By Kaixuan Yao
I am trying to write differently, now, as I sit by the windows with blinds raised. Views of neoclassicist facades come through, spread in front of me like linen sheets under the sun. I dropped into a long sleep last night, like a dog’s muzzle that sniffed so attentively at the soil and … surrendered. By this point, with this little written, I am already tired. I can barely open my eyes. To be honest, right now my right eye is closed, given the great effort required to keep my eyelids lifted, and my left eye merely peers into its exterior from a minimally maintained gap. Focus, focus, focus… I feel as though I’m running out. There is, in addition, the great fatigue from living, which amuses me as much as it trains me to be amused.
It is only in the case that someone shall invite me to play a role, that I would go on in spite of my exhaustion. Considering my optimism, my sociability, and the optimism and sociability of others, I thought it a good idea, after all, to build a machine. An automaton. Something that operates by itself and provides for all unrehearsed scripts an equilibrium. Like the familiar face of a renowned actress that grounds the frivolity and vicariousness of having played (and continuing to play) an assortment of characters.
This idea came to me yesterday afternoon, when, for a short twenty minutes, the sky was clear. White clouds against the innocent blue, reflected on the windows of the building across the street. There must be wind, for the illustrated shadow work of the sky passed fleetingly into another. Soon it would rain again. I thought about the sky’s reflection in the still river, the one I grew up nearby. Before it rained, a dragonfly would fly so close to the surface, only to circle above by dint of the atmospheric pressure, and therefore initiate no contact. But an equilibrium had then been set in place. Those were the first memories of how I learned to fly. I spread my wings, as delicate as dandelions, and intuited the mechanism of intuition that Life demanded of me. Now, I sit here alone in a foreign room, staring at the windows across the street. The building’s stately edifice solidifies on my retina, along with the nonchalant evolution of the sky’s projected image. I have come to terms with the course of things: my optimism, my sociability, and those of others.
And that was the moment I finally saw them, standing behind the window.
The reason their existence had up until this point remained unnoticed was as inexplicable as their breathless existence itself. They seemed like a sculpture one might find in a deserted once-noble garden in the countryside, now restored and open to public visit, since the regional governmental capacity had recovered—it is hard to imagine how such change had occurred. Overnight, constitutional malfunction turned into ahistorical hope. But maybe it was a blessing. And we learned that the hard way later, as hope quickly spiraled into political paranoia and we were forced to escape. On my way, I remembered that sculpture again—with its silent statement. The one that few paid attention to but that had been observing us in silence all this time. I felt a profound sorrow. Is it still there, in a moment of chaos, conducting its silent observation? The garden will soon be overgrown. Here by the window, I see it again, in the blind stare with which the person returns my attention. In their blind stare, there are, paradoxically, possibilities for life.
Have I started to write differently? Now that their stare has fixed me in my position. I’m afraid so. And God, I am afraid. For it is not a position of optimism, sociability, nor hope. All this time I had already imagined the greatest enemy to be the ones who would force me out. They will force me out and I will continue to live. Living is flying, hovering. Living is existence in space and time, and existence is a dance. But that blind stare fixes me in my position. I am becoming transparent, breathless, immobile, blind …? I have no thought.
From the minimally maintained gap, my mind peers into a vast snowy land. In this great nothingness I could not breathe, I could not. And in my hypoxia the first life is born, the first thought that ever comes along in this spotless world covered in snow: What is it that you do when you drown?
What is it that you do when you drown? Asks the dragonfly. What is it that you do? I ask in the hollowing coldness that was once air. In my hypoxia, views of neoclassicist facades come through, spread in front of me like linen sheets under the sun. The last thing that I remember is drowning. In my sleep, I dreamt of being a dragonfly, hovering over a still river. I am not used to flying, so I drowned into reality. And since I am still drowning, I express defiance to this reality, this Life, by acting.
I assume many roles. The first role I took on was a dog. Still a child, I laid low, knees on the ground, folding my torso by my waist, and nearing my face to the soil. It was at that moment that I realized there is absolutely nothing more about living than the fresh smell of grass, mixed with the scent of resin from broken branches, the fruitiness of our dark earth and the faint lingering of feces. And so, I knew that Robi, our family dog, had a good life, though we had lost him forever. I tried to fall into the sweet earth the way Robi did, and immediately I understood that he never gave in. One day, he awoke, and that’s that.
They say that a thespian never really grows out of their first role. There is some truth in this statement. A part of me has remained close to the ground, forever crawling, and searching for the rawness of living. In this sense, Robi never did die.
For the past few days, the radio has been broadcasting an ongoing war elsewhere. I listened as I indulged in the safety of my home. I did not intend to think too much about it. I meant the uncanniness of history.
There was a less peaceful time in this country. People disappeared under daylight, one after another, until their last walking traces in the streets were buried by the snow, which was ceaseless. I kept the windows open and inhaled the wintry air deep into my lungs. In this great nothingness I tried to breathe. And quickly I noticed that by concentrating on my breath, I could conjure up the smell of my beloved ones that had passed away. Smoky and sweet, the cigar, the perfume… And then I heard the music, the banter. I started to speak in their voices—it was hardly noticeable to my interlocutors, but I was becoming them. And in this sense, they were never gone.
An hour has passed by the time I return from my thought. It is suddenly sunny. The windows of the building across the street are screening our sky’s moving image. I sit there for a while longer and discover in the image a vague human contour. I am trying to understand who that is, or whether that is my own reflection?
Soon it is going to rain. I fall back into sleep.
Kai Yao graduated from the Comparative Literary Studies research master’s program at Utrecht University in 2020. She will begin her PhD studies in Chinese Literature, Culture and Media at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in Autumn 2022. Currently, she resides in Prague, Czechia.