Fiction

Paper lands

ZHEZHI SPIDERS SWARMED over the old lady and her luggage, hunting for drugs and weapons and everything else forbidden in Hu Jintao’s China. They had been folded in their thousands from communist red paper and tittered as they searched, the sound not unlike tearing tissue.

Méiyǒu,’ whispered the spiders, finding nothing. ‘Méiyǒu. Méiyǒu.’ A brooding airport official in a collared navy uniform waved the old lady through customs. She tottered off, crushing a stray spider beneath her bag’s rolling wheels and leaving a crumpled red mess twitching on the glossy tiles.

I knew I must have been searched by zhezhi spiders once before, when we left China for Australia – but that was over twenty years ago, when I was only a baby, so the memory had dissolved like tissue beneath beating rain. I shivered as paper legs rushed across the nape of my neck, through my hair, up my jeans. I didn’t understand why China couldn’t just use the big metal scanners like they had back home.

Spiders swarmed thick through my luggage, scurrying among my clean clothes and writing pad and The Old Man’s ceramic blue urn. One spider crawled up the official’s arm and tittered in his ear. The sound was harsher somehow, more like tearing cardboard. The official pulled the urn from the sea of writhing red legs and turned it over.

Zhège gǔhuī hé li yǒu shénme?’ he asked.

‘Ah… Nàshì…’ I tried to remember the Mandarin word for ‘father’, but my own had scarcely spared a sober moment to teach me.

The official frowned. ‘Nǐ shuō shénme?

‘My father.’ I tapped the urn. ‘I’m sorry, my Mandarin is a bit – maybe English would be better?’

‘You not speak Mandarin?’ The official seemed surprised.

‘No. Sorry.’

‘Wu?’

‘No.’

He shrugged. ‘Open, sir. Zhǐshì diǎndiǎn.’ He mimed a tiny crack.

I did as he asked, so a spider could slip through the gap. Paper legs rustled against the ceramic innards. Several minutes dragged by without the spider’s re-emergence, and the official grew increasingly agitated.

Nǐ kàn dàole shénme?’ he whispered into the open urn.

‘It’s just ashes,’ I said. ‘That’s all. He wanted to be scattered where we used to–’

The official held up a finger to silence me. Stories crept unbidden from the darkest recesses of my mind – stories of drug smugglers slipping their wares into the suitcases of unsuspecting travellers, of corrupt officials detaining innocent tourists till they bribed their way to freedom.

Or perhaps The Old Man had simply stashed some of his painkillers in the urn – one final cruelty before he left us. I could almost see his crooked yellow grin as he booked the tickets. Almost see his greasy grey eyes gleaming as they used to when he told me I was too stupid, too fat. That he should have left me in China, where the factories might have beaten some gratitude into me. I could almost hear his cackle cut short by a croaking cough as the cancer strangled him.

Almost.

The spider crawled from the urn and whispered, ‘Zhǐyǒu zhezhi húdié.’

I didn’t know what that meant, but the official returned the urn and ushered me along, his attention already on the obnoxious American family behind me.

‘What’s with the paper critters?’ I heard the father drawl. ‘Can’t you guys just use scanners, like a normal airport?’

Long, bright hallways led me to an archway with words above it that read Welcome to Shanghai! And like that, I stepped into the ancient land of my father, and his father’s father, and all the fathers who came before him.

 

THE SHANGHAI AIR was thick and grey. My taxi was one of hundreds, inching its way through the bustling streets. Above, Zhezhi sparrows soared through the forest of steel and glass, delivering messages scrawled across their paper wings. Alien figures emerged from the haze: a sweaty old man shucking carp scales into a gutter, another bottling oil from the same source. They wore round white masks over their mouths. Down a dim alley, two young children, a boy and a girl, tossed cigarette butts for a paper dog, which yapped happily as it brought them back.

‘Why do their parents let them go outside without masks?’ I asked my driver.

He shrugged. ‘Sometimes, maybe, no parent.’

The dog dropped a butt by the boy’s foot, and he giggled as it nuzzled his toes with a crumpled snout.

‘What will happen to them?’

‘Sometimes orphanage. The boy, maybe factory. Factory man find and promise good life, then dead by fifteen. The girl… Maybe factory not so bad.’

The girl swept up the paper dog and planted a kiss on its yellowed belly. The traffic resumed moving, and the smog devoured the children whole.

The factories were The Old Man’s favourite threat. A threat that would emerge with every B+, every missed goal, every foul musical note. ‘Maybe I swap you with a little orphan slaving in the factories and see if he try a little harder.’ It was difficult to accept this threat from a part-time janitor who spent entire days stewing in the chair by the TV, smoking the cigarettes and drinking the whisky that would eventually kill him. But perhaps The Old Man had known children who’d actually worked in factories? Perhaps he’d worked in one himself while he was growing up in China?

It never occurred to me to ask.

I had not spoken one word to The Old Man since the day I turned eighteen and moved out with my older brother, Lang. He started a bachelor’s degree in peace and conflict, and I started waiting tables at a local café, with tentative plans to one day write a bestselling novel – we were a far cry from the doctors or engineers The Old Man had hoped for. Five years passed in a blur of girls, weed, Joyce, writing, boys, girls, Keats – but not Frost, never Frost – and more girls. Lang won a university medal and started working for the government. My local café went bankrupt, so I started serving at a bar instead. Once, I managed to get 40,000 words beneath my belt, but then I scrapped the manuscript and started over. I never broke 10,000 again.

After one particularly long shift serving drinks to strangers and stepping gingerly over spilt sick, I received a voicemail from a man with a quivering voice who informed me that The Old Man was dead. I did not cry. I was not sad. I felt only empty, like someone had hollowed me out with a big ice-cream scoop. Inside the chasm that remained, this new truth echoed endlessly: The Old Man is dead.

The Old Man who yelled till I cried in front of the entire under-thirteen tennis tournament? Dead.

The Old Man who threw a bottle at the wall when I told him I’d failed maths? Dead.

The Old Man who locked me in my room every night for a month after Lang admitted we’d snuck out to a party? Dead.

I shared a cigarette with Lang on the lawn of the solicitor’s office. The solicitor – the man with the quivering voice – had explained that The Old Man had paid for my flights and hotel room in the hopes that I might scatter his ashes outside the apartments where I was born.

‘Why me?’ I asked Lang. ‘Why not you?’

Lang shrugged. ‘Maybe deep down, you were his favourite?’

I snorted. ‘Must have been pretty deep down.’ The Old Man had hated us both, but I had always been the bigger disappointment. No university medal for me. No stable career prospects. For my many failings, I had borne the worst of The Old Man’s wrath, and he knew I despised him for it.

I exhaled a mouthful of pale smoke, watched it curl into the air and disappear. ‘How did he even afford this, anyway?’ The Old Man had lost his job scrubbing toilets just two months after Mum died and, as far as I knew, had lived off welfare ever since.

‘Savings, I suppose.’ My brother gestured for the cigarette and took a long drag before handing it back to me. ‘Will you go?’

I shrugged. ‘Do you think he deserves it?’ Having not even mustered a tear for The Old Man’s passing, flying to a different country seemed a tall order indeed.

‘I suppose if nothing else, it’s a free holiday. And no one would know if you just hurled his urn from the hotel balcony.’

I nodded, grinding the last embers of the cigarette beneath my boot. ‘Fuck it then.’

Two weeks later, I was catching a taxi through the bustling streets of Shanghai.

 

Growing up, we never really went on holidays – The Old Man deemed them a waste of money and, hypocritically, a sign of poor moral fortitude. So I was pleasantly surprised by the hotel room. Golden lampshades bathed the walls in a gentle glow. Carved dragons danced along the wooden headboard. Zhezhi fish, dipped in wax to waterproof them, filled the small fishbowl on the desk. Scarlet curtains framed the Shanghai skyline, neon billboards painting colourful smudges in the thick air.

If I were to hurl the urn from the balcony, I wondered briefly, where it would land, and would I even be able to see it? Lang had been right, no one would ever know – least of all The Old Man. As I imagined it smashing against the sidewalk below, I saw my reflection hovering ominously in the glass of the sliding door. I saw the face of a man who might have grown up tossing cigarettes down dim alleyways for paper dogs, who might have spent his days fiddling with steel in a sweltering factory – and would have, if The Old Man had not left this land behind.

I decided to keep his urn. I would scatter his ashes where he wanted. But not today. Tomorrow. After I had rested.

I ordered room service. While I waited, I showered off the eleven-hour flight and emerged, towel wrapped around my waist, just in time to collect my plate of bao. They tasted like the ones Mum used to make for school lunches. I ate them every day until Year 8, when Peter Cooper asked why I always ate weird ‘chink food’. I threw them away and told Mum, who told The Old Man, who yelled at the principal until Peter Cooper was forced to write a formal letter of apology to me.

I had forgotten about that. Occasionally, The Old Man’s rage had been wielded as a shield and not a weapon. Perhaps, deep down, he really did love me. Or else he just relished the chance to yell at someone.

After stuffing myself with barbecue pork and pastry, I sat by the window, watching the skyline and doodling in my writing journal. Scraps of sentences I hoped one day might be stitched into something beautiful. Having recently read A Hundred Years of Solitude and then devoured everything else ever written by Gabriel García Márquez, my work had begun to develop a distinct magical realism style. My new story was about a heroin addict who lived in a world where all narcotics were administered by insect stings – but no matter how much I hacked at paper with pen, nothing seemed to work. The characters were lifeless, the world flat and the plot pointless and meandering.

‘Writing,’ scoffed The Old Man when I showed him my first published story. ‘We didn’t come here so you could waste your life on something meaningless.’

Maybe he was right. It had been over a year since I’d sold my last story.

Maybe he was right about factory orphans working harder too. Maybe if they’d been given an Australian education and Australian opportunities, they would have ended up doctors and lawyers.

Maybe.

Maybe.

Maybe.

I tore the page from my writing book and scrunched it up, then had another idea. I flattened it out and folded it into a paper crane, following instructions I found online. I reasoned it couldn’t be that hard to fold life from paper, if orphans in an alleyway could manage it – but when I held my breath and tossed it over the balcony, my little crane plummeted straight down, lost somewhere in the swirling grey.

I didn’t stay up much longer. As I drifted off to sleep, I imagined that The Old Man’s urn was trembling slightly on the mantelpiece.

 

I CAUGHT THE Metro across the city to Fengxian, where our old apartment was. The train was crammed full. I could smell the perfume and body odour of at least a dozen different people. I wondered how anyone could live like that, packed in less like human beings and more like cattle being driven to the slaughter – particularly when those who could afford the Metro were reasonably well off.

The apartment block was squat and grey, like a big brick someone had carved windows into. I could not imagine the cruelty of raising a child here. Even at our poorest, we had always had space and colour and a backyard in Australia.

‘Alright, Old Man,’ I whispered. ‘This is what you wanted.’

I opened his urn, then dropped it in shock. Zhezhi moths burst free, filling the air with their fluttering wings. I had never even realised The Old Man could fold, but there his creations were, fluttering around lampposts and landing on the pavement.

One settled upon my shoulder, and I saw it was folded from an old polaroid. Faded faces adorned its wings: The Old Man grinning, years before he became The Old Man, and a baby I recognised as me. Every flap brought us together. Apart. Together. Apart.

The moth did not resist as I took it in my hands and unfolded it, revealing a picture I had never seen before. It showed my father smiling as he gently lowered me into a bucket serving as a bath.

I plucked another moth from the smog and saw my father standing in a white lab coat before a tray of steel instruments. He must have been training as a dentist, I realised, before he left to scrub toilets in Australia. I wondered why he had never regained his qualifications, and why he never once mentioned his former profession to me.

Another moth showed my father at a table heaped high with steaming bowls of food, surrounded by grinning people I had never met. Friends or family, left behind in Shanghai.

Another showed Mum and Dad holding hands in Shanghai airport. Mum held me at her breast while Lang peered out from behind Dad’s legs. They had three small suitcases with them: all the belongings in the world they had taken with them to Australia.

Every moth was a photo. Every photo a memory. Every memory a sacrifice, made so Lang and I would not grow up in a squat grey building, tossing cigarettes down dark alleyways for a paper dog.

I cried then. Not for the dad I had known, but for the dad I had never known. The dad who would have had friends and family and a career – who would have been happy, if not for me.

I jumped for the other moths, desperate to catch them and stuff them in my pockets. But I was too slow – the wind had already swept them from reach. In the night, a storm would hit; come morning, they would be nothing but mush, clogging up a gutter somewhere.

Griffith Review