then quietly went in and started walking up the uneven wooden stairs. With each step the bag felt heavier and the stairs moaned as if in protest. At the fourth floor landing he came to Na’s door, which was slightly ajar. He leaned forward and peered inside.
Facing away from Desheng on the far side of the room was his daughter. Her uncombed long black hair splayed chaotically across the back of her white blouse. On the right side of a very large canvas that stood on an easel in front of her, she was painting a tree with dozens of limbs branching off at different angles. The black hair against the white blouse merged with the dark limbs on the white canvas in such a way that Desheng had difficulty distinguishing the border where his daughter left off and the painting began. The tree was gigantic, but with much open space around it. She dabbed on some paint, then held the brush hesitantly before attempting another in a series of small details. Desheng drew in his breath.
“Na!” he called out. But Na was focused on her painting and gave no indication that she had heard him. From behind him came the stranger’s voice again: “You see, she does not even hear you say her name. How will she hear your thoughts?” Desheng turned around again, but still saw no one.
He pushed open the door hesitantly and walked slowly across the room. As he neared his daughter, he began to make out the scene. Where the tree ended, she was painting a beautiful background of sky, mountains, and streams. He sat down on a stool a few feet behind her and watched silently for several minutes. The stranger’s voice chattered on, but Desheng no longer heard. He lifted his bag off his shoulder and set it on a table next to him. It fell open and the jade spilled out throwing a strong Chinese light onto the canvas, as if the sun were already rising.
His daughter continued painting, a little faster now and with less hesitation. She finished the natural scenery, then began with scenes of buildings and people. Below the limbs of the tree she began painting a house that looked like Desheng’s.
Then the bag began to whisper a rush of thoughts that had been waiting a lifetime. But the whispers were more distinct than usual. And it was not only Desheng’s voice, but the voices of many others speaking along with him.
Do silenced thoughts warp our feelings? What is the self without sentiment? Are children our greatest investment in society?
As the bag spoke, Na began painting richly expressive images. Inside the bedroom of Desheng’s home she painted her mother in childbirth. There was a scene of a young couple in love. Across the street from her childhood home in China was a school where some children were studying and others were playing.
If all truths are connected, does dishonesty obscure reality? If we cease to strive to understand, will we know without understanding?
The jade glowed brighter. Na painted faster and with such spirit. Outside, groups of people were in the street demonstrating, some discussing whether to hold a vote to oust corrupt officials. Still others were discussing a just punishment. Elsewhere, a speaker was giving sincere and useful advice to graduating students.
How are living and being alive different?
His daughter painted scenes with such speed now and without missing a detail. There were lots of people from his town – sometimes the same people at different points in their lives. Desheng recognized many whom he had not seen in generations. The colors came alive as the images began moving on the canvas. Emotions washed over him that he had not felt since he was young. While he watched, he thought Na had painted herself too, as a little girl back in China, in the kitchen helping her mother prepare a large dinner – a feast for all the guests in his house. She walked to the dining room and started to arrange plates and glasses on the table with great care, as if it were a very special occasion. She had on a yellow sundress he remembered she often wore when she was a girl.
Na had one last detail to add. The little girl in the sundress looked up at her father, the paint in her big black eyes stared back at him.
“Aren’t you coming to dinner daddy?” she asked.
Desheng’s chest tightened and air would not pass into his lungs. Na cocked her head and continued looking at him from the painting, as if waiting for an answer.
Desheng heard the voices of his neighbors and family. He began to relax as the familiar smells of his mother’s cooking wafted under his nose: steamed fish in chili sauce, mala chicken, tofu, pig tendons, lotus root stuffed with sticky rice, fried peanuts, sour cabbage with hot peppers, fried green beans, chicken broth soup, pumpkin bread, and his favorite dish of red braised pork.
“Sit down here, daddy. Everybody’s coming.” Na motioned for him to take a seat at the head of the table and skipped back to the kitchen to help her mother.
Desheng sat down. The table was very long, running so far that it was impossible to see to the other end. “Hello!” “Long time no see!” “Have you eaten?” “No? Then time to eat!” Another daughter came up and put her arm on his shoulder. One of his sons poured him a glass of baijiu.
People were taking their seats. His daughter had painted well. The love from his family felt like a big blue sky over a wide-open field of wild flowers.
Na ran back in excitedly. “Taste the soup!” she said.
Desheng took a taste.
“It’s delicious! You and your mother are wonderful cooks.”
Na smiled proudly. “Will you stay long this time daddy?”
The question seemed to have such a simple answer.
“Yes, Na. I think I will. I missed you.”
“We missed you too daddy.”
Jim Weitz lives in China where he is studying for an MA in Applied Linguistics with a focus on critical discourse analysis from ‘mainstream’ perspectives. He spends some of his time in his native Washington DC, where he occasionally likes to visit bars and socially construct politically incorrect arguments with unsuspecting locals. This is his first published story.