The boy follows the man, eyes on his pants, and mumbles, “Sir, please buy a rose, buy a rose for your girlfriend.” The man’s legs move faster; the boy grabs one of them, wraps his skinny arms and legs around it and presses his small buttocks on the man’s leather shoe, and says the words again to the leg.
The spring afternoon has gone sultry, the air the texture of rotten fruit. The man is on his way to a sales meeting. He didn’t meet his sales quota and before the child approached him had been rehearsing his explanations in his head. He tries to shake his leg free, but the child tightens his grip. People circle past them: a few giggle, a few gape back to see how he reacts. His face flushes red. He bends down and snatches the child’s wrists and tosses him away from his leg. The child looks up at his face for the first time, stunned, as though he’s just realized that he was not merely dealing with a leg, but an unpredictable man several times his size. And he must also have sensed what’s coming: the man kicks him, the shoe landing on his small rib cage. The child flips over on the pavement, groans, curls into a ball, and cries, “Mama, mama”
A woman runs toward them on the pavement, yelling in some rural dialect the man can’t quite understand. But judging by her tone, he’s sure she’s calling him names or cursing him in the worst possible way. She kneels down by the child, picks him up, and clasps him to her chest. The child’s cry turns into wail; he looks as heartbroken as any other wailing child, though the pathetic rose is still clutched in his hand. The woman rocks him, strokes his ribs. Sallow-faced, ill-dressed, she must have been lurking somewhere by the roadside, blending right in with other urban poor whom the man has stopped paying attention to.
People gather around them, gawking like their eyes have finally found a free feast. The man’s head buzzes, face hotter. “Are you his mother?” he shouts down at the woman. “What kind of mother lets her child pester people on the street?”
Then he turns, quickly, not wanting to hear one single word from the woman. He walks away as fast and steady as his body can manage, controlling the impulse to run, and slows down only after he’s sure the woman’s gaze no longer reaches him. Then he breathes and it feels like the first real breath he’s taken since he bent down to grab the childthose wrists thin and pulsing like a chicken’s neck. The man has never felt comfortable watching vendors wring chicken necks in the market. He’ll grimace and avert his eyes. I’m not a bad person, he imagines saying to the woman whose face still seems to hover right in front of him, its misery and rage so sharp-toned that it reduces the dusty street, dusty plastic-looking palm trees, dusty pedestrians with their idiotic stares to nothing but a stage setting. I’m not a bad person. He imagines the woman’s face soften and himself taking a ten-yuan bill from his wallet and stuffing it in the child’s little grimy hand. Then, like an uncle, he’ll hold the child up and make faces at him until he laughs.
But he knows that’s not what he’ll do. He’ll keep walking and rehearse his explanations for the failure to meet the sales quota and pray he keeps his job. That’s all he can do and will do. He takes another breath. As the humid air fused with dust and exhaust fills his lungs, the city distortsits skyscrapers, shops, multi-lane streets, vehicles lose their edges and density, fattening with moisture, grease, and the incessant despairs and high hopes steaming out of people’s heads. All around him the city is swelling and his feet are hardly touching the ground. He has become a stick figure, a splinter the city is about to push out of its inflated flesh.
The woman carries the crying child to the side of the pavement, under a palm tree. The child murmurs, “Mimi, mimi.” The woman sighs, lifts her blouse, and the child presses his mouth to her breast. People gawk and shake their heads. She lowers her eyes and sees their shoestennis shoes, leather shoes, canvas shoes, high-heels, sandals, flatsnice shoes that know where their feet are taking them. She shields the child’s face with a hand: it’s better he doesn’t see any of these shoes, better still he forgets where they are. The blind fortune-teller told her this was a hard time for them, but things would get better in three years. “Luck star will then shine above your son’s head.” He raised his opaque, scarred eyes. She paid him five yuan and that was all she gota promise of a turn of fortune in three years. Can she keep her milk flow that long? She felt foolish. She needed the five yuan for food, not a fortune that wouldn’t turn until three years from now. But still, three years is better than five or ten, or no luck at all.
She came to the city to look for her husband, whom she hasn’t heard a word from since he left after the Spring Festival. She called the construction company he worked for; they said they hadn’t seen him since he’d left for home before the festival. She went to the village fortune-teller, giving him her husband’s year, month, day, and hour of birth and, as payment, a bucket of frogs her son helped her catch. The old man flipped the brittle pages of his yellow book, wrote down four columns of words with ink and brush, squinted his eyes at a brittle page again, and shook his head: “His longevity star is clouded this year. I see possible falling, a tall building, and serious or fatal injury.” She held her breath. “A building in the south,” he added, “in the city where he builds them tall buildings.”
The woman took her son to the city. She found the construction company; they told her the same thing they’d said on the phone. She told them what the fortune-teller had told her. They asked her to go talk to other construction companiesthere are tons of them in the city, they told her, and her husband could be working for any of them now. She and her son wander around the city, looking up at scaffoldings to see whether he is there. It’s hard to tell: they all look alike from down herea helmet, a little torso, a pair of doll arms and legs. She waits with her son on the roadside for them to come down. She asks them about her husband; they shake their heads or mention another company or building under construction for her to check. At night, she and her son sleep behind park bushes or under viaducts. She doesn’t want to go back to her village until she finds her husband and warns him of his ill fortune ahead. She’ll make sure he goes home with them, where there’re no tall buildings and the inevitability of falling.
She has no money left so she begs. She tries to tell people her story, but they walk away. “They think we’re fake,” an old beggar woman from the same province told her. “They don’t care about us, but some still pity children. Have your son sell flowers. That may still work.” So she picked a less bruised rose from a flower shop’s trashcan and had her son sell it like other children on the streetexcept that people don’t pity children either.
She’s kept her milk flow for a time like this. She always knew there would be a time like this. The child’s small shoulders stop shuddering. His fingers loosen around the rose that lies by his feet like congealed blood. She looks up at the scaffolding across the street and the small figures of construction workers printed on the sky. Any of them could be her husband or could have been her husband. One dizzying misstep could be a step into the nothing down below and when that happens, you won’t even see his body.
She wants to curse those people sparing no pity for her son, but she’s tired. She needs to save the rest of her energy for her body to continue to produce milk. She doesn’t have much milk left and their fortune will not turn until three years from now. She wishes she had a place to go, a private place where she could lie down with her son, close her eyes, enjoy this little pleasure of giving and taking, this little numbing sensation that’s slowly spreading over her body. Any time now she’s going to close her eyes. The shoes, legs, and wheels around them will disappear. She and her son will turn into some gossamer matter, hide somewhere in the air, until things get better for them.
A man is walking in this direction. He sees the mother and son on the side of the pavement under a palm tree. He takes out his smartphone from his messenger bag, pauses in front of them for a second, and snaps a shot. The woman doesn’t even notice, her eyes drooped, her half-exposed breast coarse-skinned and sallow-colored like her complexion. The boy is obviously too big for this: he looks like he’s tried his best to curl himself in her arms, but most of his legs still spill onto the pavement. Only the utter unselfconsciousness of his close-eyed suckling resembles that of a baby’s.
The man goes back to his apartment and makes instant noodles and sits down in front of his computer. He has recently started a blog called “Critical Eye,” a title he’s having second thoughts about and considering changing into something less explicit. He posts social commentaries, often in the form of snapshots he takes with his smartphone on the street. Though his blog hasn’t got much traffic, he has noticed a quickening of his senses as he goes about his daily life. He’s no longer a passive passerby, his life no longer an unanchored fuzziness with perfunctory routines and a job that organizes his hours into rest, work, wants, and small gratifications.
Now he freezes moments he finds provocative, forms opinions, and makes them visible to anyone surfing his way. Sometimes, sitting in his cubicle or walking home from work, he feels he’s simultaneously inhabiting the city and roaming a space ungoverned by gravity, where he’s just about as free as one can be. But when he posts his blog entries, his photos and words gone public, he can’t help but feel an unease, a weak-hearted uncertainty that his posts will be scrutinized or attacked, vulnerable like insects left for dissection.
After he uploads the photo, he comments: “We are a decade into the 21st century and our country is becoming one of the strongest economic powers in the world, yet, here in our city that we claim to be a world-class metropolis, a woman is nursing a five- or six-year-old on the street as though they were in a remote 19th-century village. Why is this happening?”
He clicks “Post” and slurps his noodles. He reads his post; it reads sound. He was going to simply write, “This doesn’t look goodnursing such a big child in public,” but thought it would be too simplistic. He checks some of the blogs and websites he frequents and then checks back to see whether he’s got any comments. There are none. He surfs more and checks back again. Still none. No response is almost worse than a negative response. He thought this post would provoke: the photo alone should catch attention and his commentary should generate a public debate.
But there’s no response and he feels as though he has been sucked into a black hole where other surfers and bloggers swirl around just as involuntarily, propelled by a force none can control. They are trapped but they think they are free. They think they’re living a different life from their daytime personas that perform duties and nod to their supervisors and get a paycheck. They think they are living a fuller, more connected life here in the virtual space, but they are actually engulfed in a black hole where no one cares about anyone else, just as in the reality life. He puts his computer into the sleep mode and goes to bed.
He dreams of a woman lying so close to him he can feel the buzzing heat and electricity radiating from her body. It’s his ex-girlfriend, who by now must have become someone else’s wife and maybe even a mother. But somehow she came back to him. Has she kept a key to his apartment? Did she sneak in, tiptoe to his bed, and lie down by him? Gently, she palms his head with one hand and with the other cups her breast to his mouth. His penis swells up and as her hand slides down his torso and wraps around it, he sucks on her nipple and milk flows out. The liquid only surprises his tongue for a second before it calls back an ancient euphoriahe feels as if he were soaring into a galaxy of burning stars and becoming part of its radiance and order, fervor and harmony. As he comes, he wakes up. His ex-girlfriend is not with him. He’s alone in his small, stuffy room. His computer sits on the desk like a large toad. His dirty clothes litter the floor. The air smells of semen, sweat, and greasy hair. In his mouth he tastes nothing but fetid breath.
But still he remembers the smooth, luscious milk on his tongue and the wondrous feeling of soaring and peace. He closes his eyes and tries to will the true-to-life sensation back into beinghis ex-girlfriend’s flesh blended with his, her breast throbbing in front of his face. He opens his mouth, closes his lips around the nipple where the elixir will flow onto his parched tongue.
A woman surfing the internet stumbles upon the photo on the man’s blog. She once lived in that city; now she’s living abroad. Since she became a mother she has wished she were there instead of hereif nothing else, she would at least have someone to talk to in her native tongue, another mother raising a child. The boy being nursed in the photo is much bigger than her son, who has finally fallen asleep on her lap. She’s weaning him. She has nursed him for eighteen months, has suffered cracked nipples, plugged ducts, and bouts of mastitis. But her son’s demand for her breasts has not dwindled. He wants to nurse before sleep, before nap, after sleep, after nap, during the middle of sleep and nap and during other activities. He grabs her breasts as if they were his. She wants her body back. She craves spicy food and caffeinated tea, wants to wear dresses, not nursing bras and breast pads. She wants her body to be touched and fondled by her husband, and when that happens, she doesn’t want her breasts to leak milk.
Her husband is not at home again. Got some work to finish, he said on the phone. When he does come home, he sleeps on the couch in the living room, says he needs his sleep so he can get up and work and support the family. It suited her well at the beginning, when she loved to snuggle with her son alone on the big bed, her body willingly letting its white ribbon of milk flow into his mouth, as though his intake was also her intake, her giving so complete it merged into taking. They were locked in the cycle of give and take, forming a circle with no beginning or end to allow another’s entrance. When her husband touched her, she recoiled from the intrusion. When he held the baby, the baby screamed for her. He spends less and less time with them.
When she asks him to change the baby’s diaper, or give him a bath, or take him out for a walk, “because he’s your son too,” he looks grudging. He fumbles the diaper on the baby loosely and poop leaks out and she has to wash him again. The walks he takes with the baby tend to be short, “because he was screaming the entire time and people thought I kidnapped him.” Once she caught him holding the baby upside down, dangling in front of his legs, big-headed like a frog, with blood pooling in his puffy face, too startled or strained to make a sound. She’d just finished her weekly shower and instinctively knew she needed to be gentle. She crouched down to take hold of the child’s head and eased him into her arms, putting his wronged face to her wet breast. “That’s enough,” she then said to her husband, still suppressing a scream in her throat. “Just leave!”
Maybe it’s all her faultshe pushed him away. And it’s all her fault, too, that the baby is addicted to her milk. Didn’t she give him her breast when she wanted him to go back to sleep so she could sleep longer, give it when she wanted him to take a nap so she could rest, give it again when he was fussy so she could have some peace? She’s been weaning him for weeks, slowly cutting down the sessions, first daytime, then night. Now they’ve come to the last and most trying sessionthe one he has been depending on to fall asleep at night. Earlier, he battled with her, reaching for her breast, and when pushed away, reaching again. He bawled and whimpered. She stuffed cotton balls in her ears. She rocked and sang and yelled and patted him, till he finally drifted off in exhaustion.
She’s surfing the internet because there’s nothing else she can do right now. There’re a lot to dodishes need to be cleaned, toys need to be picked up, soiled clothes need to be washed, but she’s afraid if she moves, the child will wake up and want to nurse again. The whole battle will repeat and she’ll be too tired for that. And she knows her breasts will be filling up soon. She’ll need to go to the bathroom sink and squirt the milk out instead of giving it to her son, who wants it so much and can’t understand why his mother is denying him the very thing that she used to offer him so abundantly.
She sees the photo of the countrywoman nursing her big son on the street in the city she used to live in and begins to cry. Heat leaps up her eye sockets and tears burn out before she knows it. She looks at her baby: his lips open to a zero; his blue-veined eyelids tremble as though there was a storm below. She holds him to her face, crying as silently as she can. The child wakes up, gazes at her, alarmed. He reaches his little fingers to her cheek, as if to find out through touch what she’s actually doing. It must be an expression he hasn’t seen much before, even though he’s made it thousands of times in his one-and-a-half years of life. He stares at her. He’s about to cry himself, his little face already folding into those familiar creases. She tries to stop herself, wiping her eyes. “I’m okay,” she says to him. “I’m okay.” But she continues to shudder. Her milk is filling up. The child smells it and lifts his mouth to the breast close to it, but he hesitates, examines her face, afraid she’ll push him away again. Her crying must have something to do with that. He’s making the connection. But it’s all too much for him. His sorrowful face lifts to her breast. “Mimi, mimi,” he pleads.
Ye Chun is the author of two books of poetry, Lantern Puzzle and Travel Over Water, as well as a novel, Peach Tree in the Sea. A Pushcart Prize winner and an NEA fellowship recipient, she teaches at Providence College.