“Maybe she had slipped through to some other dimension…Perhaps the whale had traveled the same way and died on the prairie.”
The Tropic of Cancer ran through Guangzhou. Although she was not sure what this meant, she remembered how excited her son had been when he told her this fact. The way he said it, she imagined a visible cord, hanging in the air, solid enough to swing from. Or maybe it was like an immense curtain, transparent like the walls of a greenhouse. That was one way to explain why it got so hot and steamy in the city in February and March. In that season, the city was too humid for comfort. It felt like she was constantly peering through a milky fog. Every surface was covered in droplets of water, like the entire world had just worked up a sweat.
She knew that locals called that season wui naam tin—literally, the “days of southern return.”
That was when the southern weather came back. That’s how she understood the phrase, at least.
Winter belonged to the north. The cold season in the south was the result of a temporary northern incursion. But the south always reclaimed its native weather.
She would never forget that first visit to Guangzhou and all the things her son had rambled about. She had been his only audience for the remarks, but now that she thinks about it, her son’s girlfriend had been there, too. The girl was about the same height as her, not too tall and not too short. She had round cheeks that flushed pink when she spoke. She liked the girl a lot. But the couple broke up. After that, her son seemed to switch girls every year. She lost count of them. None of them ever made much of an impression on her.
The only one she really remembered was that first girl: Ah Xia. She was from Hunan. Unlike most people from Hunan, Ah Xia didn’t care much for spicy food and big buckets of rice. The girl turned out to have the same tastes as her—a middle-aged woman from northern China: They both liked stewed dishes and anything wrapped in dough. She expected that the girl would become her daughter-in-law, and they would spend their lives together. But then one day, her son informed her that it was all over.
Before she left, Ah Xia made a bowl of wontons for her. The girl had made sure to put in the dried shrimp that she loved. When she ate it, though, it seemed to have lost all of its flavor. In that awkward moment of parting, she was not sure how to comfort Ah Xia. She felt like her son’s accomplice. She could barely lift her head to face her. Ah Xia cried for a while, but then she smiled, and said:
“You’re just like my mother.”
Her appetite for the wontons returned. She suddenly noticed the subtle sweetness of the thin wrapper that held the meat filling. She pondered the flavor. Is the soul of the wonton found in the filling, or does it reside in the skin? She decided at that moment that it must be the skin. After all, a wonton wouldn’t be a wonton without the skin. It would not hold together.
Her way of thinking was always a bit different from other people. It was certainly different from that of her son. Her son loved her, but they still had their differences. She tried her best to understand him. She considered herself an empathetic person. She knew other mothers would not be able to understand if their sons informed them they didn’t want to get married or have kids. They wouldn’t accept it. They might even try to interfere. But she accepted it. You don’t want to get married? Don’t get married, then. You don’t want to have kids? Fine. But her son had said:
“Mom, you just don’t get it.”
She was baffled. She wondered how she could make him realize that she did get it. She watched his expression turn from obstinance to feigned indifference. She knew he would never admit it: If he admitted that his mother understood him, he would lose his identity as a grown-up. He would remain the little brat that chased after his mommy, babbling about the Tropic of Cancer.
Fine. So she didn’t get it. There was no reason for her to get it.
She decided to go out for a bowl of wontons. No sense in wasting time at home. She had to keep her priorities in order. But what was she going to wear? That was more difficult than any math problem. She knew that she needed to put on a thin sweater, at least. The red sweater made her face look too dark. But she put it on anyway. She had a black sweater and a gray sweater she could wear instead, but she had recently noticed that those somber colors dampened her mood. Going out the door, she ran into the neighbor’s tabby cat. She only ever caught sight of the backside of the cat’s owner, never his face. But whenever she crossed paths with the cat, it would always turn to make eye contact with her. She felt that it was a friendly gesture. She bent forward to pet the cat, but it darted away. At the corner, the cat turned back once, and then disappeared.
Cats were her favorite animal. There was no competition. They were beautiful and mysterious in a way that no human could ever hope to emulate. She had considered buying some kind of a tracker to put on her neighbor’s cat, so she could find out where it went and what it did all day. She was more interested in the lives of cats than that of people. This wasn’t out of any feeling of disgust toward the human race. She simply felt as if she already knew enough about people. She knew that there were some fellow humans whose day-to-day existence she could not fathom, but they didn’t hold any appeal to her. She was more interested in trivialities, like how cats live. She assumed their lives must be uncomplicated, that one cat’s life was not much different from another’s.
Although the weather was warm, she put on a hat. It was a cream-colored cap that she had knitted herself. There was a red pom-pom on top of it. That extra touch was her own idea. Her son called it childish. She asked her son what he had against her rediscovering her youth.
Her son said: “I’m getting up there, myself, and you...Well, I wouldn’t want anyone to think you’re losing your marbles.” He grinned, as if to tell her that she didn’t need to take him too seriously.
He didn’t like the idea of his mother behaving like herself, she realized. He wanted everything a particular way, so that when people saw her they would think she fit the mold. That was what gave him comfort. She knew it wouldn’t do any good to point any of this out to her son. She couldn’t share these thoughts with anybody but herself. Why did it seem that people tended to feel insecure when they were actually in the prime of their lives?
She liked the feeling of the pom-pom bobbing on top of her head as she walked. It felt mischievous. It reminded her of the ponytail she had worn when she was younger. How many years ago was that? She could scarcely conceive that the girl in her memory was actually her. Now the memories were floating away. All that was left was the light tremor of her feet striking the ground. She had put a sheet of fleece down in each one of her winter boots as an insole. Each step she took was warm and steady. Her body was worn out, especially her feet. She knew that she had to keep them warm. They had become like the roots of a dead tree, struggling to keep hold on the soil.
The trees on both sides of the street were light green. The trees in the area never went bare in the winter, but in the spring they added more fresh, green leaves that contributed another layer of vibrant complexity. The green made her think about something—was it hope? She was surprised that she could still remember the word. What reason did she have for hope? But that’s human nature: No matter what people are going through, they will always have hope.
Now that was childish.
She was not in a hurry. She had not been in Guangzhou long, less than three years—or maybe it was four? She was in a new urban area, which hadn’t been part of the city until recently. It was called Nansha. It sounded like the name of an island, floating out on the distant ocean. In fact, it did have something to do with the sea, since Nansha was where the Pearl River flowed into the South China Sea. That was the reason that she liked the place.
When she had first arrived, the area had been empty, but the buildings had gone up like stacks of toy building blocks. It reminded her of a bird cage chasing a bird. Her son was a bird that fluttered in of his own accord. She was one of the birds caught by the cage. It was quiet among the toy block buildings. It wasn’t unusual for there to be nobody outside. Once you figured out how to endure the solitude, she thought to herself, it wasn’t a bad place to live.
She walked toward what was called the Free Trade Zone. In a mall close by, vendors sold products from all over the world—all tax free. Her daily stroll usually took her there. She was rarely in the market for anything in particular, but she enjoyed taking in the scene. When she had first seen people loading up suitcases with goods, she had thought they must be in business—taking the products and reselling them somewhere else. Later, she found out that they were only buying stuff for themselves. Buy, buy, buy! That’s what people did. If they could, they would have packed up the entire mall on their backs and carted it home.
The wonton shop nearby had Shanghai in its name but the owners were actually from Hunan. There was nothing unusual about that: Hunan was close to Guangdong. But how did these people from spice-loving Hunan pull off the delicate flavors of Shanghai wontons? Maybe, like Ah Xia, their palates didn’t match with their hometowns. Shouldn’t people try to change themselves? After all, the type of person they were originally might not have been shaped by intentional, individual choices, but formed by forces beyond their control. As for herself, she was tired of being pushed to conform. Looking around the empty birdcage, she thought about what choices she had left. Did she still have the power to choose a different path? She had already lost power over her own son.
The flavor was perfect. The filling was rich with dried shrimp. She ordered the small bowl. Only nine wontons. It was a good number. When they were done, she drank up all the leftover broth. It finally warmed up her stomach, like the glow of a kerosene lamp on a winter night. She left the shop happy, looking forward to her daily ritual of going to look at the sea. The brackish channel was not the open ocean, but it satisfied her.
She went in the direction of the sea.
The wind picked up, as if the ocean was breathing. The ocean’s breaths seemed to replace her own, and for a moment, this made her feel as if she were being suffocated.
She remembered her first typhoon. It had taken place shortly after she moved to the city. It scared her. The wind was so strong that the windows on the balcony rattled. It seemed that they would shatter at any moment. She thought she was going to be buried in this strange place. Her body was going to be consigned to the wind. She had seen a news report once about tornadoes sucking people up into the sky. She tried to imagine what it would be like—the body shedding all the weight of the world, floating up and up, finally achieving freedom. She drifted off to sleep with the wind and rain roaring outside the window. In the morning, she surveyed the scattered planters below the balcony. Three trees had been ripped from the ground, exposing pale brown roots that reminded her of the arteries wrapped around the heart. It looked bad, but she learned that things had been even worse in Hong Kong and Zhuhai. The TV showed a video of seawater pouring into a mall.
Her son said that Nansha was protected by the goddess Mazu, so the typhoons always changed direction before landing there. That was a sign of good fortune. She knew a bit about Mazu. On her first trip to the Tin Hau Temple, she mistook the sea goddess for the Bodhisattva Guanyin. People who made their living from the ocean worshiped Mazu, who was in charge of everything that happened at sea. So she burned incense for Mazu, too, and prayed to her. New surroundings called for new gods. Once, the thought came to her: Why can’t Guanyin look after the ocean, too? Doesn’t she live on an island?
As she thought about these things, the wind got even stronger. As she turned the corner, she expected to see the usual scene: the wharf and its colorful stacks of containers that reminded her of toys scattered by a giant baby. But it was not there. It was as if the wharf had been wiped out of existence. There was nothing there. She thought for a moment that her eyes were playing tricks on her. Maybe it was a hallucination. She paused and rubbed her eyes. Countless gold stars burst open behind her eyelids. And then there was silence. When she looked again, there was still nothing there. It wasn’t merely that the containers were gone or the wharf was gone—but that there was absolutely nothing there. All she could see was a gray expanse. What was it? Was it just light refracting between sea and sky?
She knew she had to keep walking, to get a better look. The wharf couldn’t have disappeared overnight. She had seen it the day before. It had looked just fine to her. Was the wharf being hidden somehow by a trick of the light? Walk into the light, she told herself.
Her footsteps were hesitant, but she knew she had to keep moving forward. She saw grass at the sides of the path. That was strange. She had never noticed it before. She began to suspect an issue with her memory. The grass got thicker and the path grew fainter. She felt as if she had stumbled into a remote prairie field. If she didn’t change direction, though, she concluded, she should be fine. She knew the way back. The idea of getting lost so close to her home was ridiculous.
There was an endless stretch of grass. She looked back. The skyline of the city was gone. The path was gone, too. Only the same gray light remained. She started to panic. Maybe the brackish water around Nansha was not salty enough. How else could it have sprouted with lush grass overnight? Perhaps she wasn’t in Nansha anymore. It looked more like Hulunbuir, more like Ulaanbaatar...She looked all around her. All the way to the horizon, there was nothing. The strangest thing was that the field seemed to run all the way to the ocean. There was no break between where the grassland ended and the ocean should begin. It was as if the sky, sea, and land all emanated from the gray light. She studied the scene and could find no trick to it. It made her even more curious. She wanted to find where everything came together. If she couldn’t find where the sky met the land, then she could at least find where the land met the sea. If there was an ocean, there had to be a shore. With this goal in mind, she rushed forward. It felt good to have a reason to explore. Warmth spread through her body. The chill was gone. She felt better than ever.
The only thing left in the world was herself. There was nothing else: no buildings, no trees, no birds, no flowers. The world was empty. There was grass beneath her feet and the sky above, but those didn’t really count. They were not things exactly, but backgrounds—or landscapes within her mind. Was it lonely? Yes. But she was beginning to enjoy the solitude. She wanted to indulge herself for a while. The silence around her was complete, but, from somewhere deep inside herself, she heard something beckoning her to keep moving forward. She was filled with joy. She was in love with the unexpected prairie. She had the urge to sit down on the grass, to roll around in it, to lay down on it, and to laugh madly, or to just stare mutely across the expanse and take it all in. But she did not stop walking. She knew that it was more important to find the place where the land met the sea than it was to revel in the landscape. She wanted to look out on the ocean from the prairie, and then she could turn ninety degrees and look at the sea and the field at the same time. She could see the place where they met. And when she turned to leave, that’s when she could roll in the grass or stare out at the horizon.
With that in mind, her steps became steady. She kept her head down as she walked. She didn’t want to stumble suddenly into the ocean. But the field of grass stretched on and on. It was much better than anything she had seen in nature. She had been to the Hulunbuir grasslands. The grass was patchy there, the land was not completely flat, and the voles left lumps of dirt around. The field of grass she was walking on was as perfect as a golf course. The grass was dense but feathery.
Finally, she saw something ahead of her. The size and shape made her think it might be a rock. Her excitement grew. There was no more hesitation. Fatigue was gone. She wondered why she had not realized all of this was here, so close to her home. The dark mound on the horizon grew. At first, she thought it was a sculpture of a fish. Looking again, she realized it was supposed to be a blue whale, carved in life-size from stone. She tipped her head back and shouted up at the sky. She had never felt so free before. It all felt so natural. She promised herself that she would wrap her arms around the statue. As she got closer to it, though, she realized that it wasn’t quite what she had imagined. There was something strange about the texture. It was too real. It looked like a real whale, dead and decaying. There was nothing left inside of it. The belly was hanging open and she could see the ribs hanging down like a row of columns.
Was it a postmodern sculpture? Plastic, or some kind of silicone? She had seen strange things on the internet, so she wasn’t surprised by it.
She went closer and reached out her hand to stroke the whale. The skin gave a little at her touch. She pinched it between her fingers. A bit harder. She was startled to realize that it was not a sculpture at all. It was an actual whale. There was no way that the feeling of once living flesh could be imitated so perfectly.
Did it die after beaching itself?
Where was the ocean? It had to be somewhere beyond where the whale was. As she walked around it, her courage and her legs gave out. She fell to the grass. There was nothing there—just the grassy field. If the ocean had ever been there, it had disappeared without a trace. She looked around, trying to see as far as she could out into the prairie. Except for the decayed remains of the whale, she was alone.
She wondered if she had traveled into the future or into the past. She tried to recall the moment when she might have slipped through time, but came up with nothing. Everything in her memory seemed to have been perfectly normal. There were no flaws in it.
She wondered if she was dreaming—or was she dead? The thought sent a chill down her spine. She wondered if the sensation might prove that she was actually still alive.
The wind died away. The tips of each blade of grass were motionless, so that the field looked as perfect as a lawn in a real estate center. She reached out to run her hands through the grass. She pinched a blade of grass and her fingernails were stained green. It was real.
If she had not moved through time, then maybe she had slipped through to some other dimension. Maybe there was another layer in space. Perhaps the whale had traveled the same way and died on the prairie. If she wasn’t dead already, then she might meet the same fate, rotting away on the grassland.
She pitied herself. She pitied the whale. When she considered the possibility of dying in the field, she didn’t feel any fear but rather anxiety. All she wanted to do was to talk to her son. How could she tell somebody where she was?
She stood up and tried to wrap her arms around the whale. She was mystified by the fact that the rotting flesh had no smell.
She wondered if she was in a dimension where smells didn’t exist.
The blue whale was opened up like a cave. It seemed to invite her to step inside. She hesitated for a moment, but there was nothing left for her out on the prairie. She wanted to see something other than grass. The thought occurred to her that maybe the dimensional gate might be inside the whale. She went inside. The slippery texture of the rotten flesh turned her stomach. But she could handle it. The feeling wasn’t oily or viscous. It was more like running her hand over moss.
She continued between the columns of ribs until a stone blocked her path. Maybe it was some kind of monument, she thought. If there was something carved on it, it might tell her what happened to the whale. The Chinese have a tradition of leaving messages in stone. The idea is that their words will be read by future generations. But most stone is surprisingly fragile, so it wasn’t unusual for words carved in them to become illegible. She had seen it happen with her parents’ gravestone: The writing was already worn away in a few places. Metal wasn’t much good either, since, unless it was some expensive alloy, it tended to rust.
She got another surprise. The thing that was blocking her path wasn’t any kind of monument. It wasn’t stone at all. It was the whale’s heart. Hanging between the decomposed ribs, it had been preserved somehow from decay. Although the heart had stopped beating, it still gleamed with life. She reached out and ran her fingertips along it. It was slightly sticky, as a living organ would be. She pressed harder. It felt like running her hand over the back of a young calf. The fact that the heart had survived so long gave her comfort. She was tired, so she sat down and leaned back against the massive heart—the largest organ in the entire world. It seemed steady and reliable. She told herself that the heart was not actually dead, but might shake itself awake at any moment and continue beating. It would once again reverberate with the same low thrum that once could only be heard at the bottom of the ocean. The immense carcass would accept the energy from its preserved organ and attempt to move again. Perhaps, with its muscles and organs eaten away by decay, the whale would only be able to make spasms and wild tremors.
Sleep came suddenly. Perhaps the heart was standing guardian over her. Her own heart felt secure, nestled like a ewe against a mighty ram. Her eyes closed. There was no panic. If somebody had told her in that moment of drifting off to sleep that she would never wake again, it would have meant as little to her as the sound of the wind in the distance. Sleep took her prisoner and was so irresistible that she could only marvel at its power.
“Mom, are you okay?”
She saw an old man with white hair. He was calling his mother. It seemed ridiculous to her. She looked closer and couldn’t shake the feeling that he looked familiar. He reminded her of her own father, who’d passed away decades ago. She knew she was dreaming, so she said:
“How are you, dad? Why are you calling me that?”
“Mom, I’m not...You think I’m grandpa? I’m not your father. I’m your son.”
“Son?” She was confused. It was all too strange, even for a dream.
“Yes, I’m your son.”
“Why are you so old all of a sudden?” She studied his face. He had more wrinkles than she did.
“It wasn’t all of a sudden. It took a long time. It’s been years and years.”
“What about me? I must be even older.” She called out to him, “Give me a mirror.”
“You’re old enough. Older than me. But I can’t see you.”
“I don’t understand. I can see you, but you can’t see me? Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“My eyes are fine. Don’t worry, mom. I can’t see you, but I can feel you. It’s so good to know that you can see me. So good. This is how I look now. A bit like grandpa, you’re right. I miss you so much. It’s been more than ten years. I’m still not married. I have no kids. I let you down. I let myself down. But I’m a hundred and twenty years old. I’ve been through too much to regret anything now.”
“A hundred and twenty? When I left, you weren’t even forty.”
“I don’t have time to tell you everything now, mom. Are you okay? What are you busy with?”
“My son,” she said and sighed. “I don’t have time to tell you everything now, either. I am sleeping inside a whale, lying against its heart.”
“Ah, I see. You were swallowed by a whale?”
“No. I went out this morning and somehow walked out into a field. Is there any field near our house? I walked for a long time across the grass and I found a dead blue whale. I went inside and there was nothing left, except its heart. A blue whale’s heart is massive, taller than I am...I put my head against it to rest for a while. So I fell asleep. In a dream, I saw my son, who started babbling all sorts of nonsense, saying he is a hundred and twenty years old.”
“That’s very interesting, mom. I can’t imagine! I wish I could have seen it for myself.”
“You should go and see it. The grass was perfect. And there was a dead whale. Nothing else around. I’m worried I won’t be able to find my way home.” She sighed and looked up at her son. “You look so much like your grandfather. It makes me miss him. It’s been so long since I felt this way. Come a bit closer. I want to take a better look at you.”
The old man did not move. He was surrounded by a thick fog. She could barely make out his arms and legs, and she couldn’t see what he was wearing, but she could tell he was standing. It seemed as if there was something holding him up, and if he let go and came closer, he would go limp. It had to be a dream. A strange dream.
“This is the only way, mom. I don’t know where you are. This is the only way we can talk. But if you have any questions, you can ask me.”
“You said you didn’t get married. Are you living alone, or do you have a girlfriend?”
“I’m all alone. I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Aren’t you lonely?”
“Sometimes. I have ways to deal with it, though, like talking to my memories of them.”
“Do you remember Ah Xia?”
“Of course I do. I talk to her often. I loved her. I know you liked her, too. She passed away.”
“She’s dead...but you talk to her? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, I can talk to dead people, okay? The technology is pretty good. It’s very realistic. It’s almost like the real thing.”
“Can you talk to your father?”
“I can’t talk to him. He died too young. His brain cells are already long gone.”
“He had a tough life. It was a blood clot in his heart. If only his ticker was as strong as this whale’s heart, that clot wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“Back then, there was nothing they could do. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Does that mean I’m dead, too?” She felt a chill. She tucked her feet under herself and hugged her knees. “Just like Ah Xia? Is this like how a fortune teller talks to the dead?”
The old man’s brow momentarily furrowed. She saw the old man’s eyes go blank and lose focus. It was as if he was staring into space. Her father used to look like that when she cried. That was when she was young. She was still a student. School was her whole life. She couldn’t imagine what her life would be like when she no longer had to go to school every day.
“Mom, this is all a dream. You dreamed it all—the grass, the whale, lying down against the heart...I could never come up with any thoughts like that.”
“What if I can’t find my way home?”
“No. You’ll definitely find your way home.”
“I might get lost in the field.”
“All you need to do is want to go home. Don’t worry.”
“I want to go back now.”
“Now? You’re still dreaming. Don’t waste all your time talking to me. Close your eyes. Sleep well. You’ll dream of something much better than the grass and whales.”
“Now that you say that, I am feeling a bit sleepy. Ah, I can’t stop thinking about how much you look like your grandfather. I miss the old man.”
“You’ll dream of him. The real him.”
She closed her eyes and felt sleep arriving. It was the kind of sleep that makes you feel as if it doesn’t matter anymore whether you will wake up again. But, she wondered, how was it that she could fall asleep while dreaming? Would she wake up from the second sleep and then the first, or would she just open her eyes and be fully awake? The question had to be set aside. She would have to wait until she woke up to know how it all worked. But she didn’t really care anymore. She drifted deeper into sleep. But no matter how deep she went, she was still aware that she was in the middle of a vast prairie, inside a dead whale, lying peacefully against its powerful heart.
Author’s Note: You get a bizarre feeling from the title of this story: Two totally unrelated things meet each other. But today, we are increasingly accepting of such a condition, of things with great discrepancies colliding, of breaking traditional boundaries. I believe that fiction must be able to capture such a poetic quality. Feelings of alienation and being lost in life are also subjects I focus on. We are more lost than we will ever realize, and fiction should push this boundary as much as possible.
Prairie Whale | Short Story is a story from our issue, “The Data Age.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.