Translated by: Karen Curtis
This story by Dorothy Tse is taken from A Dictionary of Two Cities, a compendium of short stories – co-authored with another acclaimed Hong Kong writer, Hon Lai-chu – that adapts the structure of a dictionary and expounds the tales of different cities replete with their own myths and memories, fears and desires. Dorothy’s cities are magical, strange, yet terrifyingly real – her haunting images can leave you reeling, with the feeling of being turned inside out.
‘Regurgitated’ is about City 64, the city that devours, then regurgitates its children. 6, the month; 4, the date; 1989, or any other year.
Another story by Dorothy Tse, “January: Bridges”, has also been published on Read Paper Republic.
‘Hong Kong literature inside and outside of the Umbrella Movement‘, a new essay by Dorothy Tse, can be read at PEN Atlas (translated by Michael Day)
The collective desire of City 64: To exit from the entrance.
The news that a son had been eaten came at three thirty-three in the afternoon.
At first the news was no more than a current of air brushing past the old faded clippings on the Democracy Wall and the apolitical colors of the national flag. Everything was scattered by the breeze like blossoms in azalea season. The professor bent down, and then further down, to pick up a broken finger of chalk in the classroom. As the news in his head gradually fragmented into an inverted vision, the classroom door suddenly burst open. From under the floor rose the hypnotic hum of a megaphone; the lily-white legs of the female students hung upside-down from the ceiling. Someone noticed a shudder pass through the professor’s shoulders, like an electric shock.
The professor’s shiny leather shoes followed the students as they began to disperse. Towering, corrugated iron sheets enclosed several academic buildings under repair, but inside a glass house, people taking their afternoon tea were exposed to prying eyes. A poster torn in half, a half-open mouth stuffed with breadcrumbs: a complete, opaque digestive system.
The professor decided to walk down his old street. There, forgotten objects and antiquated knowledge again drew the attention of the owners who had originally abandoned them. One of the fortunetellers, draped in a robe, was lighting the first lamp. A circle of light, moon-shaped, appeared on his face.
“The weak-willed must confront the mouth of a lion,” he said.
The professor’s eardrum quivered like a moth about to fly from a wall. Blind shadows grew at nightfall; a gap slowly narrowed. Half of a woman’s face appeared to float by, then instantly disappeared. Someone in the city lit a fire. A fanatic in the guise of an evangelist, waiting to pounce on puzzled passersby, stood on a path they were bound to follow.
“Everyone has a desire to be eaten,” the professor whispered in the woman’s ear. She pointed her finger angrily at an abandoned temple on the roadside. In front of the temple was a pond overgrown with lotuses, the bottom of its murky water strewn with rusty coins and symbols waiting to be exchanged. Before the woman had had time to utter her metaphor, the professor ran towards the pond.
“Dip your aged skull in the water, and sodden memories will sink their teeth into you.”
A juicy tongue protruded from his memories; time expanded like an opening throat. As the professor explored the slowly parting lips, the helmet of his penis felt a warm, magnetic pull. A young girl clutching a teddy bear stepped into the old man’s field of vision.
“Lick me like you did before.” The professor closed his eyes, and knelt on the ground like a devout holy man.
“Pray, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will open for you.” The girl with the teddy bear was standing in front of the temple, about to open a secret door, but now she directed the professor with her gaze to a pile of pink vomit over which circled happy flies. The professor’s stomach twitched.
It was said that the young women of City 64 would demand the stomachs of the men they were dating – just as girls in other cities asked for men’s hearts. These women were the same in that they wanted proof, not of love, but of all that lay concealed between sugary words and rough actions, between gourmet delicacies and mushy excretions. They would put on their gloves and place the collected organs, one by one, inside transparent bodies.
A dusty machine on a street corner. Inside its vitreous stomach lay a heap of bears, with only each other for company. Above them hung a spider-like metal claw, its eight weary, ice-cold legs curled up. The toy vendor was wearing a boy’s baseball cap to hide his balding head.
“If you feed it a coin, the machine will come alive again.”
Some women walked past without paying any attention. Once young girls who flaunted teddy bears in the front pockets of their bags, they were now complete strangers to bears, and were slowly swallowed up in the supermarket crowds.
Carts jostled. Arms scrambled for the shelves. Piles of tins of bear meat, injected with additives and made from indeterminate ingredients. Consuming bear meat was the current craze. The women chose these tins the same way they had chosen the stuffed bears. In fact, they had no other choice. The sharp teeth of the opener rotated along the rim of the tin like a bicycle wheel. They poured out the compressed, cylindrical blocks of ground meat and mixed it into eggs beaten to a foam. The yellow froth slowly vanished into the thick paste.
The professor pressed his finger against the ice-cold glass and pointed at the bear meat pancake. It was in a delicate tinfoil container. As his knife and fork carved a cross in the center of the pancake, the smell of piping-hot, putrefied meat assailed his nostrils. He recalled the photo of a bear in the papers: its upright body with two front paws on a garbage can, and a piece of rotten cardboard in its mouth. This was when it was first discovered that the starving bears had begun to scavenge on the city’s abandoned landfills. There were five people in the coffee shop: all with their heads down, eating their portions of bear mixed with eggs. A bear was peeping at them from the other side of the window. It was an elderly giant teddy bear, standing lonely in the crowded mall.
The professor’s stomach twitched again. Dreams were the last excretions of the day.
In the dream he came across a face completely blank apart from a blood-red mouth. As its two cheeks gradually swelled he realized it was about to vomit. The lips of a vulva and a baby’s slow-moving hand, burst open like a blossoming rose. Bloody scissors deftly cut the dream into two. The professor woke up in shock; in the toilet was a whirlpool, within which he could not discern life or death.
Beneath the ground, unpredictable currents swirled, two tectonic plates moved. In a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, a smoking village was swallowed up. The earth crust spat out only broken arms and crushed bones. A hungry stray dog lingered in the rubble. Those with ears to the ground could hear the persistent clanging of the water pipes. The animal, too, seemed to sense the starving bear at the faraway North Pole, trembling feet standing on thin ice.
The bear was eaten by another bear.
In the forest, men holding hunting rifles were slowly approaching. The first Indian to eat a bear lit a pipe, inserted it into the bear’s mouth and filled the carcass with smoke. He ate its meat but at the same time placated its soul with the smoke.
“That was The Story of the Bear.” The professor’s mother told him while caressing his forehead. He had once seen his mother’s other lips from behind a door. The lips swallowed his father’s wrinkled penis and spat out a wrinkled baby. Mother said: “In a faraway forest, a house made of candy swallowed two lost children.” He saw the school open its huge gates, devouring more children.
The school was a massive digestive system, its excretions strewn all over the city.
The elevator door opened like a tilted mouth as a hesitant man was pushed inside by the crowd, closed, then opened again. A child pointed at it and said: “This is an unmanned spaceship.”
The professor had heard long ago that people were sometimes consumed by City 64. No one knew the details. After all, the historical city had always been covered by a powerful monitoring network like a mosquito net. Even news that had traveled halfway into the air was shot down by secret hunting rifles.
Cities had long been planned like a human body. A friend of Foucault’s once wrote a book about the body and the city in which he quoted from John of Salisbury: “People should therefore move… rapidly in a market because digestion occurs like a quick-burning fire in the stomach.”
The metro was a modernized organism that lived within cyclical actions, where destination was displaced by speed. There was no absorption or excretion; the city was simply swelling up like a monster.
The Monument was a penis; the Square, a mouth. The sound of the megaphone was a call; its gaping throat had a mother’s power. Many, like bears, walked into it, as the gentle tongue of an army tank licked up a youth and his spilled blood. Some were digested, others excreted. Ultimately, the Square was an empty, gaping mouth, like the terrified, mute hole on the face in “The Scream”. This made the city stronger.
This all happened in the last century, the professor’s friend turned around to say. In the communal bathroom, they aimed their urine accurately at the row of shiny, white urinals, the acrid yellow waste transported by the automatic flush system to the underground pipes amid the sound of rolling waters. Cars whizzed by on the streets; the tunnel had opened its enormous mouth. Stepping out of the bathroom, the professor and his companion made their way to a lecture.
The passengers in the car were each promised a pane of fantasy glass.
The professor remembered his still-drenched head. When he looked up, the evangelist was standing behind him. There was no one left on the streets to be saved; she could only cry out to the sky. He would stand in the lecture hall by himself, presenting an alternative theory of the origins of man: “In the beginning, the world opened a mouth that was the size of a giant whale. Mothers sucked the placentas of other mothers, bears swallowed other bears. Men who had been excreted were dispersed like diluted sperm…”
Some people, crushed to death by cars on the highway the day before, floated past in the sky. “Today will be sunny, with free-flowing traffic, and only a few small creases on the city’s surface,” said the radio announcer. As for the news that a son had been eaten: it came written on a thin paper oracle. The fortuneteller flung it into the air.
“Before tomorrow, the sky will stick out its tongue to lick it away.”