On the Funeral of a Rice Farmer
I wasn’t present to see him toil: flooding the
fields, pushing each seed deep with his finger,
letting the soil grow under the nail, I didn’t
witness his death in a field of green rice shoots.
But I did see his funeral as I backpacked through:
his wife working the ground with a shovel, making
a watery grave, her earth crusted calves trembling
with fatigue as she prayed over both body and grave.
I joined her, each silent moment so heavy it could
rain, she thanked me before straining to lift the stone
onto her husband’s body to sink it among the crops.
her body fell with effort. She pleaded with her eyes,
so I lifted the stone on his chest, he held it
like a present as the soil reclaimed him, covering
him like a funeral shroud.
Transitional Dictionary for Americans in Korea
Friend: noun (fra-end)
He grabbed me into friendship,
sharing dark secrets and the
technical schematics of his soul
with a smile in a crash course of
comradery that lasted weeks until
he told me about his latest
Conquest: noun (con-qe-st)
She was a Korean student he tutored
who couldn’t pay that week so he
unbuttoned her blouse and slid up her
skirt in a reenactment of first temptation.
She whispered no in his ear the whole
time, but he knew better. Sliding against
her trembling body, the no was simply her
cultural phenomenon, a shaving of a larger
Tradition: noun (tru-D-shun)
A lifetime of car opening equates to nothing
when transposed over oceans. My first time
with a girl was silent, holding her through
the night and cooking eggs all morning
feels foreign to his escapades, which make
me ashamed to call him and myself American,
a word that serves not to define but to
Insult: verb (N-s-ult)
only works when said with the whole
body shaking and a finger pointed. He
called me an American for being naïve.
I called him the same for not knowing
the difference between sex and
forgiveness. American, a word beyond
being defined, only admitted.
The Muller Test
Mrs Cartwright fed her cats taco meat on Wednesdays. On Thursdays, the cats preferred a fish of some kind: salmon during the winter, lemon glazed flounder during the summer. She long ago discovered her two cats' preferences and consistently indulged them. They refused to drink tap water. Only fresh bottled water sufficed. If she filled the bottles from the sink, they wouldn’t touch their bowls. They smelled the difference. At the age of seventy-three, she had long shared her one-bedroom apartment with two calico cats named Cleopatra and Little Sheba, but last week, she found a new cat on the street, an albino runt she named Julius who was slightly bigger than her palm. She made him a bed in her laundry hamper.
She had a routine with her cats. She woke up early and gave them each a cat treat to make sure they were not hungry, and afterwards, she sat on the sofa with them and ate her oatmeal while watching whatever was on the Discovery Channel. She liked watching the animals in distant lands. The cats watched with her - Cleopatra insisted on being stroked from ear to tail once every minute, and Sheba served as a foot warmer. Julius had not found his place in this morning ritual and hid on top of the bookcases among old magazines.
Just as a Discovery Channel special came on about the mating habits of the African mayfly, she got a call from her daughter who wanted to have lunch later that day. Mrs Cartwright agreed and started to get ready. She paused and smiled at an old photo of her husband in his army uniform from so long ago. He was gone now, though. Now she just had the cats.
She put on a long denim dress, made sure her hair wasn’t looking too crazy, and clipped on a pair of sea shell earrings that one of her grandchildren had made her at summer camp. She then grilled up some taco meat and fed the cats. Sheba and Cleopatra waited at their porcelain feed bowls, but Julius was nowhere to be found. After a quick search, she found him on top of the bookcase, crouched behind a potted fern. The morning light coming in from the window got caught in his red eyes for a moment and had given up his hiding spot. After a few soft words, the cat crawled onto her outstretched hand, and she was able to guide him to his food bowl in the laundry room.
Mrs Cartwright spent the rest of the morning reading with her two cats lounging on her like furry lily pads. They ignored her movements and kept napping in the morning sun. Mrs Cartwright kept one hand on her book while the other rotated between cats. Julius had gone into hiding again, and she didn’t search for him as she gathered up her purse. She kissed her other two cats and turned on the Discovery Channel, so they would have something to watch in her absence. She thought that they might enjoy watching their giant, distant cousins in Africa take down bison and gazelles. “I’ll be home before dinner.” She thought about reminding them to be good, but they never did anything wrong.
She hurried out the door to meet her daughter. Mrs Cartwright wasn’t entirely sure what it was that her daughter did. She knew that it had something to do with the plastics in medical equipment, and she liked to think that her daughter was helping in some small way to save lives.
“You okay?” her daughter asked when they met at The Flying Tomato, a small Italian diner near Mrs Cartwright’s apartment. “I saw what was on the news, and I started to get really worried about you.”
“I’m fine, honey,” Mrs Cartwright said. “Besides, you know that I don’t watch the news. There’s nothing ever good on anymore. They used to show the cat fashion show, but that went away a few years ago. Now all they have is “breaking news”, which I’m pretty sure is meant to break me rather than the news.”
Her daughter flagged down the waiter and ordered two bowls of penne pasta. “I’m just saying, mom. You can’t be too careful. I'd tell you what's going on myself, but I really don’t think I’m enough of an expert in the field. Just promise me that you’ll go home and watch the news for a few moments.”
Mrs Cartwright promised she would look at the news when she got home, and her daughter calmed and started discussing the details of how she was reviewing the patents for several new industrial strength plastics. Mrs Cartwright nodded several times and ate her pasta when it arrived, but she just kept thinking about how she didn’t know if patents ever actually helped patients. The two were almost spelled the same. Surely they were at least a little alike. As a former high school English teacher, she loved word play and smiled during the conversation as she thought about patents in hospital beds, IV lines folded between the pages, wetting the sheets.
Later, Mrs Cartwright found Sheba and Cleopatra on the sofa watching the television when she got home. Sheba had her head on a pillow and yawned when she saw her owner. Mrs Cartwright changed the channel to the local news station and an announcer was in the middle of explaining how local groups were protesting for a pay increase in front of city hall. The next story featured the face of a cat, though.
The announcer shuffled his note cards and read the story in a clear voice without any hint of sarcasm. “Experts in the Department of Homeland Security now believe felines to be terrorists in hiding. Several recent acts of vandalism have been attributed to cat terrorist cells in America that strike without warning after lying dormant for years at a time. In order to root out these potential terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security has devised what is called the Muller Test to determine the political leanings of any particular feline. We have a video of the test right here. I do warn you. This footage might be disturbing to some.”
The video cut to a cat in a white room sitting next to a red, white, and blue ball of yarn, which was then rolled back and forth in front of the cat. A man with an unidentified Eastern European accent narrated. “First we introduce the patriotism ball to the cat in question and roll the ball back and forth a few times. This seemingly simple act activates the terrorist subconscious and initiates an attack.” After a few passes, the cat leaped on the ball of yarn and started to claw and bite at it. In a moment, shreds of red, white, and blue flew up in the air as it ripped away.
The announcer came back on. “That ladies and gentleman, was a terrorist in training. Luckily, the Department of Homeland Security apprehended the cat in question and eliminated the threat to America. Security forces are now asking that all cat owners bring in their cats for questioning and testing. Any cats not brought in—”
Mrs Cartwright turned off the TV and went back to reading. She slept in the chaise lounge that night with her two cats. Julius was somewhere else, more than likely watching her sleep in the darkness from the bookcase with his huge red eyes.
Mrs Cartwright woke up the next morning to a phone call from her daughter.
“Did you do anything about your cats?” her daughter asked.
“That story was ridiculous,” Mrs Cartwright said.
“Have breakfast with me,” her daughter said. “Meet me at the Little Chef in a half hour.”
Mrs Cartwright changed her dress and slipped out after turning on the Discovery Channel. She kissed each cat once and headed out the door. Cleopatra and Little Sheba stared contently at a special on African crocodiles.
At the diner, her daughter sat at a booth in the corner. Two piles of pancakes were waiting on the table. “Great to see you surviving,” her daughter said.
“I wish you wouldn’t scare me like that,” Mrs Cartwright said. “I held my cats all day and night after listening to that story.”
“Certain news stories are always right,” her daughter said.
“Don’t sass me,” her mother shot back.
Her daughter waited for a moment like there might be something else to say, but focused on slicing up her pancakes and eating them. After fifteen minutes passed in silence, her daughter stood and tucked some money under the bill. “I have to run to work. Be safe, Mom. That’s the most important thing.” She kissed her mother before running out the door. Her mother yelled after her to be good and help someone. Her daughter helped people. Mrs Cartwright told her domino club that every week.
Upon her return home, Mrs Cartwright found a letter taped to her front door. She pulled it off before she slid back the deadbolt. As the door opened, she knew something was different. The television wasn’t on, and the cats were not on the sofa. She walked around the apartment calling their names, but they didn't appear. She started to panic, but then she remembered the envelope. She opened it and read the short letter inside.
Dear Mrs. Cartwright,
I’m sorry, but we had to kill your cats. It was for the greatness of America. We were informed by a concerned citizen that you had been harboring potential enemies of the state. Due to a deal she struck on your behalf, no charges are being filed, but we did need to come into your home and test both of your cats. Both of them failed the Muller Test, and we had to bring them into central processing and eliminate their potential threat to America. I’m sorry for the inconvenience in your day. Thank you for helping America.
The Department of Homeland Security.
She dropped the letter and continued to look for the cats, but she couldn’t find them. Then she remembered Julius. She looked up to the top of the bookcase and saw him crouched behind the potted fern; his eyes were blank but flashed for a moment with what she thought might be a hint of malice.
Dr Ryan Thorpe teaches humanities and writing courses at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute. He is the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and manages a public workshop for anyone interested in creative writing. He writes columns for The Global Times and Sixth Tone, has published in numerous literary journals, and is currently working on a creative writing textbook. He holds a BA in English and theater from Trinity University, an MA in creative writing from Texas Tech, and a PhD from Oklahoma State University with concentrations in creative writing and TESOL. More on his work can be found at rythorpe.com.