A fetid breeze stirred the air in the Wilson-Chow’s Kennedy Heights flat. Swathes of gold streamed through the vertical blinds masking the ancestor painting on the dining room wall with wavy columns of darkness and light. Three gaunt matriarchs of some affluent Mandarin clan peered from behind these shadowy bars which gave them more than their usual reasons to be sullen. For in addition to their present confinement, their gazes fell on the faces of strangers, a doleful reminder that they were among the unvenerated, the progenitors of immigrants, indigents or the infertile, they knew not which. In recent days, these strangers had behaved more vigorously, bodies angled with purpose, movements defined by an awkward boldness of step, tongues infected with an angry foreign chatter, as if heralding a barbarian rite to which the matriarchs would be obliged to attest.
The Wilson-Chows had been planning the office party for weeks. Mr. Kenneth Wilson yearned to cross the obligation from his list, while Ms. Fanny Chow insisted that they do no entertaining until the fengshui master had inspected their home for trouble spots.
“I’ll not have any voodoo charlatans strolling about our flat hiding bits of red carpet and stacks of old coins,” said Kenneth. “We’re not hosting a scavenger hunt.”
“There’ll be more regrets,” warned Fanny.
The matriarchs pitied this profane alliance of devil and dragon-child and were both amused and greatly relieved when Kenneth ended the debate with an emphatic “Not on my watch.”
The ancestor painting had arrived at the Wilson-Chows a few weeks earlier as part of the firm-funded makeover, purchased on their behalf by their Australian designer from an antique dealer on Hollywood Road. Kenneth instantly detested this “still life of moon-eyed zombies” but would not think of exposing any of his woodblock prints to the sun. “Let them bake,” said Kenneth when asked to approve the final hanging. “Other people’s junk,” said Fanny about this and all the other delicately placed relics—the headless Burmese bodhisattvas, the glossy Tibetan chest, the tapered armoire that reeked of wood smoke. But she had saved her undiluted scorn for the painting and, more precisely, Kenneth’s role in procuring it. “Who hangs pictures of the dead?” she said. “Someone else’s dead,” imprisoned, at that very moment, by ancient rays from the sun. The matriarchs had winced at these disrespectful words, disguising their anger with sealed lips and distant eyes.
Nena scurried about the living room closing the hand-cranked windows. She wore the slate-colored maid’s uniform Fanny bought her for use on special occasions. The embossed invitations had clearly stated cocktails at seven, but it was already seven twenty and the first guest had not yet arrived. Kenneth sat in the crook of their Altfield sectional, feet perched on the Maxalto coffee table, staring at page three of Good to Great, a book he often commended to others but never finished himself. He turned the page. A few seconds later he turned it back again irritated that Nena’s flitting about had distracted him.
As Kenneth waited, his thoughts wandered, as they often did and do, to the conversation that had set their affairs in motion. “The Firm needs someone like you in Hong Kong,” Claude Overstreet had said over steamed eggs and miso at the Hotel Okura six months earlier. Kenneth knew what was coming, the tranquility of his Tokyo hermitage recently disturbed by Claude’s election as Managing Partner on the promise of “penetrating the Greater China market.” Kenneth’s cheeks flattened, his lips tingled and his eyes stung from the searing glow of the newly anointed. He struggled to suppress images of the roaring Boy Scout campfires he had despised so thoroughly in his youth. Self-congratulations for immediately unmasking Claude’s pregnant suggestion as the duty call it would become were soon replaced by the sad realization that Kenneth’s twenty-year devotion to a single firm had rendered him powerless to muster so much as a token parry. An acute case of shingles continued to underscore with each angry boil the impotence with which he so meekly abandoned his cozy fellowship with Yoshitaka-san and his other Japanese banking clients.
For his wife Fanny, however, the move to Hong Kong was rather like a homecoming. A Malaysian wahqiu from Ipoh, her native Cantonese and diaphanous web of classmates and relatives ensured an immediate network of co-conspirators. But Kenneth lacked her love of empire. Over the years, he had grown comfortable in just two theaters: when advising his clients on corporate matters and when discussing Japanese art.
A sonic flare erupted from the hallway triggering a spasm in Kenneth’s chest that ebbed as quickly as it flowed. He recognized the lingering outburst as Fanny’s decree for Nena to turn the air conditioning on full and marveled at her ability to deploy the boldness of the bokashi masters, the monochrome subtlety of the sumizuri-e prints and the embossed emptiness of the karazuri technique in a single sentence to heighten dramatic effect. Cold air chilled his face. Fanny was right. Something fresh was needed to thin the smell of rotting jungle wafting through their flat, a daily gift from the nullah that skirted their Mid-Levels high-rise before plummeting through a grated maw in the earth toward the welcoming gut of the harbor below.
They had married late, both far enough into their thirties to have perfected the selfishness and inflexibility best suited to a lifetime of bachelorhood. She, a buyer of lingerie at Bergdorf Goodmans, petite, poised, with kinky hair and a porcine nose that exposed the depths of her nasal passages to public view. He, the youngest partner in Salmans Duff’s blue-blooded history, short, pudgy, pear-shaped, with droopy shoulders, a feminine gate and a pubescent voice that cracked with embarrassing frequency. Theirs, a dizzying, desperate courtship culminating in a mysterious union of last resort that prompted his friends and hers to whisper not-so-privately, “What could they possibly have in common?” before openly discussing the sexual perversions which must surely arise from such repressed libidos.
The notion of former friends assessing their carnal acts teased a rare grin from Kenneth’s puffy face. In fact, their couplings had been no more frequent than monthly and by prior appointment and only after he had performed prescribed ablutions to Fanny’s satisfaction. And on this she had soon made clear: the naked he and the procreative it disgusted her; both would be tolerated, neither enjoyed.
Then one scheduled evening Fanny locked him out of their bedroom. “Let me in god damn it,” he shouted between feeble slaps of his fleshy hand on the solid oak door. And she had, but not until he had begged and quaked and shrank with memories of giggling rejections, locker-room humiliations and a breathtaking fear of rebuke cultivated since birth, a fear which had come to explain, but not quite justify, the specter of Fanny as a recalcitrant pet that needed to be shown, as animals must, who is boss.
Upon entering the room and without warning, he struck. Once. . . twice. . . Fanny absorbed each blow with barely a turn of her head, displayed no reaction whatsoever but for the overlapping imprints of his fingers on her left cheek, a slight flair of her nostrils and the faint outline of the second-to-last smile she would ever again emit in his direction.
She motioned towards the door with the open palm of her right hand. He passed through the threshold, leaving shards of dignity scattered on the floor. A faint whoosh caused his eardrums to shudder and, from that moment onward, whenever he hurtled downward in elevators, fell toward the earth in airplanes or negotiated the airlocks of his banking clients’ sally ports, he relived the life-altering power of closing doors.
The next day, regret prevented Kenneth from clocking his usual nine hours billable. Instead, he found himself shopping for roses over a two-hour lunch and devoting the fat of the afternoon to composing a love oath of which Lovelace and Yeats would be envious. He left the office at six and alighted the limo at 71st and Madison to give himself a few blocks to rehearse. By the time he reached the olive drab canopy of 770 Park, the imagined details of their reconciliation were as vivid as the pencil-thin outline of the pre-war buildings etching the cloudless sky. An unwelcoming silence greeted him as he entered the foyer of their apartment. A brief inspection revealed that their bedroom door was once again locked and that his things were neatly ordered in the guest room as if this is where they had always belonged.
“Hear me out,” he had said over dinner.
“I’ll do nothing of the sort.”
“You’re being unfair.”
“How about this for unreasonable? In future, please keep your little batang to yourself.”
They had slept in separate rooms since then and, despite Kenneth’s best attempts at rapprochement, all appointments had been irrevocably cancelled. Later, in Japan, he had begun to suspect her frequent trips to Southeast Asia were something more than the harmless rendezvous with friends she made them out to be. When questioned, Fanny told him “You have your hobbies, I have mine,” and refused to elaborate further. He was not entirely sure whether she batted right or left nor, at that point, whether he much cared. Instead, he had gradually come to value her presence for its legitimacy rather than its warmth which underscored his present dilemma: from whom would he seek equilibrium in this shallow crossroads of commerce? The Club? His colleagues at the firm? Some boorish cross-border copy of his pet Yoshiwara courtesan? Their Japan years had been simple really. He had been at home. She had not. And now, his days fluttered by in a Bordeaux and bourbon haze, devoid of human attachment but rich with this simple irony: it is the inequity which keeps one’s life in balance.
Nena emerged from the kitchen carrying a silver tray. She offered Kenneth a bourbon and coke. He accepted it with his usual thanks and just a twinge of regret for having blamed her for what he had recently recognized as an erosion of his legendary gift of concentration. Even his colleagues had begun to notice the lapses—a brief hesitation before acting, the non-sequiturs, the trail of documents and Mont Blanc pens he misplaced throughout the day, discretely returned to his mahogany inbox without explanation.
“Has the Club delivered the wine?” asked Fanny.
“What,” said Kenneth, startled, his head snapping forward, a spoonful of cocktail sloshing onto the upholstery before he could right the heavy crystal tumbler.
“The wine?” Fanny repeated.
The bourbon and coke foamed, then slowly seeped into the Egyptian cotton staining it a milky brown.
“Nena,” he shouted.
“Leave her be,” said Fanny. “The guests will arrive soon.”
She whisked herself toward the kitchen pausing in the dining room to inspect the table. While backing through the swinging door clutching a glass by the stem, she hesitated for a moment and shouted, “The wine, Kenneth? The wine?”
Kenneth had already inverted the soiled cushion. He’d ask Nena to deal with the mess later. As he sat down, a glint of light strafed his right eye. He slowly rotated his head until the light returned. The reflection came from one of the silver bookmarks flagging the pages of the folio, Ukiyo-e: The Collection of Yoshitaka Hiromachi. The bookmarks were engraved with the artist’s name in Japanese and marked the pages that displayed the woodblock prints Kenneth now owned. Yoshitaka-san had presented the bookmarks to Kenneth in a muted display of sadness at his departure from Tokyo.
Kenneth retrieved the hefty folio, placed it in his lap, fanned open the page marked ‘Yamazoe Shigeru’ and traced the detail of ‘Moon-Gazing at Ginkakuji’ with his index and middle fingers. The gesture struck him as dignified. He fingered a second page in the same manner, then turned to the chapter on printing, marveling once again at the obsessive sketching, carving, mixing, rubbing and drying that had produced these masterpieces so many centuries ago. Suffering, he concluded. Great art’s Euphrates. The Japanese artist knows how to suffer. Not at all like those Chinese pretenders. Drunkards. Pampered bureaucrats. Pontificators. Their gifts—gargoyled carvings, incestuous poetry, atonal music. He had argued this point with Fanny many times in the past. Of course, she was blinded by her own ethnicity, a natural source of bias that discredited her ill-conceived opinions.
He flipped to another page in the folio. Some of his guests might appreciate the chance to see the more exceptional prints that he seldom displayed. Perhaps he would nudge the conversation in that direction after dinner.
* * *
Dinner was uneventful except for the way in which the guests had guzzled Kenneth’s entire supply of Château Calon-Ségur, including the late vintages in desperate need of an afternoon’s decanting. He would ask his assistant to investigate the Club’s failure to deliver the case of Argentinian Malbec he normally served at gatherings of the uninitiated. Fanny had cast him a disparaging look midway through their ginger soufflés followed by this precious jab:
“Kenneth. I’m sure everyone is dying to hear more of your hobby.”
He knew she was still angry about “the fengshui fiasco.” Thus tweaked, he mounted a wee offensive of his own.
“Fanny is upset that we failed to employ a geomancer to rid our flat of evil. For all their education, I will never understand why the Chinese cling so tightly to their superstitions.”
Fanny scowled. Their guests, some of them also Chinese, shifted awkwardly in their seats. The Italian leather groaned with discomfort.
Thereafter, the conversation lurched toward the drab, as most conversations with office colleagues do. A few toasts to the fiscal year just ended, some good-natured bantering about the size of the upcoming bonuses, a few ribald comments concerning the tryst between the Singapore partner and the Shanghai associate. Prompted by Fanny’s sarcasm, talk had orbited the prints, but Kenneth had rebuked his colleague’s flattery by dismissing his shrewdly curated collection as “a trifling past-time.” In doing so, he carefully avoided using the word “hobby” so as to prevent Fanny from cultivating any more sympathy. His humility magnified their interest. Calls for a glance at the most treasured works escalated. When the timing seemed right, he guided the expectant crowd toward the living room.
The matriarchs had observed the meal with disgust and were relieved when the guests ventured toward the parlor, curtailing their witness to such boorishness. Great slabs of bloody flesh gnawed with open mouths. Bread shredded and sopped in pools of clotted gravy like rags. Painted women nattering like courtesans disregarding their duty to rule their men silently from below as befit their marital rank. And what of the children? What great calamity had stricken these women with barren wombs? The matriarchs could only marvel at a disharmony so subtle it remained undetected by its hosts.
After a few minutes, the guests had surrounded the coffee table and were sipping a 2001 Château D’Yquem Sauterne from tiny snifters. No sense undermining his Grand Cru generosity with a non-vintage port. Kenneth began with the folio. Yoshitaka-san had labored over its creation for decades. At times, the folio seemed more important to him than the art itself. Kenneth had considered reproducing it in his own name, perhaps reordering the prints and updating some of the descriptions to impress the collection with his own sense of its significance. In the end, he preserved the folio’s provenance, concluding that, in choosing how to present these works, Yoshitaka-san had tapped some fundamental esthetic principle that must remain undisturbed.
His colleagues listened respectfully and during each lull asked the usual “How did you get started? Why woodblock prints? How can you tell if they’re real?” By then, Kenneth stood, chest flared, voice modulating, gestures underscoring words, performing as much as conversing. The matriarchs took note. An actor they surmised. The worst kind of showman. Finally, it was time for the great unveiling. “Well then. Let me show you a few of the more important works.” Of course, ‘Moon-Gazing at Ginkakuji’ would be among them. It was the first museum-quality print with which Yoshitaka-san had parted and only after the Italian masters had smitten him with their irresistible appeal.
He closed the folio and handed it to Fanny who placed it on the coffee table with an exaggerated enthusiasm that barely concealed her disgust. He strode to the tapered elm cabinet, the other Chinese artifact their decorator had pressed upon him, its flimsy construction somehow mirroring, he now realized, the fragility of his exile in Hong Kong. He removed the tethered hasp and let it dangle. The doors swung freely on waxed hinges. Rows of prints presented themselves horizontally in the specially-installed slots. As he drew the glass case containing ‘Moon-Gazing at Ginkakuji’ from its protective cocoon, he noticed some sort of liquid flowing in tiny rivulets from the shelf to the floor. Once removed, he discovered that the case was almost completely filled with liquid, water, he later determined, that had leaked from the air conditioning unit floating in the wall just above the cabinet. A giant air bubble travelled the surface of the painting, mocking his unsteady hands. One by one, he slid the other prints from their slots, removed them from their acid-free folders and placed them on the living room floor. All were stained to varying degrees. In the worst cases, colors had escaped their carefully delineated boundaries resulting in a grotesque fusion of fauvism and manga.
The guests watched this hushed ritual with confusion until they realized that Kenneth’s collection had met with some unspeakable ruin. Fanny joined her husband and, with her hands on her hips, scanned the prints as though inspecting curios at a Silk Road bazaar.
“Well done, Kenneth,” she mocked. “Well done.”
Nena stood behind them, arms extended, the hair dryer held tentatively in her right hand, the cord dangling from her left, as if returning something she had stolen and expecting the worst for it. An imaginary joint of beef lodged in Kenneth’s throat. His breaths shortened to an oxygen-depriving pant. When his shoulders began to heave, he knew it was too late to prevent his tears from creating a public spectacle for which he would always be ashamed. And wedged between sobs, he mouthed the indictments he would soon hurl at Fanny for her incompetent supervision of their move.
* * *
A few hours later, the Wilson-Chows found themselves seated on opposite sides of the dining table, each framed in the moonlight that spilled from the edges of the vertical blinds Kenneth had roughly drawn and twisted shut. The guests had fled the flat as though it were ablaze. Kenneth would come to appreciate their discretion in the years that followed.
The Wilson-Chows had already traded accusations, most of which had little to do with damaged prints.
“You care for nothing but things,” she had said.
“I cared for you,” he replied.
“Exactly,” she said. A long silence pitted the faint impulse of diplomacy against the powerful imperative to rearm. And then, their labored truce was broken with an ingratiating smile coupled with these words: “Kenneth. You have neither the sensitivity to recognize our fundamental incompatibility nor the courage to do anything about it. Find yourself another mistress and get on with your life.”
It was the kind of accusation that preempts any need for further explanation, Fanny’s vindication tasting sweeter when enjoyed in silence with a cup of bo lei tea. She would join her friends on a ladies-only retreat to Langkawi the following weekend. The break would do them good, she had insisted, he having no greater reason than ever to object.
Kenneth stared at ‘Moon-Gazing at Ginkakuji.’ The sharp edges of color that had once scored the moon’s reflection in the surface of the teahouse pond were blurred so completely as to resemble a grade school watercolor. Yoshitaka-san would be as heartbroken as Wilson when he received the damaged prints a few weeks later. A year of meticulous restoration would return some of them to half their glory and a quarter their worth. The others would be auctioned online in bulk to the uninformed. Kenneth would never see the prints again for, a few months before the restoration was to be completed, he would sell anything of value to Yoshitaka-san to fund a portion of the divorce settlement. Kenneth would attempt to carry on as before, but material misstatements on several prospectus filings would earn him an early retirement. He would purchase a two-bedroom townhouse overlooking a secluded Koh Samui beach where he would try his hand at oil painting, only to discover, after years of distracted effort, that he had neither the talent nor the patience for any kind of artistic pursuit. Fortunately, there were no children with which to concern himself. But whenever he realized his existence would be honored just once in a hasty cremation attended by monks-for-hire, his pulse would quicken, his throat would clench and his chest would struggle to lift a millennium of impending sorrow. With the onset of each attack, he would sequester himself in the shadows and, after downing a bottle of Malbec, would debate once again whether the transfer or the party was the proximate cause of their demise. It would take years more, however, before he began to speculate on how things might have transpired had he allowed for the possibility then, that life is not entirely shaped by one’s own doing. This spiritual rebirth would lead him to Master Chen who, through a rigorous divination of Kenneth’s seaside home, would identify the ancestor painting as the root cause of his troubles. Atonement, said Chen, could only be pursued through earnest incantations and the daily burning of joss sticks, tasks to which Kenneth reconciled himself with the fervor once reserved for the veneration of woodblock prints.
* * *
Musty silk robes tugged at the matriarchs’ narrow shoulders. Beneath heavy sleeves, slim fingers rested on knuckles, hard and wrinkled like walnut shells. The matriarchs noted Wilson-Chow’s widening fissure with the satisfaction that comes from shared misery. For they too had been separated from their husbands, first by death, then through a repurposing of their ancestral hall that saw both matriarchy and patriarchy hidden in layers of thatching like thieves, pawned under cover of darkness, sold to a Hong Kong wholesaler and purchased piecemeal by barbarians to be displayed like exotic pets requisitioned from some faraway land. And so for good reason, the matriarchs smirked, quietly relishing their first act of retribution.
MITCHELL D. STOCKS is a practicing international lawyer and adjunct professor of law at City University in Hong Kong. He received his MFA in fiction from City University in 2012.