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Missing Mao's Ear

By Renée E. D’Aoust

“Y M C A,” I hummed the English words to the song on the train’s loudspeakers. My friend Luc marked each alphabet letter with his arms. Outside, rice fields stretched into the setting sphere of the sun, a discus of fiery flaming red that the Buddha had thrown into the sky. The man next to me, wearing a blue Mao hat, offered me more sunflower seeds.

“Do they know this song is sung by homosexuals?” asked Luc.

“Would they clap along if they knew?”

“What is homosexuals?” asked a man across the aisle.

We were traveling by “hard seat,” with the people, rather than by “soft seat,” with party members and foreigners. Each green vinyl bench had at least five people on it, yet passengers still overflowed off the seats into the aisle.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

“Do you speak Chinese?” the man asked.

“Ni hao. Mi fan. Xie xie.” The words sounded like “knee how,” “me fan,” and “shi shi.” Everyone around me clapped. I bowed my head.

“Hello. Rice. Thank you,” said the man. He continued, “English name: Ned. President Reagan very good.”

“President Reagan very bad,” said Luc.

I pointed at Luc: “Luc.” At myself: “Renée.”

“What is homosexuals?” Ned repeated.

“The Village People,” I said.

“Kind of,” snapped Luc. He had been irritated with me ever since I had fallen asleep while he instructed me on the history of Russo-Chinese relations since the late 1800s. To Luc’s dismay, I was more interested in learning about Mao’s body in Tiananmen Square. Mao’s left ear was supposedly decomposing; I wanted to travel to Beijing to see it.

“Man and man together,” said Luc.

“Bad,” said Ned.

“Not bad,” said Luc. “Different.”

Ned wore women’s nylon knee-highs and plastic, strap-laced sandals with open toes and backs.

He wore a T-shirt that I had also purchased: MINNIE LOVES MICKEY AND.

And Mickey loves Mickey, I thought, finishing the writing on the T-shirt.

“Hopeless,” said Luc.

“Yes, hopeless,” said Ned.

It was 1985: Four years before Tiananmen Square. Luc’s father was a guest professor of English literature at Nanjing University, and I was their guest for the entire summer. We were on the outbound train from Nanjing traveling to the sacred mountain of Jiuhuashan to visit monasteries reportedly left alone during the Cultural Revolution.

We had returned the week before from Putuo Island in the East China Sea where every statue along every path had hands cut off, faces of the Buddha slashed in half, and white blotches of paint covering once meaningful Chinese calligraphy. Luc’s father hoped Mt. Jiuhuashan, a cherished pilgrimage for Chinese travelers, would restore his faith in culture—or at least in nature. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai had named Mt. Jiuhuashan the “mountain of the nine lotuses.”

My stomach lurched with each lurch of the train wheels.

“Still not well, are you?” Luc asked.

“Too many potstickers,” I said.

“You were humming.”

“The Village People are comforting.”

The streaks of the setting sun cut across the horizon and reached into the earth itself. A heavy-set woman moved through the train with an enormous kettle of boiling water. Ned offered me a paper bag of loose green tea and nodded.

I reached into my backpack, feeling as if I was reaching through someone else’s leg, and brought out my tin cup with its small lid. I took a few tea leaves from Ned’s bag and offered my cup for hot water. Ned held out the bag to Luc, but Luc lowered his head to decline.

“Xie xie,” I said. The people surrounding me nodded their approval.

I turned to Ned. “Mao’s ear. Do you know about Mao’s ear?”

Ned beamed. “Oh yes. Decomposing.”

“She wants to see it,” said Luc.

“Enter right side tomb,” said Ned.

“Then I see left ear?” I asked.

“See ear going away,” said Ned. He waved his right arm up and down.

“We all dance,” said Luc, waving his hands in the air.

Ned looked at me quizzically.

“Dance,” I said, waving one arm while trying to keep the cup of hot tea steady.

The old man next to Ned spit out the hulls of his sunflower seeds onto the floor.

Ned patted my knee. “Good you see Chairman,” he said.

I pointed out the window. The fiery ball of flame had disappeared. The rice fields receded into the darkening horizon. The music blared on the train’s loudspeakers. The Village People were playing again.


After dancing professionally in NYC, Renée E. D'Aoust graduated from Columbia University. D'Aoust has received Idaho Arts Commission (NEA) grants, the Julie Harris Fellowship for Emerging Playwrights from Food for Thought Productions, and the 2002 Midnight Sun Fiction Award. Publications include Apollo's Lyre E-Zine, The Bathyspheric Review, Black Canyon Quarterly, Canoe and Kayak Magazine, Permafrost, and elsewhere.

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