Velveteen Spleen — Chapter One

002First we must make a container. For this world. For this universe. So I open my eyes.

I decide to apply most of the standard rules of physics and biology–leaving space perhaps for more coincidence than many might find plausible. Because I am dreaming this universe into existence, and I can.

The place is empty of people as of yet, and lacking decor of any kind. It’s quiet here now. We might want to sit this way for just a moment. It won’t last. In a minute it’s going to be…

Shanghai, rush hour, bicycles scream past with every form of noise making device attached to handlebars to alert pedestrians of imminent collision or dismemberment–electronic gadgets, traditional bicycle bells, whistles, pot lids, blinking lights. A tangled mess of metal that might as well be the aftermath of a catastrophic explosion, but for the synchronicity. People try to walk through this. Cars drive through this, stopping for nothing. I’m getting high from the exhaust fumes.

“Shui.” Water. From the man off to the side with a cart. I want to call him the shui-walla. The man who sells water. Mixing languages I don’t speak.

I have roughly fifty Mandarin words that work most of the time, and I am adept with a phrase book.

You are here. Amused at my language skills. Choked by the crowds. We need to get out of this mess. You are here most of the time, and you accuse me of remembering only the bad times. You accuse me of accusing. J’accuse! I tease. You won’t laugh. You haven’t laughed for me in a very long time.

Down an alley and off into side streets and we are at a wet market. It is quieter here. Down a covered alley an old man sits on an inverted can and plays the Chinese violin. Water drips. One bare bulb swings in his alley, reflecting on stone walls and in puddles. His music echoes against the stone, wafting into the market. You can’t write this. Except I just did.

It’s my universe. Get used to it.

I am at home here, for no reason at all. I don’t speak the language. No one expects anything of me. I am kind. I observe. I feel comfortable here, where nearly everything is unknown.

We stand, hand in hand, watching the man play his erhu listening. That is the name for his instrument. It may be an acquired acoustic taste. I acquired it that night. A roughly played erhu may have something like the sound of a reed instrument in the hands of a seventh grader, when the reed needs to be replaced and the instrument is simultaneously being passed through a blender. But a little flatter, not so screechy. Held gracefully, played lovingly, the erhu carries the sounds of a waking, happy baby, a slightly worn door closing as the footsteps of a loved one cross the threshold, a squeal of ticklish laughter.

And then silence. The man stopped playing. And gestured toward you, smiling. Smiling urgently. You took a tentative step closer and he pushed the instrument and the bow into your hands, grinning wildly, encouraging you to play!

There was a wink, and a gesture, and in a confused moment, the man was gone. I was completely uncertain whether or not we were meant to follow. You were holding an erhu…

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