Immoral Woman

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“So it is summer, or at least it is summer to me. I am eight. I have always been too young to cook, and the stock pot is boiling on the stove. I tug on my mother’s dress. This is the signal that I require a slice of ginger. My mother understands this signal perfectly.

“Yet on this particular afternoon my mother has no ginger for me. Instead she brings the stool from the corner and tries to help me up onto it, but no, I’m a big girl, and I climb onto the stool by myself. Now I am almost as tall as my mother.

“She kisses me on the bridge of my nose and takes my hand and draws the cleaver across the back of my wrist. It shaves the fine hairs.

“‘You see?’ she tells me. ‘Be very careful. China is full of ginger, but you are the only Root I have.’

“She puts the handle of the cleaver into my hand. My mother gives me her special cleaver and tells me that I am the cook now.

“There are many vegetables in front of me. I’ve seen them bulging the net bag my mother takes to market — scallions, watercress, garlic, bok choy. They are whole and washed — beads of water stand out on their flesh like teardrops. I do not know where to begin.

“My mother’s first act as a guest in my kitchen is to solve this dilemma. She asks me for a slice of ginger.

"Very slowly, conscious of the importance of my task, I halve the ginger, cut a center slice and place it in my palm and offer it to my mother. I am prouder of this gift than of any other I have ever given.”

Ruan’s eyes came open and slowly refocused. Seeing that her cigarette had burned down to the end, she tapped the ashes from the holder and fixed a new one into it. “You may tell me that I will always have my fame or I will always have my movies, or whatever else it is that occurs to you that I might have had in my life. No. That day with my mother is what I have. That is all I will ever have. In that moment, I did not even know I was happy.”

She lay her head back and exhaled a column of odorless smoke into the still air. “I have invited many visitors here, each in the hope that he will carry with him something of earth that will equal that slice of ginger. It has never happened.”

“We might have — ” I began, but she raised a hand.

“Sixty years ago, on the other side of earth,” said Ruan. She arose, and I got up with her. “There is no harm if you believe we could have cut another slice of ginger for ourselves.” In the doorway she turned and bowed her head to bid me goodbye.

The lights grew brighter, lending a yellowish cast to my thoughts of all I had seen. They were gaslights. The room’s furniture was old, and the chair in which Ruan Lingyu had been sitting was upholstered in threadbare green velvet.




Round Trip


I had no idea how long the white-haired gentleman had been watching me — or me and Ruan Lingyu — but he was watching now. One of his pointed black shoes was tapping impatiently.

“Are you quite ready to return, Sir?” he aspirated. “Your conveyance awaits.”

In the distance, behind closed doors, I could hear the clacking of bowling balls and pins, and so far away that it might have come from another world, the faint blare of a car horn. Only now did I fully realize that I had returned to the entrance of heaven. My New York Times lay on the seat of the green chair, and I bent to pick it up.



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