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Collecting Gods

By Wu I-Wei, translated by Conor Stuart. First published in English in Translating Taiwan in 2015, and reprinted in Stand, 2017.

Read in Chinese here.

The outside of the embankment was still a deep green in early autumn, the only exception being the cotton-like grey of the miscanthus ears, spreading out in a continuous unbroken strip of their own, the branches appearing a lot softer when in the wind. Amidst the rustling of the leaves and grass, one could hear a clacking sound, like something was rolling toward the riverside. Pushing aside the undergrowth as she went, an old hunch-backed woman dragged a ragged looking old pram along the ground. The frilly lace on it had already gone black and it was full of plastic bottles and sheets of used paper. She looked hesitantly in all directions as she made her way onward, her body lowered to enable her easier access to the ground. The rickety wheels continued to clack as she made her way along the riverbank searching for anything of value.  Behind her ran a line of corrugated iron shacks and across a few loofah trellises, was a small path, cut out among the weeds, leading to a little temple, with a roof of red glazed tiles and mottled yellow walls with several scars, as if marked by lightning. The door was wide enough for a person to pass through with their arms outstretched and the statues of the lords of the three realms - the heavens, the earth and the waters - stood fixed on a platform under the roof, golden crowns on their heads and beards down to their chests, each holding a tablet underlining their divine authority, clothed in official garb of glistening divine gold.

Beyond this, one could glimpse a red table laid out with offerings with electric candles that burned all year round. The offerings of food and wine were given out and replaced at a fixed time every day by local devotees of the temple, who would burn incense in offering on mornings and evenings in exchange for their entreaties. Huh? What happened? Over half of the chicken and snacks just put out there this morning have been eaten! And the bones and scraps have been thrown on the ground; the rice wine is all gone and there are only five glasses of red wine left of the six originally poured out. It was hard to believe that the mess left on the table had really been left there by ravenous gods taking mortal form to satisfy their craving for food. Down below the table a twelve year old child was hiding, with fatty chicken grease still glistening around his mouth and the missing glass of wine in his hand. He looked tipsy and said that he wanted to raise a toast with the three lords, with an indistinctness suggesting he was hovering on the boundary of the world of the gods.

That was me.

When I was out playing my wild games and there was still no trace of me by dusk, my parents would go to the little temple beyond the embankment, and if they saw me once again sharing a table of wine and delicacies with the gods, they would light some incense and beseech the gods to keep in mind that I was still young, so they shouldn't be angry with me, and then they would give me a telling off right there in front of the statues before carrying me home on their backs. In my fuzzy memory of this event, the little temple had already lit up its fluorescent lights in the twilight and the murmured chanting continued without end. It got dark quickly and by the time we got up on to the embankment, it had already become like a lone island, asserting its existence only with faint lights.

My father wanted me to be more respectful, as a temple was a temple, the home of the gods. But I hadn't thought about it that much, as, to me, the little temple beyond the embankment didn't have any of the weight of belief, it was just a playground. One could skip with jump rope in the temple square or run around playing tag. Although I went often, I never lit any incense - the curling waves of incense smoke prayers transmitting people's inner desires - as, faced with the gods, I would often just return their stares blankly, without any real thought.

My mother worried that I would be punished by the gods for my lack of respect. When my neighbours heard what had happened they burst out laughing and joked that I might be able to communicate with the gods, as no other child would dare to get up to such high jinks at the temple, and that perhaps I'd been given special permission by the gods to do so. At that time, if someone was said to be able to communicate with the gods, it meant they would go on to make a fortune. Illegal lotteries were really popular in that era and people were eager to establish a connection to the gods in order to get information on which lucky numbers to put their money on, so they could become a millionaire overnight. The temple would often be crowded with grownups at night asking for lottery tips, as I heard, some people had won huge sums from numbers they got there, earning the place somewhat of a reputation. Our neighbours had invited my parents to go with them to ask for lucky numbers from the gods on several occasions, but they always refused, as father said our family wasn't favoured by the god of wealth. I never saw the temple bustling with devotees and their incense sticks at night, and the only impression of the temple I held in my mind’s eye was the leisurely serenity it possessed in the daytime, with a light breeze blowing.

From the higher points of the way directly out of the gate of the temple on to the riverbank, one could survey the landscape running along the river. Lots of abandoned statues of the gods could be seen on the riverbank then; some had washed up from upstream, while others had been chucked from the bridges overhead. Unlike the impressive bearing of the three gods in the little temple with their gold medals, the gods strewn along the riverbank were damaged and muddied, with no sandalwood frame surrounding them and lacking their aura of majesty. The blank solemnity of their expressions appeared now like a bitter grievance, how much hate had they inspired to end up in such an awful state? Some of their arms had been split from their bodies with a careless kick; some of their black bodies had been splattered with red paint, as if bleeding in their tattered silk robes. Even more pitiable were those lonely statues which had become lodged against a rock in the river, with the flowing waters giving voice to their sobs, as they called for their severed heads, which had drifted off to some unknown place.

This made the riverbank seem immersed in an atmosphere of grief, which not even the joyful shouts of me and my friends at play could mask.

My mother said, this was because no one there had won the lottery and the devotees had taken it to heart and then taken it out on the gods. My playmates didn’t dare to get too close to these unfortunate statues of gods while we played by the riverside, so we had to carefully skip over them, in fear that we would break a taboo by touching them. Only one person was unafraid and that was the old recyclables collector, who would come on to the riverside after doing a lap of the village. She was unable to straighten her back, so she would always have her head lowered and despite the swarthy pigment of her drooping wrinkled skin, one could still see dark brown spots on it. She gathered plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and disfigured gods into her pram, all the while one could hear her mumbling to herself, as if in protest.

One afternoon, as I was making my way home from the temple, the familiar clacking sound of the pram wheels rang out and the old lady appeared in front of me. When she turned on to another small path on the embankment, I was curious despite myself, so I followed her, attempting to avoid detection. She stopped outside a plastic tent where all the things she collected had been piled. The left side was obscured by blue and white striped canvas sheeting. She lifted up the statue of the god, raised the canvas flap and entered the tent, which meant I could no longer see her. I gathered my courage and snuck up on her on my tip toes hiding to one side, giving myself a view through the slit in the tent.

Her body was prostrate, her back, already hunched, was twisted further still, and her hands were joined in worship, her eyes closed and her mouth reciting some silent prayer. In front of her, were placed several dozen of the ill-fated statues in a tidy fashion. It was a rather cramped space. There was the Third Lotus Prince without his customary vehicle powered by wind and fire; there was the broken body of a red-faced Lord Guan taped together crookedly and many other deities I didn't know the name of, crowded in beside each other. They were all so uniformly solemn that they almost seemed to fuse into one large Buddha statue, enjoying together the small saucer of peanuts that had been placed in front of the table. The old lady had bathed them, so they were free of mud and there were no weeds entangled around their bodies. I looked at them and it seemed that they were looking right back at me. The uncanny sense of desolation that their fractured bodies had evoked in my mind retreated, as they had returned, once more, to the familiar offerings table, with someone worshipping them morning and night.

I had zoned out to the extent that I didn't notice that the old woman had already turned her head back around in my direction. I was startled. The wrinkle-laden corners of her mouth lifted slightly and she gestured at me with her hands joined together. I responded politely in kind and bowed to the statues. She smiled at me again and I didn't know how to respond, so I just ran away. As I sped away, a warm feeling surfaced within me, and I started to laugh to my own surprise, feeling incredibly at ease.

One day, not long after this, I arrived early at the riverbank, having arranged to play in the water with friends and I saw a statue floating down towards me from afar. After knocking against the bank several times, it was pushed back by the current to the centre of the river. After floating along for a while, it lodged against some rocks, with one side of its body submerged in the water. Only half of its face remained and it stared straight at me, as if it was tired and had no resistance left to offer up. I psyched myself up and jumped into the river, my left arm outstretched, desperate to touch the statue, and I almost succeeded. I pushed further forward still and the water reached a point above my knees, but the statue was still just beyond my reach. I went further and the water touched my thighs, further still and it was above my hips. Just as I felt my arm was on the point of making contact with the statue, suddenly the ground gave out and there was nothing but water beneath my feet. I had fallen into a massive crater and struggled in vain as the water transformed into a million hands, caressing my chest, my face, my hair, the pull rendering me unable to move against it. In between waves of water I bobbed up and down, the movement of my arms only serving to create more waves. The statue moved, once again following the current of the river, moving further and further away from me, further and further...

I began to drift from consciousness, embraced tightly by the bone-chilling cold and surrounded with bubbles and dirty river water. I couldn't see clearly. In this skewed world, the trees and the blue sky merged into one... Suddenly, a piece of wood landed on the water’s surface with a splash. I grabbed on to it, gasping for air. I took a deep breath and kicked my legs desperately in the water. As I raised my head I saw the old lady standing on the riverbank, with another piece of wood in her hands.

When I woke up I was already back home. My friends said that they had discovered me lying on the river bank when they had arrived and had hurriedly gone off to find an adult to rescue me. For several days, I felt as if I hadn't escaped from the river, as if my entire body was still bobbing up and down in the water. I couldn't be sure if it was the old woman who had saved me, but the floating statue of the god was still clear in my mind, drifting closer at times only to drift away again, its dark face was the alarming black spot in my vision, just out of my grasp. Then in a moment, it would float right in front of me, with its eyes wide open, its glaring pupils were all one colour, without eye sockets, and I was unable to tell if the wetness at the corners of its eyes were tears or dirty river water. The wooden body immediately began to rot and sprout moss and then it was smashed to pieces by a powerful crash of the water...

For a long time, I didn't return to the riverside. Seeing me in such low spirits, as if having lost something of myself, my parents became alarmed and asked around for solutions. There was nothing at all wrong with me physically, so my neighbour concluded that I was in shock, and that perhaps I'd come in contact with something unclean in the river. He advised my parents to get the gods to exorcise me of the evil spirits possessing me, and that the little temple beyond the embankment was particularly good at these exorcisms.

And so, I came back.

However, this time it was 9 o’clock at night, so it wasn’t as calm as during the day and the temple square was bustling under the stars, something I was not accustomed to seeing. The embankment was full of parked cars and shadows were making their way in this direction one after another. The slightly chubby topless spirit medium in a red bandanna closed his eyes and shook his head. Beside the offering table, a temple acolyte shouted, “He’s about to start!” Everyone took a few steps backward and the man jumped up from his seat, swaying around the circle of onlookers, occasionally swigging a mouthful of wine, then spitting it back out, his lips quivering, until two thick-set men pulled him back. Only then did he sit back down, take up a red cinnabar brush and begin to dab it on some joss paper, then he stopped with both his arms hanging in the air, his lips mouthing something. The acolyte called for quiet and the boisterous hubbub of the temple was suddenly muted.

Everyone waited with bated breath.

The acolyte shouted “It's open! It's open!” At the instant the medium’s brush fell, everyone pushed forward to see. I saw the medium flash by through gaps in the crowd. He was shaking his head with his eyes closed, his brow furrowed and his lips trembling. The cinnabar brush was scrawling crazily on sheet after sheet of joss paper, and it all looked completely unintelligible, but the acolyte collected them all up. After the medium stopped a clamour of voices arose from the surrounding crowd, each person rushing to extend their hand out with a cash offering in a red envelope in exchange for the joss paper. The acolyte gave it out sheet by sheet. Some of those who got one left the temple in a hurry, as if unwilling to reveal some secret martial arts move they had been entrusted with. Others had a tense expression and hurriedly picked over the joss paper with friends, seeking a revelation in numbers.

Those who hadn't received a sheet waited for the next session of divine instruction. Taking advantage of the break, my mum and dad took me to the spirit medium to ask his advice. He looked tipsy and chattered incomprehensibly. A pungent whiff of alcohol hit me. The acolyte explained that the lords of the three realms of the waters, the earth and the heavens had stated that I was possessed by a water ghost and that I must go through an exorcism. He told me to stand in front of the medium so that he could hit me with joss paper, as he continued to speak in tongues.

I didn’t dare move, as the hubbub of the crowd, the chanting of scriptures and the murmurings of the medium fused to form little ball shapes, which hit me from all sides. Pain. The onlookers had not left, and threw all kinds of looks at me, some urgent, some troubled, some pitying, some shocked. The small temple was full of desires at night; the smoke from three incense sticks swirling up into the sky were noisy with desire. People stood with their hands joined piously, hoping that the gap between their palms would expand endlessly, stuffed with cash. Were the lords of the three realms really satisfying them? The murmuring of the medium continued to rattle on. Was he really the lords of the three realms? Did he know that I was the guy who often came to share a table with them? Had all this happened because of my connection to the gods? Or was it actually a form of punishment? The medium still had his eyes closed and his mouth was now sealed too, like a statue, as if he was refusing to communicate with me in any way, leaving my questions dangling. Anxiety. His swift hands drew figures on my back. Was he drawing the figures that he’d just drawn? I became a piece of joss paper with characters on my back and the anxious glances around me continued to crowd me, eager to know the secrets being inscribed on my back. Don’t get too close! Don’t get too close! They could be heard murmuring, “Has the channel to the gods opened?”, “Has it opened?” “Is it a 1?”, “Is it a 7?”, “Is it a 9?” “What the hell is it?”

It’s a ghost. The medium said that I had a ghost in my body and a terrible image arose in my mind: the river was in front of me and something soaking wet was crawling towards me, an arm, a leg, half a torso. Why? You were all gods before. Terror. Sweat began to form on my face, my hands and my back. (The acolyte said, it’s the ghost reacting). Shiver. (The acolyte said, it’s the ghost resisting). Distance. The familiar cheer the temple had in the daytime had disappeared without a trace in the dark of the night. Raising my head to look, I saw the lords of the three realms sporting the golden medals forged from the gratitude of the devotees gathered all around me. They were so shiny. The medium suddenly scratched my body. I knelt down, facing the riverbed, which was as black as if it were filled with statues of the gods; the white spots remaining in my vision were unable to resist the pure shadow.

I felt powerless and dropped my head. (The acolyte said, the ghost has yielded.)

When I woke up the next day I felt like I was in a dream, as if my spirits had returned. I never went to the little temple again, as there had been a rupture; the gentle serenity was just a facade. I reminisced about the old woman’s plastic tent - that very informal altar and the very unimpressive gods. There was still some of the warmth I felt that day in my heart, merging with the image of the smooth surface of the river, as it babbled along.

I still heard whispers of the legend of the lottery winners from the small temple, but the legend eventually ran its course. My father said that a man who had lost over a million dollars stole the statues of the three lords and when he was caught he said that the gods had cheated him and that he had long ago thrown them in the river and now didn’t know where they’d gone. I wasn’t hurt to hear this news; it actually made me happy. The clacking of the wheels of the old lady’s pram started up, tat tat tat, tat tat tat. I made a silent prayer that the three lords would be picked up by someone like the old lady who would serve them piously, far from the incense smoke of desires.

It was the first time I’d asked anything of the gods.