Immoral Woman

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The Slice of Ginger


Ruan Lingyu, her narrow shoulders centered against the high back of a chair, was squeezing a sliver of lime into a cup of tea. She sucked the juice from her fingers; but even in this she somehow remained elegant. “I take lime with my tea,” she said. “It is one of my eccentricities.” She removed her dark glasses and stared into the cup, as if reading her fortune there and finding no surprises. “I seem to have forgotten a spoon.”

I handed Ruan the pitchfork stirrer I had taken from Hell. “Tell me,” she asked, stirring her tea, “did heaven live up to your expectations?”


“Then we are even.” Ruan Lingyu fixed a cigarette in her ivory holder. “For earth did not live up to mine.”

I struck one of my Bowl-Mor matches. “No thank you,” she told me. “I would prefer to light it myself.”

I handed her the matchbook. “I understand there’s a long waiting list. Why is it that you aren’t a Wait-lister?”

“You are right: I did not wait.” Ruan Lingyu shook the match out. “I was admitted with no questions asked nor answers given. Such are the advantages of fame.”

I sat on the ottoman in front of her chair, putting me at her eye level. “You can take it with you?”

“Yes!” she declared, with a vehemence that surprised me. “You take it all with you. You cannot help but take it.” She smiled for a time, watching me steadily, watching me until her smile faded and a wistful, almost mournful expression took its place. “You have nothing else to take.”

“Nothing but your fame, your possessions ... ?”

“No,” said Ruan Lingyu, “or rather yes, if that is all you had. I had more.” She allowed her cigarette to burn untended, her eyes not on me, and a wisp of smoke rose up in the silence, as if toward a heaven above heaven.

“I had — I have — the memory of a single afternoon. I believe it was in 1917. I was eight. My mother was preparing dinner for the Zhang family.

“I remember it as the middle of summer — very humid, very sticky — but that may be because my mother was making soup, and the stock had already started to simmer, filling the kitchen with steam.

“Since I had first been able to talk, I had been asking my mother to let me help her cook. She had never allowed me. I would stand beside her, guessing which vegetable she might be chopping above the level of my eyes on the high counter. You know the sound a train makes on the tracks as it pulls out of a station, just when it is beginning to pick up speed? That was the sound of my mother’s cleaver, clock-clockclock on the cutting board.

“She would give me a slice of ginger to suck on, pink and thin as your fingernail. I was very fond of ginger. That is why she called me ‘Root.’ And whenever I spoke harshly, my mother liked to say that all the ginger had left a sharp tongue in my mouth.

“Once in a while, when she was making soup, my mother would pick me up around the waist and let me drop a clove of garlic into the pot, but I entertained no illusions. She was not really letting me cook. I was too young, the cleaver was too sharp, I would hurt myself.

“My mother took pride in the sharpness of her cleaver. When she was not chopping vegetables she was always drawing her cleaver across a whetstone, and that is another sound of my childhood.” Ruan allowed her eyes to close, and closed, they looked enormous, like a sleeping cat’s. “I can still hear it — tshh-tshh, tshh-tshh.” She smiled, and said again, very softly, “tshh-tshh, tshh-tshh.” Her eyes remained closed, and her voice seemed to come from a great distance, as if she were narrating a dream. I was content to watch her face as long as she cared to speak.



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