Diana Xin's work appears most recently in Diagram, Electric LIterature, Missouri Review, Baltimore Review, and Third Coast Magazine. She is a recipient of fellowships from Hedgebrook, Artist Trust of Washington State, and the M Literary Residency. She serves as a contributing editor to Moss, a journal of the Pacific Northwest.
At first, the problem seemed transferrable. Commutable. The problem had a shape and a size, which allowed it to be quantified and apportioned and redistributed. The problem was within their purview, but it was not solely their problem. Certainly, they had contributed to the problem — continued contributing to the problem — but so did everyone else, didn’t they? The problem was communal, and so it made sense that the solution should be, too.
Thus, they loaded the problem up into two wheelbarrows. It consisted of things they recognized — McDonald’s chicken sandwich wrappers from a few nights before, an empty carton of Big Panda cigarettes, and cheap bath slippers that had fallen apart a week after Erhu purchased them — but there was also plenty of it that had nothing to do with them, that had already accumulated in their rental long before they arrived: indented bottles of used-up shampoo, foil sheets of expired red pills, a sheaf of someone’s Bible.
They stuffed these into plastic bags and dropped the bags into the wheelbarrows. They waited until the middle of the night, and then, like little goblins, crept out into the alley, their crooked shadows stretching long against the street. Bazu hitched the wheelbarrows to their bicycles and together they rode miles outside their vicinity, heading east where the city grew larger and more modern, roads widening into canyons and buildings looming tall enough to eat you. They followed these arterials into one of the city’s many hearts — Erhu didn’t know which because he was always lost, unable to set landmarks among the repeating architecture. Even here though, there were backstreets, venal capillaries, and in the backstreets the garbage slumped in discarded piles along the walls.
They set their bags down among these others, laid them gently into the niches of the brick walls like bundles of unwanted children. Soon, a kind stranger would come and take them where they belonged, Erhu quietly reassured each one as it left his arms, lightening the weight on his chest. He hadn’t even realized how much weight sat upon him until now.
“A clean start,” Bazu said, clapping him on the shoulder.
Erhu smiled as if he believed him.
They’d arrived in the city two months ago, because where else was there to go? In the city were jobs, money, women to woo and bring home to the village, should they be so lucky.
Bazu went first and Erhu followed, as he always did. This was his namesake. Born six days after Bazu, he was the second boy in the year of the tiger at the foot of Tiger Mountain. As they grew, he became known as Bazu’s shadow, the second tiger, erhu. Eventually, even his parents forgot what they had intended to call him.
And how did Bazu get his name? He was such a terror they called him little ancestor, xiao zuzong, planted in the household to rule his parents’ lives. As trouble multiplied at his hands, the villagers decided one ancestor alone could not wreak this much havoc. There must be at least eight, ba, inside him. Before he turned eight himself, he was already known as Bazu.
In the city, no one knew or cared for these names. The two went by the characters printed on their urban registration cards, their unsmiling faces like strangers burned onto plastic.
Back in their cramped hutong, Erhu wiped down the crevices and cracks along the window with a wet towel. The dirt here was different than the dirt in the country — sticky grime instead of silty sand. He swept up the dregs in the corners, gathering bits of leaves, old gum wrappers with their shine dulled, other unidentifiable crumbs and scraps. He brushed them out and released them into the air.
Small problems, trifling little things — they circulate awhile and eventually disappear. Other problems, though — let them go, and they continue to grow. A problem could lurk with three heads and nine tails. Slice one off and another grows back. How do you stay on top of a problem like that?
Some people can do it, no sweat. Some people take their trash out to the curb and overnight it’s gone. Magic, or municipal fees. Not so with them. Garbage always seemed to drift at their feet, inside their new home or along the narrow side street.
Erhu tried not to keep track, but it was impossible to avoid taking notice. Wasn’t that the sleeve of potato chips he had devoured for breakfast the other day? The wet dew glistening on a child’s cracked yoyo, dusty but still translucent, made him suspiciously nostalgic. It was as if a thing he’d once lost had returned to him, battered and dusty. Peering into the cavity of a chicken carcass (perhaps the same animal they’d consumed a few nights before), he found himself pondering the mysteries of life, like what are we made of, and where do we go? Who or what consumes us?
When he walked past the shared laundromat, empty cans followed after him like a line of ducklings, rattling against the asphalt, stirred by the autumnal breeze. Among their assembly, he spotted at least five of the walnut milk beverages Bazu polished off each evening. Because westerners grew strong off of milk, he said.
Erhu would have chalked it up to imagination, that the garbage was stalking him, would have tried to fix it with better sleep and less milk before bed. But then that day came when he returned home to see all their far-flung garbage returned to them — the broken slipper and the walnut milk, the pages of a Bible curling under ghostly hands — all of it arranged like a curse in front of their door.
In the city, one is meant to live a civilized life. Street cleaners are paid to keep away the undesirable and uncouth. There are signs posted along these streets and inside establishments, too. No spitting. No gum. Don’t talk loudly on your cell phone. Read books and study hard to uphold our civilized society.
Most people Erhu met were not from the city, though. They were drifters as well, floating in from small towns and villages in every direction. They didn’t talk much working on the factory floor, mostly kept to themselves, but occasionally one would ask another about how to do this or that, how to follow the convolutions of this spiraling municipality?
Erhu found a few of the other workers difficult to understand, their dialects thick and muddy. When he tried to explain his own situation, though, the sounds came out garbled as well, the syllables thick and unwieldy along his tongue, and the floor manager rubbed a finger against the slope of his sizeable nose, nodding pensively. In the end, all Erhu got out of the exchange was quizzical looks, which returned each time the manager thought to come by and examine his work.
“It’s trash,” the manager said once, fiddling with one of the plastic cylinders they would assemble for a tiny speaker or a child’s nightlight in a room across some ocean. “It all ends up in the ground somewhere. Landfill.” He punctuated that last word with a sharp, knowing nod.
And so Erhu and Bazu borrowed a pair of shovels.
When you can’t solve a problem, bury it. Stuff it under the bed, into a hole, down your throat and may you never speak of it again.
They dug a trench three feet deep and six feet wide along the side of the old building. The earth was cold and the dirt recalcitrant, but by sunup, it opened to them a lovely narrow trench, scarred on both sides, a slightly parted mouth first exclaiming surprise, then reproach, and finally shifting back into a resigned repose.
Slowly, they began to fill it up, to stifle it shut. The trash made glinting jewels of teeth, but before it could bite, they muzzled it down with more; rendered it unable to snap its jaw. Frost came, then snow. An eerie quiet settled over that patch of land just behind the walls of the room where they slept.
Bazu was in peak condition that winter. At night the boiled milk and stolen food from the buffet of the hotel where he worked security replenished his energy. He’d befriended one of the cooks, a woman with thick, ropey arms who sent him home with generous cuts of pork and all the leftovers he could carry. He was no longer satisfied to go straight to bed, but dragged Erhu out to bars and night clubs where the drinks were too pricey and the music too loud. Sometimes they met up with this woman who slung up pigs and trimmed bones. Other times, they went out alone, tried to talk to other women who sat in pairs and scoured the room with bored, hungry eyes.
These conversations rarely lasted long, but one time Erhu found himself across from a woman with sleek red nails and an unabashed laugh. A city girl, he could tell, from her frankness and unapologetic stare.
“How do you like it here?” she asked.
“It’s good. Exciting.” He motioned toward the exuberant guitarist on stage.
“He’s completely off-tune,” she said. “I only come here for the specials on Wednesdays.”
“You come by yourself?”
“Why not? Am I supposed to sit at home? Waiting for my male guardian?”
“Please, that’s not what I meant.”
“We’re not your tamed livestock, here in the city.”
He wondered what he’d said or done to suggest that. “Can I buy you another?”
“How about I get a drink for you?” She flagged the bartender with a flick of those long red nails. “What brings you out to the city anyway?”
“If you stay in the country, you waste away.”
“But come to the city, and you’re a big deal.”
Her tone was light but mocking. He took a sip of the drink she’d ordered and coughed at the unexpected burn. “In the city, you can be a big deal in your head. But really, you’re just swept along, trying not to get lost or mistaken for someone’s trash.”
At this, she threw her head back and laughed. Erhu smiled along, but she stopped abruptly. “Too much trash attracts the rats. And then we have to call the exterminator.”
Later that night, a childhood song played through Erhu’s head as he struggled to fall asleep.
Two little tigers, two little tigers,
One has no eyes, and the other no tail,
What a sight, what a sight.
When you appended the tiger’s solemn hushing presence, hu, with a stealthy susurrant to make shu, you ended up with two little rodents instead, scurrying and scared.
The snow melted slowly at first, and then all at once. Not that they could have stopped it. The day it all liquified was the same day the cook with the muscular arms came to their house to settle her score with Bazu.
“How dare you?” She raised a quivering finger at him. “How dare you go behind my back? You think I’m easily cheated on?”
Bazu denied everything, blamed it on kitchen gossip, but she caught him out and then he was looking for other ways to argue his case: he hadn’t thought she was serious about him. They’d never stated things explicitly.
When he tried to say she was the one playing games with him, she shut him up by flinging a wax-paper package into his face.
The impact made a cracking noise, and the package could not contain its grievances. Chicken feet and stew bones spilled out, landing like bad omens on their recently cleaned floor.
“You think I’m not good enough for you? You’re nothing. You’re worthless!”
Erhu tried to intercede when she reached into her bag again. He apologized on Bazu’s behalf, as he was used to doing back in the village.
“You’re even worse!” the woman said. “Following this one around like a lost puppy. You knew everything and you never told me.”
Her departure left them in an uneasy state. As her words sank in, the garbage outside began to rustle and rankle. They felt the cold rivulets of melting ice down their own bodies.
The next day, the garbage that had spent so many months in frigid suspension was suddenly sludge. It sprawled out and convulsed, recollecting its structure.
Springtime came for the city.
A manic, fast-paced cheerfulness spread across the populace, so that Erhu always had in the back of his mind the persistently upbeat lyrics of another childhood song. Where is the springtime, ah, where is the springtime? A litany of answers followed: the trees, the grass, your smile, your face. Springtime was everywhere, except with them.
No buds burst into bloom in their courtyard, opting to wither instead on the branch. Only the garbage stirred with new life. Somehow, during the winter, it had spawned new living things, which now scurried in and out of it: rats and cockroaches and other tiny creatures of the earth — their eyes, their teeth, glittering.
They continued to feed it, because what else could they do? They tossed out crumpled tissues, scraped melon peels, molding bread.
Summer came next. The air grew thick with heat and garbage. The smell of it surged up at them in waves, soured molecules that made their insides shrink. Erhu could almost see the shape of the fumes sometimes, curling up like snakes and slithering inside.
They waited for a dry and windless night, and then Bazu brought his lighter over to the garbage. He smoked a cigarette first, drizzled some oil onto the ground, and let his cigarette follow. The flames ignited and leaped up as high as their waists; burned for almost half an hour before trickling out. A pungent rot rose with the smoke, the vapor of dead animals and blocked sewers, a corpse’s mouth. When the smoke cleared, the garbage, lightly charred, was present and solid and more vicious than ever.
The garbage crept inside the house at night, threading its long arm through the cracks beneath the window and under the door. Pop can tabs and candy wrappers and used Q-tips appeared along the crevice of the walls. Once, when Erhu climbed into bed, his feet brushed against a slimy cabbage leaf.
The garbage seeped into his skin, marinated his bones.
The regal-nosed floor manager sniffed with disgust every time he walked by, and others, too, started avoiding Erhu’s eyes.
Bazu no longer went into work at all. The conniving butcheress, the tempestuous big-boned beauty, had turned everyone against him. His only friend besides Erhu now was a clean-picked chicken carcass that had shown up one day at the door. He cradled that thing for hours, staring into the musky cavity that had once held the chicken’s life.
“Look,” he urged Erhu. “Perfect geometry. If they hollow us out, would we be like this, too?”
All Erhu could see were little tufts of gray meat that still clung to the pale, bruised bones. He wondered if he recognized it from months before.
“I’m going to die here, Erhu,” Bazu said. “Every night, the garbage comes and chokes me when I sleep. Every night, I try to die.”
His eyes were wild and red-rimmed. Eight ancestors couldn’t save him, and neither could Erhu. Forefathers and mothers roiled inside him, remembering the earth and its humiliations.
That night, lulled to a stupor by the unrelenting heat, Erhu dreamt of a large truck lifting their trash and their house and everything they owned onto its long, broad back. Navigating carefully, it pulled out from their alley into the main streets, which were mostly empty. It circled through the city past the forest of skyscrapers and the brightly lit storefronts. Safe in the passenger seat, Erhu could take in the splendor at his leisure. He recognized buildings not quite so new as the truck headed further and further south, until it was out of the city entirely, and farmland stretched into the distance.
The truck lumbered down the dark road for hours, though only a few dream minutes passed, and the sky stayed dark. The ride grew bumpy as it turned down a dirt road. Erhu was jostled several times, but the night wind pouring in from the windows refreshed him. The air was tinged with smoke and wet earth. Erhu knew this smell. It was the smell of home.
In the village, the truck slowed as it crept insidiously into the cornfields. Tall leaves crackled in its wake. The truck cut its lights as if it knew it did not belong, but in the pool of darkness Erhu could see even more clearly the stalks of corn with their tassels sticking up like children’s hair. The rustling of the corn fell away as they continued further. Their shapes disappeared. Into this darkness the truck cast the load of garbage, and Erhu’s elation would have swept him away had it not been for the seatbelt strapping him into his body.
The truck backed up and Erhu took note finally of the amorphous driver and his featureless face. The headlights turned on again, a sea of garbage rushing up to the windshield. Erhu forgot for a moment to breathe, struck by the boundless wonder in front of him, completely manmade. What beauty. It humbled him, to know his part was so inconsequential. To think that they had created this, all together. Erhu laughed. His knees shook from giddiness. He had done his duty. He raced out of the truck and waded into the garbage until it was up to his knees. The smell was atrocious and wonderful. He pushed aside ragged teddy bears and heaved a broken television set out of the way, walking out even further into that great stinking ocean.
Erhu wanted to swim in it. He wanted to make love in it. He dove forward, sinking into the quivering mass. Garbage showered down from above, and he reveled in it. Let it bury him. He swam past dolls with one eye and broken toilet seats, soiled diapers and shoes with ripped soles, a translucent yo-yo, a ruptured melon. As he swam on, a tangle of bedsheets reached for him, encircling his ankle and wrist. His hand fell into the snare of an old fishnet. He tried to wriggle loose but the garbage tightened its grip. Craning his head to look up, he saw it was morning again. The sun shot its rays down into the cracks between the debris. He took a breath of the rotten air and the garbage rushed into his mouth. He yanked his hand and kicked his feet, but the garbage closed in above his head, and the sunlight disappeared.