Today’s guest writer is Ryan DeVries. Ryan graduated in December 2011 with an international relations and (Mandarin) Chinese double major, complemented by a writing minor. In August 2012, he moved to Taiwan and has served as an English teaching assistant for the past year and a half. Currently, he teaches 7th – 9th grade English at Xinmin Junior High School in northern Taipei. In his spare time, he continues to study Chinese, read things worth reading, and explore all Taiwan has to offer.
Mom’s email said the house had sold. The one on Kiskey Street where I grew up. The one Google Maps tells me now lies 11,916 kilometers away.
Last summer, I packed Chegg.com political economy textbooks and verdigris-laced junior high trophies into cardboard boxes, which I lugged out to Mom’s Chrysler minivan. A black, scuffed suitcase held my summer clothes. I kept essentials untouched: a twin bed with mustard-yellow full-size sheets, a Taiwan history book for the 13 hour flight, a frayed toothbrush. Also a few keepsakes that didn’t belong boxed up.
Items that re-calibrate the mind to earthy, vivid tales—with a history made personal—must be held in hand often. They must be shown. When Mom asked me to take down Zhong-Kui (鍾馗), I wasn’t ready.
Grandpa’s tapestry of a Daoist exorcist is misunderstood. That July, I knew just enough to recognize Zhong-Kui was special and nothing more. I didn’t know his stories—recorded in unofficial Chinese historical tracts—or that he wasn’t the Buddhist mendicant I took him for. And I did not know his name. These details I would only tease out months later, at an ersatz Italian café in northern Taipei called the Creative Tomato.
Mom’s toe traced the carpet indentions that the packing boxes had left behind. “With the house showing, I just question if people will appreciate it…the way you do.” Was she needling me? Maybe placating? Her words mirrored yesterday’s conversation with RE/MAX Deborah; I’d accidently overheard it.
“The symbols are nice to look at in their own way—it’s just they mean nothing to me. But the picture…Unsettling? Yes, it does give off that impression, doesn’t it? I’ll talk to him.”
Mom gazed doggedly away from Zhong-Kui, who rolled his fierce, beady eyes in solidarity. His demonstrative, skein-like eyebrows made me turn to hide my commiserating grin. I thought of those scintillating eyes encased in movers’ cardboard. “He has no a case. And I won’t have him dusty.” My objection flimsy, I could not articulate why I cared enough to argue.
Mom sighed long and slow, like the leaky air mattress she’d been sleeping on. Her bed was at the new house—she wasn’t ready to lie down somewhere new. Turning to go, she fumbled for the doorknob—her eyes fixed now on Zhong-Kui. When her head turned, I saw how limply her graying hair rested on her scalp, and the skin under my left eye tightened.
“Mom…” I pretended to reappraise the poster-sized wall hanging. My ambivalence, sudden and uneasy, was concealed poorly. Releasing the doorknob, she turned back to us and inhaled, no longer content to let the matter drop.
“Just put it in the basement with your books.” Her face softened when she stepped closer. Her wrist bent, she began rubbing the back of her knuckle against my forearm—softly—as I’d seen her do to woolen sweaters hanging from the circular racks at Christopher and Banks. I was very young then.
“Otherwise take it with you. It almost belongs over there, doesn’t it?” I remembered dire online claims about Taiwan’s humidity: of cotton button-downs, even passports attracting mold. I waited silently for her to finish. “Anyway, sooner is better than later. I doubt you want me moving it after you leave.”
I couldn’t argue that. “The basement. Or even in the hallway off the kitchen,” I ventured.
Mom narrowed her eyes. “That thing is not greeting me when I get up at night for the bathroom.”
“A damp basement isn’t ideal.”
“Neither is a house showing. I have 30-gallon Hefty bags upstairs. The box says they’re waterproof.”
My stomach resettled. I wished the new house had a place for my bed. A wall for me to hang things. Some things aren’t fair to wish for. I gathered a fistful of shirt sleeve in my hand. I walked over to Zhong-Kui to dust him—my hand came away clean. You want him stored in a trash bag? That’s almost what I said.
Grandpa had brought Zhong-Kui three years before, when he came for my sister’s nursing school graduation—his last visit before I moved to Taiwan. He arrived at 9:17pm on a Friday. When he went straight to the guestroom, we didn’t expect to see him until morning; instead he went back out to his Toyota. He returned with a scuffed, black suitcase full of books, curios, and gadgets. He’d been clearing out his study, we all knew. Grandma had mentioned it when she called to say her hip was bothering her and she wouldn’t be coming. And most of his wares were familiar, in a worn, comfortable way. A used Nikon DSLR for Mom. A chipped Japanese tea set for my sister. He gave me the suitcase.
On Sunday morning, Grandpa passed Zhong-Kui to me over Multi-Grain Cheerios. Why he waited until then, I don’t know; I’ve chosen to attribute it to a tacit recognition: Zhong-Kui is far more than the cloth he’s painted on. A retired Eastern religions professor, Grandpa almost certainly knew Zhong-Kui’s story, though he didn’t let on.
Instead he used his cotton handkerchief to daub at the sticky milk spots glistening around my cereal bowl. His eyes followed his hands as he wiped. “I found him on an empty bookshelf. Go ahead, take a peek.”
I moved our bowls to the sink, while Grandpa re-wiped the table and unfurled Zhong-Kui. On seeing him, I forgot the spoon still in my hand. I marveled at the bold, angry brush strokes. Brandishing a wide paper fan, the Demon Queller filled his billowing red robes, their hem spreading to the painting’s margins. His course, dinner-plate-sized beard bristled. His eyes gleamed.
Grandpa pointed to the work’s edge. “I don’t suppose you’d like to keep him? Seems like I got him in Japan, but I thought of you when I saw the Chinese writing.” On that last word, a calloused knot near my right ventricle slowly unwound. Most Michigan people I know would say “symbols”, gently dismissing a living language as just one more indecipherable curiosity, alongside Wingdings script or the code you find when you pry open a website and peer inside.
Through the damp handkerchief, I gripped his vein-riddled hand, more tightly than intended. “Thanks very much, Grandpa. This is something…means a good deal.” My voice caught as I realized I wasn’t pretending to be touched. At the same time, his wrinkles softened around a smile. Then we were embracing.
The moment was so brief. Too soon, my repeated thank-you’s were sounding more clumsy and less sincere. Grandpa cleared his throat. “Life is more than a painting, Ryan. I’m glad it means something to you.” I felt his arms grow subtly tense, as when someone realizes (with a silent, internal pinch) that the person he’s hugging isn’t ready to end the contact. I was still thinking about this when I lifted Grandpa’s remaining suitcase into his Toyota.
Mom’s eyes stayed on my mouth and hardly moved. “You never told me that.” Her hand, stationary now, made my forearm unclench. She looked over my shoulder finally, toward the wall. “It’s funny, the things that mean something, isn’t it?” I nodded.
My last night on Kiskey Street, I lay in bed, hands resting behind my neck, staring at the blank space on the opposing wall. I thought of Zhong-Kui nestled atop a row of old political science textbooks, on a bookshelf in the basement of a house that would never be my home. And sleep was long in coming.