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‘Gift of the Fox Spirit’ by Jonathan Tel

Posted on 16/12/2020
By Commonwealth Foundation

To celebrate 10 years of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize we are inviting previous winners to share something new with us—it might be a story, a podcast, an interview or a blog. Here 2015 Prize winner Jonathan Tel shares his short story ‘Gift of the Fox Spirit’ from ‘Scratching the Head of Chairman Mao‘ (Turtle Point Press, New York, 2020).

To read Jonathan Tel’s prizewinning story, The Human Phonograph’, click here.

 

GIFT OF THE FOX SPIRIT 

by Jonathan Tel

On Monday and Friday, his shirt is blue, on Tuesday and Saturday, yellow, on Thursday and Sunday, pink, and on Wednesday – ah, Wednesday is supposed to be his day off, but in practice he often has to work then too, and since he can’t wear the same color as on a day next to it (i.e. neither yellow nor pink) he’s left with blue; the point being that if a shirt were the same color two days running, she might think he didn’t change it, though of course he would anyway, out of respect, and she gives no sign of noticing his shirt rotation, perhaps regarding it as a natural cycle, as snow is succeeded by slush, then mud, then dust storms, then summer heat and flash floods, and soon it is pleasantly cool and once again leaves fall from the roadside trees. As another example of his professionalism, when he takes off his trousers at night, he lays them beneath the mattress: he and his wife sleep and dream and make love on top of them, and when he puts them on in the morning, they have a neat crease. Also, he avoids eating smelly foods in the car, for instance, pickles. When he drives her from her home near the Forbidden City to a favorite boutique or a restaurant where she is to meet up with other important wives, or to her husband’s office, he is careful to avoid potholes. Sometimes she chooses to chat: ‘The traffic is slow today.’ ‘Yes, it is quite slow.’ There are things they have in common. Both were born in the Year of the Snake (she is twelve years older) and both are parents: his son is nine while her daughter is a sophomore at Tsinghua University. In their different ways, the chauffeur and the politician’s wife are getting by.

Have they always played these roles? It might seem so, and in previous incarnations too: he has a recurrent dream in which he is a eunuch serving an empress. But even within this life he has lived other lives. He grew up in Daxing, on the outskirts of the city; as a child he helped feed the chickens and weed the watermelon patch. In his teens he was something of a rebel … He was arrested for joyriding, and spent a scary six months in prison … Then a matchmaking auntie introduced him to Meirong; they married, and her father got him a job as a taxi driver, working the night shift. Pimps and whores, the drunk and the drugged, actors and singers and people in reality shows … he had them all in his cab, and about once a week a customer would skip out without paying, and twice he was robbed at knifepoint. Beneath the paved streets of Beijing: the shifting desert.

Well, that’s all ancient history. He’s been a chauffeur for three years, long enough that the white gloves feel part of him. Everybody misses their first car – the old taxi drivers used to go all weepy when they remembered the Mian Di ‘yellow loaves’ – but, if we’re to be honest, cars, like most things, have gotten better over the years.

Meirong makes fun of his commitment to his job. She becomes the quizmaster on a TV special. ‘What sound does Mrs. Ximen make when she slurps her noodles? What brand of toilet paper does Mrs. Ximen use? When does Mrs. Ximen have her period?’ He could answer all these questions; there is almost nothing a chauffeur does not know. But it’s his wife whom he loves. He loves everything about her: her soft body, the silvery stretchmarks on her belly, her familiar smell … and when they’re in bed together it’s always their wedding night. He’s always a bad boy, fresh out of jail; she’s always his virginal bride, slender and innocent and shy.

In a way though, she’s right. He does have two women, just as Mrs. Ximen has two men. Meirong is a cleaner at the bus garage and works the swing shift. Weekday mornings she’s still asleep when he drops Junjun off at school. Usually he’s home early enough to put the boy to bed. (Otherwise Auntie Bo will do it.) By the time Meirong comes back, well after midnight, he’s asleep, and she wakes him. He gets up and pees. Sometimes they make love. He drifts back to sleep, wrapped around her warm body.

Mrs. Ximen never asks about his wife, and she says little about her husband. (He has responsibilities for financial discipline, whatever that means.) But they do sometimes talk about their children. She’ll praise her daughter, who is majoring in electrical engineering, then she might make a remark about his son’s goldfish. About a year ago he took Junjun to a secondhand car market as a treat, and like a vision a beautiful woman appeared. She was tall and wearing a long red coat with a smudgy fur collar, and she was clattering along on highheels. She was crying; her eyes were all in a mess. She put something small and shiny in Junjun’s hand, and she strode away so fast nobody could follow her. ‘Who is she, Daddy? Is she your friend?’ ‘I don’t know, Junjun.’ It was mysterious. If you believed in fox spirits, you might think she was one of those. The gift turned out to be a transparent bag and inside it there was water and a fish. At first, he thought the fish was for eating, but of course you don’t eat a fish that fancy – it had flouncy bits, like a butterfly or a party hat. Junjun looked it up on the internet: it was a kind of goldfish called a Shubunkin, and its name was Bubbles. They kept it in a bowl in the TV room. All day long it swam round and round its pagoda. Well, he didn’t tell Mrs. Ximen the whole story, but he did say that his son had this pet, and she said her daughter once had a Tibetan mastiff till her husband gave it away to his business associate. Now, one night in winter Meirong came home late as usual. ‘Get up, old hubby.’ She led him into the TV room, and there was Bubbles, belly-up on the surface, dead as can be. Who knows why? Who knows why it was their fate to have the pet in the first place? In the morning, he told the boy that the fox spirit had returned and taken Bubbles away with her. The boy was too old to believe the story, but he didn’t contradict his father. Surely he understood. And Meirong said Bubbles was such a good fish, he’d be reincarnated as a shark or a whale. When he went to work he took the fish with him wrapped in newspaper, and in Ritan Park the gardeners were burning a heap of prunings, and he put the fish on the fire. But he never told Mrs. Ximen about the death. He’s careful not to say anything that might upset her. She’s delicate in her way, not half as tough as Junjun. So even now, in the summer, when she asks, ‘How’s your Junjun? How’s Bubbles?’ he replies, ‘They’re doing very nicely, thank you.’

The Geely GE is a special car, suitable for Mrs. Ximen. It’s red and elegant and it has only one grand seat at the back. Her favorite car music is Johann Sebastian Bach. He’s come to appreciate it; its rhythms go along with the ever-flowing traffic. Nothing is ever lost; nothing is without consequences; whatever you think you’ve put behind you, for good or ill it’ll come back again. Sometimes after he’s dropped her off he rolls down the windows and cranks the volume up, blasting Bach into the city. Mr. Ximen has an Audi 12 and two chauffeurs who take turns, so he’s always got somebody to drive him, day or night. Mr. and Mrs. Ximen live quite separate lives; it’s not often that the Geely is parked next to the Audi, and he gets to have a smoke with one of the other chauffeurs, who are in fact brothers and soccer fans. Once, when Beijing Guo’an was up against Shanghai Shenhua, all three chauffeurs were watching on TV in a dumpling shop, and when the brothers’ team scored the decisive goal (a brilliant header from a free kick) they launched into a cheer routine, complete with thumbs-up gesture and clapping, and he joined in too. Guo’an! Let’s go! Six fists punched high in the air.

Mr. Ximen has a mustache, oddly enough. He wonders if Mrs. Ximen likes it. Since Mrs. Ximen doesn’t smoke, he can’t do it in or next to the Geely – which is a good thing, really; it helps him cut back. But Mr. Ximen puffs away like a chimney; he lets his chauffeurs have as many of his as they want. Zhongnanhai, that’s the brand. When he enjoys a Zhongnanhai passed on by a brother, he feels the important smoke entering his lungs, Mr. Ximen’s breath inside him, and can almost imagine a mustache growing on his own lip.

Being a chauffeur may not be the most prestigious of jobs, but if a city is owned by anybody, it’s by its drivers. He pities the pedestrians crawling like ants, the limited cyclists, and even the car owners at the back, occupied with laptop and documents, in the autumn of their tinted windows. He has witnessed extraordinary things, for example location shoots. Once he saw a street transformed with signs in English – Beijing standing in for New York. They were filming a chase scene. A stretch limo slammed into a police car, and the stuntman driver rolled out.

And there is a fourth chauffeur – though he’s never met him personally; he only knows what the brothers have passed on. He’s from Shanghai, of all places. He smokes mentholated (whoever heard of a chauffeur smoking mentholated?) and is fond of sunflower seeds. He drives Mr. Ximen’s mistress. That’s really all he’s been told about the man. He pictures him doing the trick that sunflower seed addicts are so skilled at: putting the seed in the mouth, and cracking the shell between the front teeth and spitting it out. He doesn’t know a thing about the mistress – not her name or what she looks like. She’d be young and beautiful, of course, with quite large breasts and hips. She might be from Shanghai, like her chauffeur. He doesn’t suppose she smokes mentholated. He sees an Audi 12 parked in a quiet country lane, a naked woman on the back seat. She’s eating sunflower seeds. The husks fall, and gather on her belly. He takes off his white gloves and puts his arms around her, and kisses her, and she passes a seed into his mouth.

 

 

One day in June, Mrs. Ximen doesn’t need him for a few hours (she’s having French pastries with some of her wives) so he decides on a whim to head over to the bus garage and surprise Meirong. He gets on the Fourth Ring Road, and exits toward Shijingshan, and as he gets nearer he worries that he might get her into trouble. She’s not supposed to have family around while she’s working. So he decides he’ll just say hello, and leave it at that. He parks opposite her garage. There she is, in coveralls – she looks quite sexy in them – with a big hose in her hand, blasting mud off the asphalt. For some reason he thinks of a zookeeper washing down an elephant. He makes a call on his cell. Meirong turns off the hose. ‘Yes?’ she says into her cell. He says, ‘I’ll be a little late this evening. Auntie Bo will fetch Junjun from school.’ ‘Okay.’

When he was about nineteen he was at an illegal dance party in a warehouse. It was the kind of music called punk. He didn’t know much about it, but somebody had given him an invitation. He jumped up and down next to two beautiful girls. He showed them the snake tattoo on his arm. The older girl had drawn a monkey on her shoulder with ballpoint, and the younger had quite a realistic rooster. The three of them banged heads together, and afterward he kissed them in the parking lot, his ears ringing. The band changed names a few times, and eventually became SUV Flu, which is big on the Beijing punk circuit, and he was at their first gig! The lead vocalist was dressed as a panda, and the drummer banged away at a terracotta warrior. He saw them before they were famous! If somebody had told him back then that one day he’d desire nothing more than to be a husband and father and hold down a regular job, he’d never have believed it.

He and Junjun like watching crime shows on TV. At the beginning: a dead body. The detective follows the leads and works out whodunnit. There’s often a chauffeur in the show, a nonspeaking part. Everybody else is just pretending, but the actor playing the chauffeur really does drive a car, so in a way he’s the only real person.

Time to head back. He picks up Mrs. Ximen at the Hurong French Pastry Shop. She has a bruise over her cheekbone, not large. Probably she’s had it for quite a while, but now he notices it.

A few weeks later, they have a conversation about space exploration. (It stays in his mind, because it’s on the same day that Meirong brings home the newspaper from the bus garage.) They’re driving along Chang’an Avenue, and it’s sunset, and the crows are swaying on the poplars, and she’s sneezing on account of her allergies, and she says that her daughter is applying for an internship in the space program.

‘She’s going to be an astronaut?’

‘She’ll help design a communications satellite.’

‘Maybe she’ll be an astronaut too? Maybe she’ll be the first Chinese person on the moon?’

‘Did your Junjun learn about space, in school?’

‘He built a rocketship.’ The words come out of their own accord. He didn’t intend to make so bold a claim. ‘The whole class together, they made it from … an icicle radish!’ He laughs. He can see it as clearly as if he made it with his own hands – a long one, with hairy sprouts at the base, like exhaust gases, and a little national flag pinned to its side.

Mrs Ximen, who never normally laughs, does so. ‘Let’s fly away in a radish!’ The fantasy strikes him as inappropriate, even silly, but it cannot be silly if Mrs. Ximen approves of it, in this world where there is only the two of them.

That night, Meirong pulls his ear till he wakes and she shows him the newspaper – not even a whole one, just a few pages. It was left behind on a bus. It’s one of those shadowy publications, the kind that come out for a few months till the authorities shut them down, and they reappear under a different name. It’s called The Real China Times, and seems to be a pirated copy of a Hong Kong newspaper.  ‘Look! Look! It’s your Ximen family.’ The headline is POLITICIAN NURTURES YOUNG TALENT. There’s a photograph of Mr. Ximen standing next to a pretty woman. He’s seeking to appoint her to a position as Senior Investigator of Financial Irregularities, at an annual salary of two hundred thousand yuan. Meirong reads out the conclusion: ‘We congratulate Mr. Ximen on his ability to spot fantastic talent. We’re sure Little Meixin is worth of every fen of her very attractive salary plus perfectly shaped expenses.’

‘What’s it mean?’ he says sleepily.

‘You’ve got to read between the lines, old hubby! They’re saying Mr. Ximen is paying his mistress with government money.’

He stares into the photograph. He pictures this Yang Meixin eating sunflower seeds. ‘It’s nonsense,’ he says. ‘Nobody reads this kind of trash anyway.’

The following morning he goes to a cyber café. (Junjun taught him some tricks for using a search engine.) He finds the story copied on many sites. And there are further accusations: that the woman tried to extort money from a leading banker named Qin, threatening to make a false charge against him unless he paid up. You can’t believe the internet. People are always saying bad things about politicians. People even say bad things about Mao, and he was born in the Year of the Snake.

Mrs. Ximen must know about this scandal. Probably she learned days ago it was about to break, or weeks. He reckons she was a looker herself when she was young, her beauty took her where she is today. Surely Mr. Ximen was in love with her once; perhaps he still does love her, in his way.

The following day she’s wearing a new pair of shoes, the way she does when she’s unhappy. ‘How’s Junjun?’ she says mechanically, her voice swelling behind the back of his head. ‘How’s Bubbles?’

‘Junjun’s fine.’ He waits, gathering power from the silence. He overtakes a file of electric bikes, then slows to let a van go past. ‘The fish is dead.’

‘Oh no! How awful! Not Bubbles!’ Her sadness may be real but seems fake. From her reaction, you’d think the death of a goldfish is comparable to an earthquake and a tsunami and a ruptured nuclear reactor, disaster on disaster on disaster. ‘When did this happen? Did it happen this morning?’

‘This morning, yes,’ he says, taking the cue.

‘And you went straight out and bought a replacement?’

‘I bought a replacement,’ he says, realizing this is what he should have done, months ago. Another Shubunkin for Junjun, or a different fish? Maybe a different pet? Might his son prefer a hamster, or even a puppy?

‘What do you call the new goldfish?’ she asks.

‘Ah … Feilin,’ he says, plucking the name from the air – recalling the punk girls. He liked Linlin, the one with the monkey. He liked her friend, Feifei too; it was difficult to decide. The girls were young, lying about their age. They said they were sisters, probably lying about that as well. Anyway they were too posh for him; it never would have worked out. It was to impress the girls that he stole the Buick Regal, and he made love to them in the back of it, and all his troubles began.

She says, ‘My husband and I, we’re taking a break for a few weeks … the countryside … our little place near Badaling …’

‘When?’

‘Tomorrow. We’re leaving tomorrow.’

‘But -‘

‘Of course you’ll receive your full salary, while we’re away.’

In the rearview mirror her expression is unrevealing. Why won’t she open up to him? Why won’t she share her fear? That Mr. Ximen will be demoted; he’ll resign; he’ll be banged up in a cell smaller than his Audi. That Mrs. Ximen will no longer be driven around in her glamorous automobile with shag carpeting and European music.

In another world, he’d park, whether she requests him to or not. He’d get out and open the door at the back, and he’d join her inside, the two of them on that one grand red seat. She’d be crying and he’d cry too: politician’s wife and chauffeur, empress and eunuch, would melt into each other.

The lights change.

A bark of the horn. To the accompaniment of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” he steps on the accelerator and charges ahead of the pack. The car rumbles across a sewer cover and bounces over a pothole. If he loses his job, somebody’s going to pay him off. Mr. Ximen can compensate him, or that Yang woman might have some money, or Kong can do him a favor, or … They’ll give him what he’s entitled to nicely, or if not … It’s not only rich people who’ve got connections. He’s got connections too, through the people he met as a taxi driver, and from his time in jail. Anybody who crosses him, they’ll get what they deserve.

‘Do you like my shirt?’ he asks Mrs. Ximen. ‘Today is Friday and my shirt is blue.’

 

 

When he gets back home in midafternoon, his wife is still there, eating her breakfast porridge.

‘I met a woman at the hairdresser,’ she says, before he can speak. ‘She and her husband own a successful plumbing business, and they’re expecting a baby. She used to be a maid in California, until she was deported. She worked for a rich lawyer who drove his own car.’

‘Well, he can’t have been very rich then.’

‘He was a millionaire. He had plenty of servants – a gardener, a housekeeper … he even had somebody who came just to clean his pool – but he drove himself.’

‘A hobby?’

‘The millionaire was overseas Chinese, but he behaved like an American.’

‘So what did his chauffeur do?’

‘Aren’t you listening, old hubby? He didn’t have a chauffeur.’

‘What? None at all?’

She holds him a while, her hands over his ears so he hears noises like distant traffic; then, ‘Off to the bus garage!’

She walks out into the summer heat.

He drives to Junjun’s school. He’s early; the children are still in class. He circles the block, looking for parking, and thinks how much of his life has been spent in that patient, inquisitive creep. The radio plays a medley of hits from when he was his son’s age.

Soon enough Junjun emerges. His son announces for the benefit of the other boys, ‘My daddy’s got the amazingest car in China!’

‘Hop in,’ he says, getting out and ushering in his son, the way he would his employer.

Junjun climbs in and perches on the red throne at the back, his hands on the chair-arms, as if about to swing forward. He tucks his feet under his bottom, to grow a little taller. He babbles a story they learned in school, about Emperor Qin who had a magic needle that made the sun stand still, and a whip that moved mountains.

A glance at the wing mirror. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’

‘When I grow up, I want a Geely just like this!’

They drive to a small family restaurant. They get meat buns and fermented mung bean juice, to go. Father and son shelter in the air-conditioned car and eat with noisy abandon. Afterward the smell lingers, the ghost-meal continuing, song dissolving into song.

They get out and the remains go in the trash.

‘Teach me to drive, Daddy!’

A mass of black cloud is advancing from the horizon. He pats his pockets and finds a single, precious, wrinkled cigarette. He cups it in both hands, against the wind.

‘Can I have a drag, Daddy?’

He brings the cigarette to his son’s mouth.

The boy coughs valiantly. ‘I won’t tell Mama,’ he promises.

He tries to confide in a way his son will understand, ‘Sometimes a car is like a fish …’ and Junjun is insisting, ‘Daddy! Teach me to drive!’ and there is no time for confession or advice because … behind them: a sliding shadow – footsteps – a car door slamming … A figure, a teenager by the look of him, is hunched in the driver’s seat of the Geely.

The man yells.

The engine starts up and the car screeches from the curb. It stalls, lurches, speeds away.

He shakes his fists in the air. He dances with rage. ‘Dog-fucked! Plague god! Son of a rabbit!’ He curses the teenager, curses his parents, curses his ancestors to the eighteenth generation. It’s been years since he let his anger rip. He feels alive.

A dazzling whiteness rises beneath the storm cloud, like the ash of a sacrifice. A distant hiss, coming closer. Then the whole sky turns an electric gray.

The absence of the Geely counts, for now, as a kind of solution.

There’s a taxi parked across the road. An overweight driver is standing next to it, yawning. Junjun runs over.

‘Chase that car!’

‘I’m not chasing any car,’ the driver says. ‘I’m on my break.’

‘We’ve got to catch the bad guy!’

‘What do you think this is? The movies?’

Heavy raindrops begin to fall.

Junjun jumps into the driver’s seat.

‘Hey you! Get out of there!’ The indignant taxi driver flaps his arms.

‘Help me, Daddy!’

He climbs in next to his son. They can see – in the distance, stuck at the lights – the Geely.

‘After him!’ they shout. The one turns the key; the other releases the brakes. They grip the wheel between them. The man wants what the boy wants.

A bolt of lightning eternalizes the city.

Thunder comes. The taxi swims into traffic … The Geely blurs … becomes tantalizingly clear … again a blur … And the chase continues, in ever slower motion, as glowing rain encases their lives and windshield wipers row through the drowned world.

 

 

Jonathan Tel won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2015. He has won various other awards, including the V. S. Pritchett Prize from the Royal Society of Literature, and the Sunday Times EFG Story Prize. All of these were for stories set in China, which in revised form are now chapters in the highly praised novel about financial goings-on in contemporary China, Scratching the Head of Chairman Mao (Turtle Point Press, New York, 2020). He has recently been based in Berlin, researching and teaching about refugees there, and writing a book of fiction about Syrians in Germany.