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Fiction

Fiction Issue #55

Gone from the World

by Talbot Hook

Finally. He had forgotten just how many times he’d put his name in, but now — relief. Freedom. He had finally done it. He immediately turned off the screen, and went to the fridge for a beer, pausing for a moment, the afterglow from the television blaring happily in the darkness of his closed eyes. His name had been called. Well, to be technical, it was his name and household registration number, and therefore included his child, his wife, and his still-living father. So much pent-up energy, but nowhere to spend it. Work was not for another three hours, but what did it matter? In three weeks, he’d be out of here. He would be gone from the world.

A quick IM to his wife to inform her of the news. Tian a! Could this go any more slowly? No response, meaning that his wife was still hard at work; he, on the other hand, was being driven slowly mad by this seat of energy building in his stomach. What to do? (Zuo shenme?) Where to look? (Kan sha?) And, again, what did it matter? (“Shenme dou shi fuyun.” How many times had his father “philosophized” at him with that hackneyed phrase about impermanence?) The apprehension and beauty of the lottery process lingered in his mind. How many times had it been? Hundreds? No, that was too few; an everyday process over the course of years surely pushed the number into the lower thousands at the very least. And now the money — enough to put his daughter through at least two years of schooling at the local gymnasium — was no longer wasted: it was purposeful; it was necessary. No longer could his father call him foolish because even he would now benefit from the luck and foresight of his son. To be filial was ingrained in his moral fiber. Bai shan xiao wei xian (filial piety above all else). He pulled a beer from the pack and stood at the window, drifting thoughtlessly.

Since the premature death of his mother at fifty-two, his father had lived in his house, making it the multigenerational home of his nightmares (and his father’s dreams). His father failed to see the Western beauty of the nursing home, the social benefits of the retirement community, the beatific stupor of assisted living. Every morning before work, his wife rose early to match the internal clock of their father, alighting upon his doorstep, rousing him gently, rubbing his feet, helping him up, arranging his clothes, and preparing him tea. “Of self’s own flesh and blood, the bones hold together” she admonished him when he found himself at odds with his father’s stubborn ideals. And in the end, he was thankful for her keeping him grounded, always with a slight smile dangled in front of him, holding him to what he knew to be right. This was only one of her traits that he found himself continually in awe of, feeding their love of one another. The birth of their daughter five years ago had framed the portrait of their marriage in a sturdy wood: the childish bounds of their home, their love, and their lives. 

She would be with aiyi, her caretaker, now, learning to work, learning to play, and learning to be. He had dressed her that morning with two red ribbons in her hair, that ever-present color of fiery fortune and joy, so archaically linked to happiness. He had never put much stock in the Theory of the Five Elements, but, as his wife playfully reminded him, what could it hurt? Summer, that expansive time of bloom and heat, bobbed and waved upon the head of his child, appropriate to season and appropriate to personality. Her inner fire was strong. She was curious, she was kind, and she was, for the life of him, energetic. Surely an onlooking spirit would discern this traditional act of obeisance and bless their household. And, if not, at least his daughter was presentable to those who saw her. Best to cover one’s bases.

He could barely see the city out the window for the buildings. He had never been a fan of such explicit industry — the creeping grey, the shifting smokes, the Brutalist fetishization of steel, glass, and concrete. It was far removed from what he read about, those centuries-old days of plains, woods, and hills. A poem of Wang Wei’s, unbidden remnant of his mother’s literary bent, entered his mind:

Alone, sitting in a remote bamboo grove,

Plucking the lute and singing long —

Deep in the forest, unknown to men,

The bright moon comes shining.

What a lost image, he thought. Lai liangguang: the bright moon comes shining. And what privilege to have such space to oneself! Not to mention the leisure time that the poem intimated. He repeated the poem in his head, feeling at once sentimental and defeatist. And, again, what was the point of such musings? Give him time and he would be gazing down upon the greying planet from miles above the earth. Looking away from the looming city at his window, his eyes landed upon the potted moth orchid on the table. This flower, white, drooping elegantly, given as a gift to his wife at the news that she was pregnant, had cost him a month’s work. How very different from anything outside. Even if he were leaving the planet, it would still be a worthwhile act to introduce flowering greenery to the city: a parting gift to his home of thirty-some years.

His phone buzzed, left on the windowsill. A tap revealed his wife’s reply, a strange mixture of English, Mandarin, and the scant Korean that she had learned a few months back to talk to a pen pal online, something completely incomprehensible to him — both linguistically and aspirationally. At the end of it, a hand-drawn suitcase hastily scribbled. He smiled, imagining his wife furtively drawing, all the while laughing to herself. Putting the phone back down, he placed a single piece of ice on the roots of the orchid. He watched it begin to melt, and then thought about how he should break the news to his father.

He paced the living room. His father had stepped out for the morning to play majiang with some old war buddies and would likely be back soon. Best to prepare tea, he thought tactically, talk about old times, talk about mom, then about the future. Moving to the kitchen, he pressed three buttons on the stove, lowered the kettle onto the heating pad, and opened the pantry. Most of the tea was either expired or gone — at least, all the imported leaves. There was some of the cheap, mass-produced QualiTea distributed by one of the city’s conglomerates, but it was tasteless even if it had been free. Down a shelf, at the back of the pantry, he managed to find some year-old Sparrow’s Tongue, which he spooned diligently, mindfully into a teapot. Once the water was at peak boil, he took it from the stove, letting it rest for a while, and then waited for his father’s return. He was, admittedly, anxious about this whole ordeal. “Bu qu” would be the likely response: I won’t go. His father had long been ambivalent about governmental space programs, finding them escapist and unrealistic. “Without fixing humanity, why should we export our vices and failures to other planets?” he would assert in his charming combination of English and Mandarin. “Dai zheli jiu hao, man man jixu.” (Staying here and getting on is best.) And how does one counter that? Everything he would say would be true, simply true. And, if he caught himself in a moment of honesty, he believed the same thing: have humans really deserved to expand across the stars? Given the rather disgusting view out his window, his intuitions echoed with a resounding no.

It wasn’t long before his reverie was broken by the door opening. Two plastic bags of groceries, a majiang set, and a jacket folded over the arm, his father stepped carefully into the room. He was always so perfectly elegant in his motions: the shoes placed just so, the jacket hung properly, the chess set placed with its edges perfectly parallel to the table.

Ba.” (Dad.)

A slight pause. “Shenme?” (What?)

“We made it.” Another pause. “In the lottery. We’ll be gone in a few weeks.”

A longer silence. “O. Hao.” His father looked away, picked up a small book from the table, and turned toward his room, his air a mystery.

Ba, ni shuo ba” (Dad, say something) — he resented how pitiful his voice sounded in the moment.

But his father stopped only briefly, muttering “bu shuo” (there’s nothing to say) before entering his room and softly closing his door. 

Two weeks later, and most of their possessions had been either sold or packed. Only a week to go. He had made no progress with his father; if anything, the old man had grown more recalcitrant with each passing day. Their eyes would sometimes meet in the hallway, or at the dinner table, and an empty phrase would communicate everything, not in speech but tone: your choice is wrong for both you and us.

Cao cao fucking cao. So much cognitive dissonance on this point! To his mind, the principle of staying was right, but the choice of leaving was also right. And to keep his family together, that was the most touchy, tricky, impossible thing. His wife, at his persistent prodding, had also tried to broach the subject with his father, but to no success. Even using their daughter as a motivating force failed to move him, and he doted upon her excessively.

Yeye, yiqi qu hao bu hao?” she would ask with childish utility. (Grandpa, will you come with us?)

O, qin ai de, bu shuo. Women geng hao wan,” would be the response. (Oh, my dear, shh, shh. Let’s play instead.) Clever redirection: play was the easy override switch to the endless questioning of childhood. He was a master at it, and she danced on his strings. Each time, with each person, in whatever mood or location, he avoided the topic in a masterful, infuriating way. Yet one could tell that it still weighed on his mind. As the son watched his father, he came to realize some of the difficulties he had sprung upon the old man. 

One of these was made all too clear on Qingming jie, the annual day dedicated to the sweeping of graves and mournful celebration of the dead. Walking from the light-rail to the cemetery (one of the few places with any color) in a shy April drizzle, his family passed myriad other dutiful sons and daughters as they ascended the terraced hill. Du Mu’s famous line “breaking are the souls of mourners on the road” floated on the yet-cold breeze, rustling branch, flower, and skirt alike. Arriving at the grave, the family bowed in its approach and gently tended to the dirt and dust of the past year; as the stone took on new life and the inscription regained its vigor, offerings of tea and food were made before the once-mandatory, now-banned act of burning both fake money and incense. As the city government had cracked down a few decades ago on unnecessary emissions, the tradition had died away as suddenly as smoke from an incense stick. But the memory remained, just as the residue of incense never truly leaves a worn fabric. This gave him some comfort.

 In place of the fake money, the family had decided to simply put more actual money into their daughter’s education fund — something approved of by all. Pulled out of these musings back to the present, he noticed his family preparing to bow, once again, before the gravestone. Repacking their supplies, he gave one bag to his daughter, and then took her other hand; putting his arm around his wife, they lowered their heads in that particular manner of cold solemnity utterly unique to Qingming jie and headed off in search of his wife’s ancestral grave.

Not but five minutes later did he realize that his father had not followed. Turning back once again, he switched his daughter’s hand to that of his wife and walked briskly through the rows of headstones, nearly bumping into others but never quite making contact. Once he was halfway up the hill, he noted his father still at the grave. He was kneeling at its face, seemingly in conversation. His footsteps began to slow, and he set about watching, eventually finding a terrace upon which to rest. His father continued in this manner for nearly half an hour. What could possibly have inspired this vigil? he thought, not yet thinking, not yet empathizing. And suddenly, as is sometimes said, inquiry and response arose together, giving him both question and answer: his father was asking permission.

His heart, like the emperor’s sleeve in his favorite story, was rent. This asking permission could perhaps mean that his father was joining them, and this was a cause for joy — a thawing of relations and an opening of hope for the future. But so too was it wretched: to leave one’s wife, not just for another town, but for something outside the planet. Of course. Shijie shang you bi wo geng ben de haizi ma? Wo zenme mei kan qingchu ta de tongku? (Is there a dumber son on earth than I am? How did I not see his pain before?) Idiot. Goddamned fool.

His eyes darted back to the image of his father. He was still there, though now he performed one last prostration and looked up into the empty sky before turning away.

With the family gone, who would clean the tomb? Who would share food and drink with mother? Who would speak with her? Of course, she was not spiritually entombed there, and his father knew this intimately, but there was still a lingering sense of mother where they had laid her to rest. It is probably this way with all those who have lost; we seek our loved ones in the place we last left them, even though the fire has long since departed for other realms. Soon his father was before him.

Ba, daoqian.” (Dad, I’m sorry.) He lowered his head.

Hmm?” The father tried to meet his son’s eyes. “Shuo?”

I’m sorry, dad. Duibuqi, zhende, duibuqi.” He could not meet his father’s eyes.

Ni buyong daoqian ba, shenme dou hao. Wo gen ni ma tanhua le. Shenme dou hao a.” (There’s no need to be sorry; everything’s fine. I just spoke to your mother. Everything’s settled.) Putting his hand briefly upon his son’s shoulder, he began to depart from the terrace, gently tugging at his son. The son turned, bewildered. Surely he had something to be sorry for. He had fucked up entirely; this was on him.

Ba…”

Shh, shh. No need to talk. Everything yijing dasuan hao le.” (Everything’s been settled.)

That last word, that le, indicator of the past and of change, was the last word between them for a few days. This uncertainty in the son’s mind did not entirely dampen the days, however. Cheerfully, he packed with his wife and daughter, reliving old memories whenever an old toy or photo appeared — pulled from between cushions or taken from the back of a seldom-used cupboard. The days were warm, even blissful. The family had no work, no school (for what was the point?), and so each person gave of themselves fully in each moment. They all spent long hours sitting together, legs touching, heads placed upon laps, talking, caressing, living deeply. From time to time, father would leave his room with boxes of old knick-knacks, stacks of paper, or an old briefcase. These he would take somewhere out into the city, and they would disappear. When he would return, he would usually prepare tea and sit at the table, watching the family, sometimes joining in, sometimes not.

On the evening before, when all was set in order, news leaked out about recent government surveillance. A whistleblower on the coast had shared files online documenting the extent and methodology of the government’s wiretapping, data mining, and illegal monitoring via public CCTV channels. At the heart of the controversy was the issue of overpopulation, of course. That was no surprise to anyone; nor was it shocking that the government had been dreaming up five-, ten-, twenty-year Plans addressing this problem in various ways. Most of the ideas were patently stupid, and the public took the government to task for such flagrant wastes of time and resources. Other initiatives were confusing, with poetic, dazzling names like yi zhi yang qian (one plant nourishes a thousand) or shangshan xiaxiang (up to the mountains, down to the villages). One of the main programs had the vague name of xiaoshi ti: the disappearing stair. No one had any reference, literary or historical, for this name, and so it went largely unnoticed. So too did the discovery that the government had created a “Citizen Patriotism Score” for each member of the state, ranking each person on their loyalty to the Party. But the mass surveillance could not be ignored. The remaining world governments decried this policy — an abuse of rights, a restrictive state apparatus, a disgusting breach of privacy and decency. The usual. That was expected, and the world would forget by tomorrow. Shenme dou shi fuyun, his father’s voice spoke in his mind. Everything is but floating clouds. How true that was. 

His family had long ago gone to bed, but he knew that sleep was likely impossible. He went again to the window, beer in hand, and sat at the sill. Mists and clouds of smog arose from the street below, wrapping themselves around building, street light, and chimney.

The next morning, he awoke. He had slept after all. Looking at the sun, he imagined it was around seven o’clock. They needed to be on the train to the elevator at ten, which left them plenty of time to linger, one last time, in their home. A slow breakfast, bathing, reading, the family passed a little over an hour together before packing up what remained. As he placed the last box in his wife’s arms, he heard the expectant twist of a doorknob and the decisive closing of a door. His father came into sight. He had with him a single suitcase, coat, and hat.

Ba, qu nali le?” he asked, uneasily. (Dad, where are you off to?)

“With you yiqi, wo erzi.” (Together, my son.)

Wife looked at husband quickly, first in confusion, then in wonder, and finally in joy. She threw the box back into his arms and ran to embrace the older man. Their daughter, equally affected by this joy she could not understand, followed in tow, embracing her grandfather’s legs. A hesitant smile broke out upon his face, suspended between his discomfort with physical contact and humanity’s deeper desire for warmth and touch.

It took only fifteen minutes to get their scant belongings onto the light-rail, and before long they had a moving window onto the world. Buildings, grey with cloud and rain, disappeared in flashes separated by empty sky, and soon the inner city flattened out, but for a single spire in the far distance. That was the elevator, one of many different elevators throughout the country, and it grew with the passing minutes. His daughter, perfectly enraptured by the changing scenery (for all children delight in change), would laugh every so often, seated upon her mother’s lap. He and his wife exchanged a series of meaningful glances: this one apprehensive, this one excited, this one sentimental.

The voyage would be long they knew, and, by the end, their muscles would be atrophied and their minds restless. And once there, new habits, new types of jobs, new social structure, new government. It was terrible to imagine, yet completely wonderful, as all futures are when in transition.

At the station, they were ushered into a large, polished room permeated with bureaucracy. Attendants paced hither and yon, arms full of papers; stamps beat quickly in arrhythmic time; names were shouted, ignored, repeated, and misread. He led his family up to the nearest open window and handed the attendant their papers, along with their lottery recognition numbers. The attendant shuffled these into one pile, fed them into a larger pile, then copied, stamped, certified, notarized, and copied them a second time before feeding them into an even larger pile destined for the back room. They were told that the wait would approach an hour.

He picked up his daughter, bundled up warm in an oversized green coat, a color approaching true jade, and carried her over to the nearby café. His wife and father followed closely behind, though his father lingered, looking around at everything with a vague air of distrust. Like many of his generation, he was innately repulsed at the lifeless building with its dull attendants and bureaucrats. What was that line of Oscar Wilde’s? “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” Placing his daughter on the ground, they waited a moment in line. Around them were various peoples of various social classes: the Mandarins (pompous remnants of a long-gone imperial apparatus), the Commissariat (looking fittingly sullen), the working class (the noble and romanticized peasant nongmin), some tourists come to see the elevator, and random others, there for no discernible purpose. The counter appeared from behind a closely-packed family. A smiling man greeted him, commenting brightly about the cheerfulness of his daughter.

Xiaonü, ni jiao shenme?” he asked, donning an appropriately-childish charm. (What’s your name, little one?)

Tan chunge,” she replied, boldly. “And this is my laoba!” (My old man.)

Laughter from both men.

Ni yao he shenme?” (what would you like to drink?) the barista asked, looking down at her over the counter. The little girl, pulling on her father’s pant leg, whispered her desire into his ear.

“She wants . . . well, she said she wants ‘coffee, black’.” He looked down at his daughter, picked her up, and kissed her once on each cheek. “I guess she must’ve heard her mother or I say that at some point,” he said, laughing. “She’s cheeky at the worst of times, but this will definitely teach her a lesson.”

Once they had their coffee, she thanked the man (an over-the-top polite: duo xie nin, xiansheng (thank you so much, sir)), which immediately caused him to laugh in good-natured humility, and they returned to the table. To his acute chagrin, his daughter enjoyed her coffee black. Inwardly sighing, he watched as she blew on the liquid, and then proceeded to take small, careful sips. His father played with her hair as she drank, and she offered him sips of the dark liquid from her cup. His father refused, however, having always preferred hot water or tea. Watching their interactions, he sipped slowly at his coffee, taking his wife’s hand in his.

Soon they were called back, all documents having been approved by some strange, brooding entity farther up the opaque ladder that all bureaucrats hold in awe. The attendant waved them on in a careless manner, and they began to follow signs for the elevator. News screens lined the wall, many synchronized, and all tuned to various State-approved channels: the anthem here, the smiling anchorwoman from the capital there, and all around that ubiquitous red flag.

Rummaging around in his consciousness, he realized he was incredibly nervous. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that his father walked on soldierly, stoically. Turning right, now left, they arrived before the elevator. As they pushed their way into the room, the elevator rose slowly upwards. He could see a family all in matching jackets (orange with embroidered fall leaves) pressed against the elevator window as it ascended. Once it reached the ceiling, it began to accelerate and then it was gone. Unbelievably fast. Back in the chamber, there were three other families waiting, and the elevator looked as though it could hold up to thirty people. It was immense, made of steel and glass, with reinforced this-and-that. Above all reigned the glass ceiling, showing just how truly gargantuan this structure was. The elevator stretched, quite literally, for miles into the air, where it eventually pierced the atmospheric bounds of their planet, and where a ship waited for them. And from there? Well, one of two colonized planets, neither of which was fully inhabited. He knew that this would prove a risk: there had been problems with food, air, and water on both planets recently, but no reported shortages for more than a few days, and no deaths yet.

They were called before the doors. The other families had already entered. The guards accepted their papers sternly, and then gestured toward the elevator. The last family did the same and joined the rest of the outbound crowd. The doors slid shut firmly, and a series of checks, system analyses, and mechanical cross-checks initiated. The floor lit up green and the elevator took off.

Slowly, slowly, and then faster. As they reached the top of the building, the speeds were truly stunning. He had no idea how fast they were traveling, but it was beyond anything he had ever experienced. Yet they felt nothing amiss as they ascended. Pressure was stable. All that changed was the scenery, which proved incredible. The grey city expanded to green hills, which further expanded out to the blue of the sea and the white of the clouds. A mosaic of color — shifting and wholly mesmerizing.

As the earth grew small beneath their feet, what became more noticeable was the sable field looming outside the window. He lifted his daughter for a look, and she gasped in awe. And this was awe-inspiring, not in the tepid way that most people used the word awesome, but truly so. There was simply nothing like it: he had felt small before, sure, but never this crushingly miniscule.

His wife took his hand. He squeezed it gently. His father had not moved since entering the elevator; he looked . . . what? Passive? Scared? Calm? It wasn’t any of those, yet it seemed to be. Ta xiang shenme? Just what was he thinking? He returned his gaze to the window. The stars had a clarity unimaginable at this height. The earth looked like a suspended jewel. His daughter’s eyes sparkled as they caught the wavering lights of planet and star.

He then felt his wife’s hand grow cold. She was staring upward, and then straight at him. Her eyes met his. She looked fearful. But why? Following her eyes upward again, he saw the reason. The elevator’s terminus was just ahead.

This . . . what? This was not how it should look. He expected a ship which would carry them to a terraformed, lush, verdant world with capacious buildings and social freedoms. No. No, no, no. Before him stretched black nothing, punctuated with what he remembered were stars. And . . . oh god. The families that had gone before, scattered throughout his field of vision, with thousands, countless thousands of others in his periphery. Turning, he had just enough time to look upon his wife and child — seeing the fear and realization of his wife, and the beautiful, oblivious innocence in the eyes of his daughter — before the doors were thrown open. His father, beside him, looked on at all of this, never once blinking.

Talbot Hook
By Talbot Hook

Talbot Hook is an educator and writer currently at home in Iowa.