Excerpt: Writing with Blood

by Catherine Bai

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An American girl cannot hold down a conversation in Chinese, the characters wriggling like carp underneath her tongue, spilling out in imperfect dribbles before her lips can capture their bones. This happens when she is sculpting freeform, thoughts leaping off English instincts, reaching for Chinese translations that spill out of fingers like sediment, left behind by diverted currents. But remind her of a poem—five characters per line, four lines—and blood will rush to her mouth like a river to sea:




更上一层楼 (1)

I’ve heard that the 黄河 is drying up before it can reach the ocean. Does she know that the Yellow River basin was the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization? Farmers are taking and taking, irrigation for crops that will ignore its water source and creep towards the sky instead. The American girl allows the carp to wriggle free, plopping onto loose soil that sprays earth onto her ankles. She consumes English like meat and milk, foods that will make her grow big and strong until one day she will reach her hand up to touch the white sun and discover, with surprise, that it burns. She will look beneath her feet for the currents that flow so faithfully to the sea and find only sediment, stained with iron and bleached with sunlight.


An old woman, stooped, with bound feet and a cane, is surrounded by a crowd of support—amorphous and clothed in dark neutrals, hardy fabrics that are prickly-warm. She is seated with help from no one in particular, and the crowd dissipates into discrete men with faces that have been sunbaked in a clay oven, dust not so much literal but implicit in their creases. Their teeth are like my father’s.

I am here for the first time, standing within unpaved village life, small and with an intuitive understanding that I am an alien to the world my father grew up in. The American girl hides behind her father’s belonging and uncurls her toes for running. She doesn’t want to know who this woman is, with shoes shaped like the curve of a crustacean’s claw—exoskeletons belie the writhing beneath.

The old woman is never introduced to me, and she never takes off her shoes. I imagine the grandmother I never met, hiding in those feet.

(1) The ancient poem《登鸛雀樓》by 王之涣 (Wang Zhihuan) has been titled in various ways in English. Two translations include “At Heron Lodge” and “Climbing Stork Tower.”

Finish reading Catherine Bai’s “Writing with Blood” in Flock 24.

Catherine Bai was raised in Florida and now lives in New England. This is her first published work.