Wang Ping

 

 

Crab and Catfish

 

In the river

They live apart

Keeping a safe distance

for food, peace of mind

In Chinatown

They crouch on top of each other

in separate containers

Waiting to be steamed, fried, sautéed

And everything changes

When hungover workers tumble their buckets

Down the street

 

 

The catfish slither and slide

Gasping belly dance on the concrete

The crabs move sideways

Crushed pincers raised

Like they owned the world

On death row

The sidewalk becomes a carnival--

Prancing shoppers

dodge the slimy danger

Laughing kids kick and stamp

Frantic workers scoop

The owner swears at the top of his lungs

 

Outside the crowd my tears come

This is a kingdom where low creatures are killed daily

Like the moon circles the earth

Like hunters hunt, peasants plough

And trees fall for highways and cows

There’s no more reason to cry for the bottom feeders

Than for the little girl in a dingy bakery

Devouring noodles and wanting more

Soy sauce gleaming at her mouth like catfish whiskers

And her last glance into the window into my eyes

As her mother drags her to school

I cry because I’m not in the crowd

Don’t know how to kick, stomp or kill

A sentimental bitch

sick for my island

On the East China Sea

 

And here they come

The young catfish with ginger skin

Eye hangs on the cheek like a rosary bead

On its back rides the baby crab

Legs all gone except for the pincers

Crushed shell glowing with stubbornness

In the water, they hate each other’s guts

Now like the mandate of heaven and earth

They charge through the human wall

Toward Canal Street--what they believe

The direction of home

 

The crowd parts like water

In awe the city halts

The traffic, the trade, the laughing wall

Watching the lowest of the low

Plunge into the sea

 

And behind them—a bloody trail of faith

 

 

 

Eve’s Prayers

 

I

 

My Lord

I’ve set out on the path

Hold fast--

My sins, my faith

And your crumbling paradise

 

II

 

Take away

Every gift you gave

My Lord

Take my life

If you have to

But give me a voice

That sings fire

 

III

 

Even though you’ve patched me up

Hundreds of folds

I still want to be a woman

My Lord

Ten thousand times

 

 

 

 

The Bargain

 

This is a pair of hand-made shoes

Awkward and lovely like the maker behind the stand

Gold peonies bloom unabashed on red corduroy tops

White soles are made of layered cloth

Pasted on a door with flour

And let dry slowly in the sun

Stitches line dense and neat

like terra-cotta soldiers on battle grounds

 

This is a pair of shoes

I’ve been searching for years

The craft my grandma tried to pass on

Before I left home for good

Without trying them on, I know

They would comfort my calloused soles

Heal my fungus toes

Let me run like whirlwind

A sword drawn out of its sheath

 

And we start the bargain.

 

“Ten,” she says, “for the sake of destiny

That brought you to this desert town.”

“Five,” I say without thinking,

a trick from my American partner.

“Good joke, Big Sister,” she laughs,

deep creases trembling on her purple face.

I blush for no reason.

“Six then,” I say, avoiding her hands

that bring back the memory of Grandma,

her flickering shadow on the wall threading a needle.

“Come on, Sister, have some respect.”

“Ok, seven, can’t go up any more.

Respect has to be mutual, don’t you think?”

“Barely enough to pay for the materials, Sis,”

her voice low, wet like the drizzle.

“No mercy,” I repeat the mantra drilled into my brain.

“Peddlers are good at arousing sympathies.

That’s how they make a living.”

“Eight, then, the highest I can offer.

You peasants are getting greedier day by day.”

 

She raises her hands, ten knotted roots,

ten question marks drawn by children.

“Do you know how many nights I stay up

to stitch the soles? Do you see

my fingers? Do you see my eyes? See

my little brother waiting for a bowl

of noodles my shoes could buy?

His hunger does not lie.

My callous does not lie.

We do not lie.”

 

I walk.

I’m not practicing the walk-away tactic

That works like magic.

I’m running from the mirror of her eyes.

“Stubborn girl, stubborn girl,”

I murmur to myself,

“It’s just a game, just a game.”

She chases, thrusts the shoes into my hands.

“You won, Miss. Take them for 9.

What’s nine yuan to you, a dollar twenty cents?

And what’s a yuan, less than a dime?

Would you even bother to pick it up from the street?”

 

I put away my victory in a trunk,

never give it a second thought

until I’m pulled out of the line

at Minneapolis custom, maggots fingers

prodding socks, underwear, wrapped gifts,

and there it is--my bargain

red and loud like thunderclaps:

“You saved a dime, Fool,

but lost your soul.”