Brave Tomb

The last time she heard her coordinates she was at thirty-nine hours, fifty-five minutes north, one hundred and sixteen hours, twenty-five minutes east. This placed her roughly at the heart of Beijing, waiting in a line facing north toward Tiananmen Gate and the Forbidden City. This was not her destination. The Forbidden City was a place of numerous, intertwined histories, stories of emperors and fires and stolen treasure beginning six hundred years before. She stood in line alongside the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, a house built to contain a single history, which carried well over a billion smaller histories as if Mao’s fingers were whole provinces, his fingerprints the streets in which the people lived.

She had a watch in her pocket. Its face was the face of Mao, and he smiled approvingly at her foreign-friend eyes whenever she looked at it. The inner mechanisms did not keep time very well. She knew these things were made to survive until they were sold. That was all. She did not wear it while standing in line because she did not know what was appropriate when visiting a person’s mausoleum. Wear a watch with the likeness of the deceased or not? Workers and soldiers waved their tools cheerfully behind Mao’s face and the black hour and minute hands. Cheerfully. One had a sledgehammer, and another carried a rifle, and no one had an abacus or a baby. She had looked closely at the scene after purchasing the watch and was disappointed to find that none of the workers or soldiers themselves wore a Mao Zedong wristwatch. Wouldn’t that be standard army issue?

She could also see Mao’s face watching over the people from the enormous portrait on Tiananmen Gate. People took photographs there, and they were photographs of a portrait painted from a photograph of the man dead in the building next to her. She didn’t compute this immediately, but it came.

She placed her palm against the metal back of the watch in her pocket. It was not cold or chilled. The head in front of her was covered with black hair. The top of the head was about even with her nose and swiveled occasionally. The hair was short and looked mowed, not cut, and on the right side where the sun hit it, the black turned to a dark purple. It was the color of a bruise or the crevice on a plum. As the man turned his head, the purple spot did not move. She wondered whether he was a worker or a soldier and wondered whether he hated Mao or loved him or whether this was just a visit to see one of the sites that everyone sees when visiting the capital. She personally was just visiting because the guidebooks had told her to. In fact, that was the only reason she could give for being in China at all, and over the course of the last three days she had been asked a number of times what brought her here. She never said just because it was something to do, but that’s what it was.

The man with the mowed hair and purple highlight on his head from the sun like a bruise or the crevice of a plum wore a gray shirt and black pants that fit him loosely. He moved very little other than the occasional head swivel, and this motion was not distinct enough to indicate that he was looking at anything or following anything in particular, but then he turned around and looked at her. He did not smile or frown or wrinkle his forehead or alter his eyes in any way. He next looked at the sky above her and then rotated again until he was facing north once more.

The line moved forward a few feet and stopped. It would be thirty-three minutes before she was inside. She did not know that she would not be allowed to stop to view the body but must keep walking as she paid whatever respects she wished to toss at the waxen figure. She did not know that they would take her camera and give it back to her once she exited. The man in front of her spit onto the ground. The man in front of him lit a cigarette and looked up at the kites. An old woman held his arm and swayed back and forth on bowed legs. She could not have been taller than four feet, but the smoking man could not have been shorter than six feet. One kite looked like a hollow box, and another was made up of a dozen tiny kites in a line.

Earlier a man asked her if she would like to see some of his paintings. He was a master painter, he explained, and wanted her to see Chinese painting. His English was most clear when he said Chinese painting, like he had repeated it to himself for a year. Chinese painting. Chinese painting. Chinese painting. Chinese painting. But it was also the most labored moment in his speech. She asked him what the student revolts of 1989 were like, the ones where that young man was run over by the tank, but the painter did not have a television at the time the protests occurred so did not know much about it all. But a middle-aged woman spoke to her for a while in front of the Museum of the Revolution. The woman said it was terrible (the woman said this like rolling downhill) but terrible things sometimes happen well (the woman said this like rolling back up). When she heard this, she was not sure if the middle-aged woman meant those words exactly or if that was the only translation of her thoughts she could manage in English. Translations made everything difficult. For instance, the hotel where she stayed replaced the rugs in the elevator everyday. Embroidered on each rug was the phrase, “Welcome, [day of the week]!” Today had been, “Welcome, Tuesday!” There were Chinese characters above the English, and they possibly meant, “Welcome, Tuesday!” But what was the point of translating the untranslatable?

It was getting warm, and the line moved rather quickly. It seemed like thousands of people were ahead of her but the procession kept turning left at the northeast corner of the mausoleum without any evident congestion.

“Thirty-nine hours, fifty-five minutes north,” said an Australian voice behind her.

“I’m sorry?” Then she turned around.

He was taller than her but quite thin and looked at a device in his hand as he spoke. Because of his averted eye line, she was not entirely sure he was speaking to her at all.

“And one hundred sixteen hours, twenty-five minutes east.”

“What is this exactly?”

His nose was too wide for his face, and he was probably forty. He was dressed in a loose blue jacket like the workers on her watch. None of the workers on her watch carried a handheld device, though.

“That’s where you are.”

“That’s where I am?”

“I’ve placed you in space. Your coordinates.”

He finally looked up, smiled at her and swung a backpack from his shoulder. He hid his device away in the smallest pocket.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Mao?” she asked. At that moment, that was the only dead person she could think of. Had she been asked the same question on Michigan Avenue, she would have answered, “Mao?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, Mao’s dead.”

“Right then,” and he ducked under the rope marking the line.

The man in front of her spit again, and she said, “thanks” to the Australian with the handheld coordinate device as an afterthought, though she really didn’t mean it. He did not hear her, and in half an hour guards pushed her by the dead body of Mao Zedong.

Originally published on Word Riot.