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Monday, Jan. 31, 2005 - 8:37 p.m.

From the immaculate way the old lady holds her chopsticks, it is clear that she does not belong here. Her husband sits across from her, at the square wooden table eating noisily. He uses his chopsticks not as an eating apparatus, but as a shovel, forcefully pushing rice into his mouth. The chopsticks almost float in her calloused hand, delicately resting between her thumb and forefinger. When their pointed ends close on a sliver of pork, the movement is precise and articulate.

She does not begrudge her husband for who he is; he is gentle to her and after all, she is still alive. Before the sun rises, they awake - he spends the day in the rice fields driving the ox-plow while she joins the other women from the village on the terraced hills, hand-picking tea leaves. At night, they sit at the square wooden table and have dinner. It has been like this for forty years.

The only artifact from her previous life is a champagne whisk. It is a small silver cylinder, slightly longer than a woman's little finger; turning a screw on the top extends fine metal whiskers from the cylinder. She has used it only once, at a lunch with a poet when she still lived in Shanghai. He was talking about the metaphysics of poetry as she took it out from her purse. She had looked at the whisk resting on the white tablecloth, before she picked it up and stirred the bubbles in her champagne.

A year after that there was shouting and hurried footsteps in her house. A gramophone was playing a record of Peking opera, a shrill female voice singing over the spinning black circle. She had been packing in her room, but her father entered and said, leave everything, we need to go now. Their servants had abandoned them; Mao Tze Tung's communist party formed the government two days ago. The champagne whisk happened to be on her dresser and she took it with her as she exited the room.

They had disguised themselves as peasants and moved into a village, and she married a young farmer to complete the charade. The years of deprivation, when people would kill for a potato, claimed her parents, and she herself had grown old, into someone unrecognizable.

The old lady has kept the whisk hidden under her pillow for forty years, and whenever she needs to remember, she touches it before she goes to sleep. Then she will dream about all those lost days, when one could lunch over white tablecloths, and obscenely spend the afternoon discussing metaphysical poetry.

Sometimes she wakes up crying, not for the luxuries she missed, but for the entire age that was hidden, and then lost. She mourns all the interrupted lives, all the poems that her poet friend never got to write, all the arias of Peking opera that were never sung. It was an age that was betrayed and will never return.


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