In the Courtyard of the Concubines by Joanna Grant
The Forbidden City, Beijing, November, 2018
Before we crossed over into the Forbidden City, there he was. Larger than life, bigger than God, in the eyewatering light of the Gate to Heaven. Mao. Will we see him, someone asked our guide, who’d told our group to call her Lisa. Will we see him, Lisa, in his tomb? And something in her expression recoiled, a gate slammed shut.
Her mother had named her Calm, she’d told us on the bus, her eyes on the past as she spoke through the mike. She named me this, Lisa said, because there was not so much of that back then. It was her wish. And we were rapt. We drank water from the river, Lisa said. Back then. And at school we lit the room with candle. Candles. You know that in Chinese there are no plurals? Do you remember?
He is not on our tour, she tells us firmly, as we gather the children and ready ourselves to cross the humming highway, its lanes dividing the Emperor’s palace from the dazzling brickwork of Tiananmen Square. And Lisa began to explain.
I want to remember her word for calm. Lord knows that state’s alien enough to me, whether it be in Mandarin, Cantonese, or my own mother tongue.
After the massive squares of the throne room, the dragons and the incense of the audience chamber, some relief. A smaller, a more human scale, filigree and gilded lacquer. The Courtyard of the Concubines, where the women of the palace studied, wept, preened, and played, where they’d wait. For any moment now, the bolt from the blue, the messenger saying It’s you, it’s you. Dizzying, all a girl’s life a drab prequel to her destiny—the Presence.
Well. We raise an eyebrow now at such a thing, American and Chinese both. There are no Emperors now. The last one barely a memory. Oh, this past. This history. Such things went on then, in the time before Calm.
And then I see her, stooped somewhat, her hair the silky floss of the very aged. For all her years she’s still neat and trim in her black cotton pants and her quilted cotton jacket. Her sole decoration a portrait brooch in a silver frame. Against a jade background, the face of Mao. Still pinned above her heart. If someone were to snatch it, were to rip him from her, heartmeat and muscle, sinew and tendon would tear out with it. I know this as if I had seen it, lived it. The colonel’s wife in the Trump ball cap hoists her baby daughter up on her hip, holding her close, click click taking selfies, the old lady with her portrait brooch an accidental photobomb. And I think of all the time I’ve spent, that we’ve all spent, waiting for the call that never came. From him. And, even worse, waiting for the one that did.
Joanna Grant holds a Ph.D. in British and American literature, specializing in fictional as well as nonfiction travel narratives of the Middle East. She spent eight years in that region, notably two years in Afghanistan, teaching writing, mythology, and public speaking classes to American soldiers and gathering materials for her own memoir, which she is currently completing as part of an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University under the direction of Mark Sundeen. Her poetry and prose have appeared widely in journals including Guernica and Prairie Schooner.