Kira Dreyer Messell
Alone on a wide wide sea.
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S.T. Coleridge
You look lost, did you want to watch the show? I’m afraid you just missed it. What a shame. We’re playing again tonight, but I suppose you don’t care to wait. Most people just drop by to see the temple. Oh, you came for the wedding procession? Ah, yes that is a fine spectacle too. It will take a while before it arrives though. You don’t mind waiting? Have a seat then. You’re lucky. We’ve put up plastic chairs for the play. Usually the square is empty, but during the festival, with all the free food and, of course, our opera, devotees flock to the temple to celebrate Tin Hau. No no, it’s not for the wedding, but it is an auspicious time to marry. A double blessing from Tin Hau. Who that is? You’re really not from here. Everybody knows Tin Hau. If only you had seen our play.
What you see is the setting for the first scene. A painted junk on a painted ocean moves left and right until it topples over and throws out its sailors in a terrible storm. That’s just the opening of course and quite a spectacle too, with all the lightning, glitter paper and red spotlights. I’m sure you would enjoy it. Do stay and watch it tonight. You’re not here then? Never mind, if you’re interested I don’t mind telling you the rest of the story. I’ve never talked to someone who doesn’t know my story. Though I’ll tell you the real story, and not the modified version for the stage. Today would be a good day to tell somebody. My spirits are a bit low. I’m waiting for the wedding too you see. Come, do take a seat. Don’t just stand there. Lots of chairs to choose from, just don’t sit in the first row. It’s reserved for the Gods alone. I could sit there, but I don’t. I’d rather be on stage with the actors. I play my own father, you see, when they depict my life. A minor part really.
Oh, my former life looks so simple and glamorous when put on stage. I see you’re smiling. Surely I’m confusing you. It is a complex matter, recounting my life. Luckily, we have lots of time. The wedding procession hasn’t even started its journey yet. The women from the groom’s family are fetching the bride in her home right now. She is delaying the festivities. You know how it is. Wedding nerves. They have to redo her hair. The headdress keeps tilting when she looks down, which she does all the time. A timid thing. She doesn’t know how lucky she is. To experience the rest of her life with a husband at her side. And her family. They’re making a fuss, decorating oars with branches and ribbons. They will be singing, always singing, while their human boat sails through the streets on their way here to meet her betrothed.
I remember earlier, when they were still boat-dwellers, how they hated going ashore. When the ground stopped moving softly under their feet, their faces turned green and many a young Hoklo has thrown up on the floor of this very temple from land sickness. Nowadays they all live on land, either on Hong Kong Island or here in Kowloon, which doesn’t keep them from still sailing everywhere. Today they’re forming two human boats with the groom’s female relatives, ten in each and a sculler at the back. One boat ferries the groom to the temple, while the other fetches the bride from her home. They’ll row their way through the city to have their marriage blessed here in the temple. Like in a play, the Hoklos pretend to be what they’re not. Just like me pretending to be my own father.
Ah, I confuse you. Where to start. Part of my existence began a thousand years ago. I was born into a poor family. My father was a fisherman. My Mother prayed to the merciful Guanyin for another son. In a dream Guanyin appeared and gave her an edible flower. The next day she conceived despite being past menopause. When she gave birth to me the room filled with a brilliant light and the smell of fragrant flowers. Sky and sea played in harmony, the air filled with sweet music. Or so they say. In my mother’s tales of childbirth, her closed eyes tried to shut out darkness and pain. She said the room filled with an odour of sweat and bodily fluids. The only sounds were deep moaning and raw screams from a woman in labour. I, on the other hand, didn’t utter a sound for the first three months of my life, so they called me Lin Mo – the silent girl.
Let me remove my costume and make-up. Let me change back from my father to his daughter. The heavy white make-up makes me sweat. Come, we’ll go behind the stage. This is where we sleep and eat and dress. Like one big family. We used to have a thatched roof, which allowed the breeze to come in and the smells to get out. Now with the tin roof, I often find it too hot and stuffy. But they claim anything else would be a fire hazard, and we do take great precautions to avoid catastrophes and sickness. Just a few days ago our little Mo fell sick. High fever and rashes made her mother worry and the troupe jumpy. We had to perform a cleansing ritual. Fasting and washing our bodies while the stage was purified with incense.
There, it’s always a relief to get out of the costume. I get too warm under the heavy fabric and I always have to wear a set of cotton clothes underneath. To sweat in. To absorb bodily odours. The costumes can’t be washed or dry cleaned. Gold and embroidery, you know. Watch your head. We hang the stiff robes under the roof for airing, right above this make-up table. And here’s the altar where we offer to the gods and have objects blessed. The dummy belongs to our little Mo. The only child living with us. Whenever we can, we snap the dummy out of her mouth and put it on the altar. To be blessed, along with dried fish, candles, fruits and cigarettes. She’s named after me, though nobody here knows my real name. I wish I knew what she sees when she looks at me. Because from drunken dragons and young children you hear the truth. She’s a sensitive child our Mo, who doesn’t like it when her mother paints too red lips against a too white face and fills out eyes and cheeks with pink and black. She cries when her mother hides her hair under long pieces of cloth and headdresses and, like a curtain, hides her face behind hanging rows of beads. She is too young to understand the abstraction of pretence and disguise. I offer her the dummy, bless it, and she sucks it hard for comfort. She sighs and takes my hand. ”Mo,” she says and falls silent as if she recognises me.
Little Mo reminds me of my own childhood. I remember a game I used to play. At night in my sleeping corner I close my eyes and wait. I concentrate. If I’m disturbed it doesn’t work. I leave my bed and watch myself, forehead furrowed with concentration. I float under the ceiling of our little hut. I whizz around. There are my parents, mouths open, snoring barely audible, there my almost adult brothers, moving chests, jittering arms and legs. My oldest brother smiles in his sleep. Is he thinking of that girl we met while untangling nets the other day? I always help him with the nets. He says I have the fastest hands on the entire island and that I’m his favourite little girl. To think that he will probably marry and leave our home soon.
I love the nights when everybody is in the house and I glide around and watch them in their sleep. Most nights though my father and brothers are out fishing. They throw their nets and check the traps mother and I have made of pliable bamboo. These are the nights I sleep lightly. Always waiting to hear them return as dawn breaks.
One late evening a terrible storm rages. Mother and I can’t sleep. Mother wrings her hands and paces our small hut pretending not to be worried. I sit by the loom, weaving a tapestry peopled with mermaids and men. Mother disturbs my concentration. I wish she would sit still and let me look for them. I want to leave my tight body. Quick. Quick. Where are they? My hands busy themselves at the loom. Waves growl and chew on the rocking boat. The fishing nets are torn. A mouth of a wave throws up water and fills the boat. My brothers cling on. The greedy waves watch as flesh slides over the rail and into the dark abyss of the ocean. I dive through froth to search for my father and brothers whose lungs are drinking up the sea.
I slump over my loom.
Two soaking brothers throw up water after I drag and pull them to the shore. They pant for air like fish wriggling before they turn still. Then I leave my unconscious father with them and return to the capsized boat to find my last and oldest brother. Where is he? I dive, searching above and beneath the waves. The boat is disappearing under the surface. I cry his name.
“Hush, hush,” my mother’s voice says as her arms shake me gently.
There he is. I clench his shirt between my teeth and use my arms to swim to the now far distant shore.
“You fell asleep. You had a nightmare. It’s that horrible storm,” Mother says and unwittingly drowns her oldest son. “We must make offerings and appease the Sea God.” I stare at her. I stare at my dry hands on the loom. Then I run to the shore to help my brothers and father.
How did you know, Lin Mo? Father asked, still wet and shivering. How could I tell him I would have saved them all, had mother not roused me from my sleep. Why did you come to the bay? You must have known, he insisted. Then he saw it. My tapestry on the loom. An exact depiction of the events at sea. A boat tipping, bodies floating, waves crashing. Mermaids looking on in horror. Everything captured in a shifting still life. Except for one body at the bottom of the tapestry. Still and crouching. I’m not in the scene. Of course not. I’m the invisible hands that save and the invisible hands that weave.
“See,” Father said and showed everybody my tapestry. “She is a saint. My daughter. Our merciful Guinyin has bestowed her with special powers. The Goddess must have given our Lin Mo second sight and taken up residence in her body.” My parents took me, the silent girl, to the temple where I was declared a Goddess.
I was thirteen years old and simple fishermen suddenly bowed and raised clasped hands to their foreheads in submission to me. “Heaven’s Mother send us grace,” they said before they set out to sea. I felt embarrassed and obliged to spend my nights watching over them. During the day, exhausted and walking as if in a haze, I cleaned and salted the fish they brought me in exchange for my protection. Cutting, salting, drying. At night I closed my eyes and followed the men at sea. They explained my bowed head, pale complexion, and occasional catnaps as spiritual sublimity. My mother took me to the local monk, who saw me for who I was and agreed to teach me everything he knew. As a Goddess, he grimaced in an almost smile, you have to be knowledgable about scriptures and plants.
I was renamed A Ma and proclaimed Goddess of the Sea. They immortalised me at a small ceremony before a statue of Guinyin. I had just had my first period and tried to grasp that now, I didn’t only have the rest of my life in front of me, but eternity laid out like a glittering robe, full of endless assignments.
Do you understand the pure horror of it? You think I was flattered? No, I felt like a fraud. Had I not abandoned my favourite brother to the waves? I tell you what they never show on stage or recount in their tales: How I dived for days after my dead brother’s body. Without luck. He was washed ashore after a week. Bloated and pale, looking like neither fish nor man. I have tried over the centuries to save many sailors and fishermen, to make up for him, to save him at last, but there are always some that evade me.
So you see, I’m quite famous around here, even though you’ve never heard of me. Even some of the Portuguese had my humble person carved as a figurehead instead of their own frightening Adamastor. They even named the island of Macau after me: A Ma Gao, Bay of A Ma, after they set up their trading port 500 years ago. Macau always did fel like my real home, despite its shifting biography. I saw the invading Mongols kept at bay 800 years ago, and Hoklo and Tanka land turn into Portuguese villages. I’ve seen Dutch attacks fought off by African slaves and the poor coolies from Guangdong arrive here only to be sold and shipped away to Cuba or Peru. Catholic missionaries have warned my devotees against visiting my temples. I’ve been called heathen – can you believe that? – and a superstition and a product of ancient folklore. Jesuits, Dominicans, Japanese, Dutch, English. They have all built their houses of worship and convent schools on these isles.
You still don’t understand what I really am? I am merely a vehicle for godliness. So is the fate of any Boddhisattwa. God in a human body, staying on this earth instead of going on to Nirvana. At your service, bringing godliness to your neighbourhood. I slip in and out of different personas, but they’re all part of me. That’s why I like being around the theatre troupe. They too shed layers of personalities after the performance, as they step out of their robes and remove their make-up until they’re naked and ready to inhabit a new persona. Like little Mo’s mother playing my mother, although my mother never saw such extravagances as yellow silk and embroidery in her life. The part of Lin Mo is played by a young boy. His sex is hidden behind the auspicious red robe, although everybody knows she’s a he. Somehow, the melting of the genders in my part makes the acting all the more plausible. I derive, like everybody else, from the marriage of male and female. First I was a Hindu god in India called Avalokitesvara – he who hears the cries of the world. When I was brought to China and met Buddhism I was changed. I still cared for the sick and the childless. I still listened and was compassionate. But, alas, my new followers deemed these traits too feminine to ascribe to a male God. And so Avalokitesvara became Guinyin, the ultimate compassionate Goddess of Mercy.
Come, let’s walk across the square and into the temple. I often sit in my temples. Either the Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong or the A Ma temples in Macau. No matter where I am and what they call me, my devotees always have the same afflictions: Money, love, sickness. Money, love sickness. It’s a never ending story. Just like the incense coils above you. No, don’t look up. You can hardly see them for smoke anyway and you could get ashes in your eyes. Hence the signs: beware of incense coils above. Layers and layers of circles spiralling downwards and burning upwards. My life has turned around in circles too. Always the same even as the circles renew themselves.
Here I change into one of my other personas: the volunteer helper. I take care of the altars and sweep the floor. I light candles and sell incense, while I listen to the prayers devotees mumble. I try to help by my mere presence. What nobody knows is that Lin Mo aka A Ma aka Tin Hau is in the house. Like any other star I choose to go incognito when out among the public. Not even today’s bride and groom will know I’m actually waiting for them.
Ah yes, the happy couple. They’re slowly approaching. The girl walks in the middle of the human boat. Cheeks flushed with red and pink. One colour caused by the excitement of youth, the other applied by her future sister-in-law. You want to join them for their procession through the streets? Oh don’t. Please stay. I haven’t quite finished my tale yet, and it will take the women forever to get through to Yau Ma Tei. Remember, they are rowing their way across the city. You still have time and I don’t want to spend my birthday alone. Oh no, don’t congratulate me. When you’re more than a thousand years old, you stop counting. But never mind. It is the 23rd of the third moon and you are hereby invited to my party. I don’t expect any other guests, although you could argue that my devotees with their offerings of dumplings and fruit are uninvited guests too. That way I’m never alone and always have visitors.
Strangely though, the more visitors I have the more lonely I feel. Taoists, Buddhists or Hindus, they all borrow me and give me new names: Matzu, Lin Mo, A Ma, Guanyin, Tin Hau, Thean Hau, Motherly Matriarch, Empress of Heaven, Goddess of the Sea or Avalokitesvara. I’m always there for them. Still, when you’re in a perilous storm, they say, never cry out for the heavenly Empress, as she will take her time to dress in her finery. Just call Matzu or Lin Mo, she will come in her plain dress and help. As if I ever cared about appearances. Even if they often depict me with jewelled robes and an imperial fringed cap, I never owned anything fancy beyond a homespun chemise.
Let’s get out. Follow me down this street. Here is the pharmacy where I sometimes help out. You thought I worked with the theatre troupe? Ah yes, but I slip in and out of my personas and I have no problem with being in more than one place at the time. While I seem to sleep in the temple, while I’m off-stage at the theatre, I come here and inhabit the persona I call the Herbalist. Even as a young girl, before I became a Goddess, I had a knack for plants. The Monk who taught me Buddhist scriptures and martial arts also recognised my understanding of herbs. I collected and dried them. I taught people how to prevent illness and how to heal: Dress a wound soaked in garlic juice; stop diarrhoea with Lady’s Mantle; use Angelica roots against flatulence and indigestion; Snapdragon leaves work for fever, burns or haemorrhoids.
These days I mainly sell soothing teas and concoctions, though people seem more interested in desiccated deers’ antlers and turtle jelly. The ladies eat the jelly for a radiant and smooth complexion. I never worried about staying young. Besides, I always found the idea of using substances from a wrinkled green creature with a surplus of skin around its neck rather contradictory to the desire for smooth, white skin. The deer antlers increase energy. Very popular with athletes, though large amount of desiccated deer horns is rumoured to fail the doping test. Lots of yang and protein in these hard bones. And not just their horns. Wine made from deer penis is an efficient remedy against sport injuries and, obviously, against impotence.
You think you hear them? Ah yes, there they are. Slowly approaching, dancing and singing. If we stroll down Temple Street we’ll be there in time. On our way I’ll tell you the rest of my story. I’ll tell you how I died. Wasn’t I supposed to be immortal? Oh yes, but even a Goddess of Mercy may lack heart and test her immortality.
When I was 28 years old I decided to raise a fist against Providence. Eternity had so far been spent weaving horror stories at my loom and rescuing too many sailors at the same time. Don’t think I really made a difference. Even divine Goddesses have their limitations and I always lost a few good men in the storms. People were still grateful, of course they were, but I only heard the cries and curses from wives and children left behind by drowned husbands and fathers.
They say that I bid my parents goodbye. I explained that I had to leave this life to concentrate on divine tasks. There was no time for me to deal with a secular life, despite having all the time in the world. I climbed a mountain and ascended to the heavens on a cloud. Witnesses report how celestial music filled the sky and a rainbow materialized. The world blinked and beamed in orange as I, in my red robe, merged with the rainbow and disappeared.
There’s another version. Less colours and no music. I swam out in January to save a man in a storm. Exhaustion killed me and cold water washed my body ashore on the island of Coloane. I was 16 years old and given a lavish funeral by poor devotees.
No version mentions my ageing parents or my growing despair. This is what really happened: every day I watched my frail mother carry too heavy jars of salted fish into our humble kitchen. Her red, weathered hands were stiff with arthritis. She was shrinking. Her back was hunched. One day she would disappear under the dirt floor of our hut. If only I could lend her my young flesh and live my wretched immortal life without it. I looked around and felt the impact of my fate. I, the cursed one, was doomed to loose all my loved ones and live on, loved only from a distance. And so I walked into the too familiar sea and sank like lead, pulled under by the prospect of final silence.
There I was, at the bottom of the sea, and yet I lived on. I watched the sun rise from my ocean bed every morning. I watched the sun set and wrap the sea in darkness every night. My secular body was nothing but a heap of bones huddled on the ocean floor, eyes picked out, skin gnawed away by fish and salt water, clothes dancing with the waves and slowly disintegrating. My other self, the Goddess, still performed miracles and saved men. She hovered above sea and islands, uninterested in my skeletal remnants.
You probably ask yourself how I can stand here before you, flesh and bone. One day a fisherman’s hook caught my naked ribcage. A huge fish, he thought and pulled and pulled until finally, my skeletal self emerged and looked over the bow of his small fishing boat. He cried out at the sight of my grinning skull and I, attached to his rod, chased him all the way home, while my clacking jaw let out seaweed and drops of salt water.
Finally on shore, he grabbed his rod and ran and ran, occasionally looking back to see if I was still chasing him. In the hut he sat down and caught his breath realizing his own mistake. My legs were thrown over my shoulders. The sun peered through my ribs, as through a grate. A most unpleasant posture for me despite my grinning naked teeth. The fisherman took pity and untangled me. His movements precise and gentle from years of cleaning fish and handling bones. He put me on a sheep skin and went to bed in the far side of the hut.
What did he dream of? Did he try to imagine my tragic end in his dreams? I crawled on rattling bones to his bed and watched a single tear run down his temple. He whimpered in his sleep. Was he reliving the skeleton woman chasing him? I leaned over and caught his tear between my teeth. A tongue materialized and licked it. And so, from a single tear, my human form arose again. A single human’s compassionate outpouring manifested me. We woke, entangled warm bodies wrapped only in my long black hair.
I could have stayed and lived with him. I could have loved the way he crinkled his nose when he laughed, or the way his eyebrows lifted, as if in surprise, every time he looked at me. My gift from the sea, he called me. Tempting. To slip into the normal cycle of life and become someone’s wife. To carry his child and shed myself of the toils of a Goddess. A marriage between heaven and earth. Ahh, bliss. But then again, I knew it wasn’t possible. I couldn’t shut out the prayers and cries. Besides, I would only repeat the old agony and be forced to watch husband and children grow old and die.
So I left and continued alone.
Every so often I feel overwhelmed by an uncontrollable rage. Then I slip into my dark twin, the old lady under the flyover between Wan Chai and Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. Only 50 HK dollars to have your sweetheart’s new love thwarted or your boss fall sick with gastritis. It’s a bargain. I hit paper-cut-ups with my cheap plastic thong or the ladies’ high heeled Jimmy Choos. I curse the person they pay me to curse, while I pound and pound. I’m the cursing lady who helps people get rid of their dark thoughts and desires. They think they can’t reveal ugly feelings to a Goddess in a temple. HA! If only they knew it is the very same Goddess to whom they sneak out and pay for curses. I shout out the words they find taboo to utter but can’t keep in any longer. No matter which names or words I may shout, I always curse the fishermen who immortalized me.
I can hear the procession approach now. Look up ahead, there’s the square with the temple and the stage. The old men playing chess under the banyan trees are getting up to watch the bride. Perfect timing. We’re almost back to where we started. We just have to pass the row of tents where soothsayers and amateur singers compete for attention with keyboards, microphones, and singing voices of varying quality. You’ll hear anything from K-pop to Cantonese opera. The chubby guy over there sings Hotel California in English. He thinks it’s a love song. That lady with the mini skirt sings a popular Chinese tune. Couples growing old together, she sings, are the happiest people. How very fitting for our wedding couple. In a minute their procession will silence the music and murmur for a short while.
Finally. Here they are. Terribly late, just like I said. Look how proudly the bride wears her headdress now. She doesn’t know how lucky she is. To share a single life with a mortal love. I never had the privilege. Who wants a girl with an uncanny reputation of leaving her bed and her body at night, even as a husband clings to it, to dive and cleave to other men? To arouse real and enduring passion in a man you have to be passive and stay in his bed. I’ve had centuries to understand this mechanism. Another thing I’ve observed is how rare it is that people find what they lack in another person in one single life. Not that it ever prevents them from trying
I can tell that you pity me. Please don’t. I know I’m needed and I have been rather successful in my career. I’ve attained more than most goddesses could hope to achieve. I have songs and plays and even moving pictures about my life. I have houses everywhere. When devotees leave these islands they take me with them and build me new homes in faraway countries. Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia. Not many can boast of being older than a millennium and having 1500 homes and 100 million followers. You can even “like” me on Facebook. I have been revered by changing imperial courts of every dynasty and even declared a First Class Goddess by the current government. I’ve had twenty-two promotions through the years. And I still listen. The only thing I sometimes miss is somebody who listens to me.
I’m sorry I’ve taken so much of your time. I know that, unlike mine, your time is limited and I thank you for your kindness. I will go back to my hard stool in the temple and listen to the wedding couple’s hopes and prayers for their common future. Bless them. Later, when the devotees and the theatre players, the soothsayers and the amateur singers, the in-laws and the wedding guests have finished their songs and shouting; when they have finished their banging of gongs and drums, when the streets are vacated by singing and dancing people, this is when the Gods and departed souls descend to the world of the mortals. This is one thing they never will grasp. That in the end all things lead us to nothing. And that the greatest sound of all is Silence. My name is Mo and I am the history you see. My name is silence and oh! The silence sinks like music on my heart.
Kira Dreyer Messell is a Danish writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. She has been teaching languages, literature and history in both Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Until 2013 she spent 5 years in Malaysia, where she wrote on a collection of speculative short stories. Kira holds an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Edinburgh.