Everything I wrote was tinged with the Li Bai poem, “Quiet Night Thoughts.” On a whim, I Googled Li Bai and learned that in 725, he ventured from his Sichuan home at 24 years old to wander and write. I also come from a family that left Sichuan, though we settled in Taiwan. Later in life, Li Bai was exiled from China. This time, he was condemned to roam and his writing faltered. One day, drunk and homesick on his boat, he grasped at the moon’s reflection in the water. He tipped over and drowned.
This is my retelling of his story.
When Li Bai was seven, he noted that the houses in his alley shouldered each other for more space. So, when he and his cousins strutted down the streets, they stretched their arms in a big, taunting yawn.
The neighborhood was a maze that looped. Li Bai pinched and pushed his cousins out the door of their A-Ma’s house in a race back home. He stuck to the main street and sprinted like an overripe tomato. He sneered at the younger cousins who panted from behind. But, the nine and ten year olds all returned to the house in half the time. He couldn’t wait to be old and fast like them.
The cousins had traced and retraced the outlines of the neighborhood until they’ve memorized every feature. So, Li Bai led them to the gutter on the side of the street that carried the neighborhood’s sewage water. It was the last secret to learn. The gutter was enclosed on both sides by slimy, moldy walls and the pathway was so narrow that there might as well have been a sign across the entrance: no adults allowed.
All eight leapt into the murky sludge with a splatter. The shade and stench swallowed their bodies.
“Ew, stop farting!” Li Bai pointed his stubby fingers at his cousins in suffocating giggles.
The eldest advised them to breathe in deeply so they got used to the smell quicker. They inched forward towards the light, a team of brave little crabs.
Finally, the cousins tumbled out into an opening at the end of the tunnel. Their nostrils flared in the fresh air. They squinted to adjust to the vibrancy. Then, they saw.
Flowers sprung from the earth like lollipops on the $1 candy store stand. Birds filled the air with songs like ding-dong ditched doorbells. Yellow and white butterflies fretted in every direction like kites in the summer sky. Vines hung like clothe-lines that swayed in the breeze. They waved the insects away from their eyes and spat them out of their gaping mouths. Li Bai marveled at his cousins, marbles that glistened under the sun.
The eldest instructed them to find the source. Li Bai furrowed his caterpillar eyebrows in concentration. He cocked his ears to tune into the trickling water. Of course, it was the sewage water fed by the bathwater fed by the dirt and grime of bodies. It brimmed with life.
They sprinted home. Sweat trickled down Li Bai’s bangs and sludge smeared all over his radish-smooth calves. A-Ma claimed Li Bai and dragged him upstairs. He was her favorite grandchild.
A-Ma turned on the hot water faucet. In the steam, each breath was a sip of warm tea. She lowered Li Bai’s slippery body into the bathing basin like an offering. He dipped his big toe in the water. It prickled him.
“A-Ma, too hot! I’ll be roasted alive!”
But, A-Ma shook her head and chuckled. And sure enough, the water was the perfect warmth when she slid his whole body into the circular basin. He loved listening to the water brim over, waterfalls that cascaded to tuck him in.
After A-Ma scrubbed him with soap and accidental nails, he welcomed the dead skin that collected around the outline of his stomach and clung on the edges of the basin. These were now the most treasured parts of him. He pushed the milky flakes away from him in the tachi-way A-Ma does, only to beam when the waves returned them to his body.
He stood up in the basin. The pool of leftovers from his body splashed and swirled down the drain. A-Ma rolled a towel over his bulging tummy and dug under his armpit. He knew where the dirt and grime led to now. His mind traveled down the gutter to the sewage that brimmed. Li Bai felt that he learned the most important thing in the world today.
In San Francisco, Li Bai travels through hills so steep cars cling on to each other to keep from sliding. Passengers toss and tumble on the bus like eggplants stir-fried in a pan. Li Bai rides the bus down Sacramento Street.
Out of the blur of slanted houses, he glimpses the street that drops into the ocean. The view surprises him like an exposed belly brimming through an outstretched shirt. In his mind, he races his cousins down these hills to the setting sun. On the bus, he traces and retraces the outlines of buildings, but he can never memorize every feature.
The bus brakes. His body lurches forward. He waits for the whiplash to return his body. It never comes.
Li Bai had ventured from Sichuan to San Francisco to write poetry. At first, the new pieces of literature whispered into his enraptured ears. His new friends permitted him to fumble with his words as he stumbled on his identity. But, his newfound experiences made him illegible to his family in Sichuan. His fears and values were apparitions that he grasped at until he reached the end of language and understanding with his family. And there, he abandoned them. Silence accumulated between him and his family like dead skin on his body. His travel feels like an exile now. He wanders more and writes less in a land he holds no heritage to.
His travel feels like an exile now. He wanders more and writes less in a land he holds no heritage to.
Li Bai gets off the bus at Drumm and Clay and descends underground. He settles into a worn seat on Bart. The stench is detectable no matter how many breaths he’s taken. He loathes the dirt and grime on his own body from this foreign land.
The train starts slowly and sloshes out of the narrow tunnel into the open night. Below him is the black mass of the ocean. He marvels at how large the waves are, how cold the water. The compartment sways on the ocean. He is seasick. In his nausea, he welcomes the refreshing water and the encompassing waves to cleanse him of his dirt and grime. He imagines the ocean littered with the leftovers of his body. The fog is dense outside his window. He misses the bath time steam when A-Ma would wash off all the milky flakes from his body. But, at twenty-four, he is too big to fit in the metal basin.
The Bart slants and he is suspended on the tilted tracks. Then, to his wonder, he spots the bright moon reflected in the water right below him. He leans in and allows the train to lower him: an offering to end the exile.
The moon’s round edges blur like ink.
He grasps at it.
He never tips into the water.
The Bart straightens on its tracks and lifts Li Bai and his outstretched arms back up. They speed into another narrow tunnel.
The screech on the tracks is deafening. The compartment trembles. They are trapped in the kettle’s final scream. The darkness of the tunnel swallows his body.
Suddenly, he remembers. The gutter: the site of creation.
The memory knocks him into being. In the sewage with his cousins when he was eight, he learned that the discarded dirt and grime of his body was the source of fertility.
The dead skin of silence is the source. Dig there. Write from there.
In the quiet night, he notices the moonlight that floods onto the compartment floor like frost. He locates the moon, the one up above, and lowers his head to write the childhood poem.
床前明月光 Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
疑是地上霜 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng
舉頭望明月 Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè
低頭思故鄉 Dītóu sī gùxiāng
The poem that beckons lost children home.
Annie (Ying-Ann) Chen was born and raised in Taiwan, grew up in an international school in Shanghai, briefly lived in Michigan, read and wrote in Berkeley, and is now living in San Francisco, a city she adores. She majored in English and Social Welfare at UC Berkeley and is now working at API Legal Outreach. She feels very lucky to be a part of the API community in the Bay Area.
In 2021, Annie was named an Honorable Mention, College Category in the inaugural Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prize for her work, Stamp Thief.