Excerpt of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
(Page 3 of 15)
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Now that I think of it, I would estimate that more than eight
hundred people were there. The auditorium at the de Young Museum was crowded
beyond belief, and hundreds spilled into the halls, where closed-circuit
television monitors beamed the unhappy proceedings. It was a Monday morning,
when the museum was usually closed, but a number of out-of-towners on Tea Garden
Drive saw the funeral as a fine opportunity to sneak into the current exhibit,
Silk Road Treasures from the Aurel Stein Expeditions, a testimony, in my
opinion, to British Imperial plundering at the height of cupidity. When guards
turned the interlopers away from the exhibits, they wandered over to my funeral
fête, morbidly lured by copies of various obituaries that lay next to the guest
book. Most of the papers gave the same hodgepodge of facts: "Born in Shanghai .
. . Fled China with her family as a young girl in 1949 . . . An alumna of Mills
College and guest lecturer there, in art history . . . Proprietor of The
Immortals . . . Board member of many organizations . . ." Then came a long list
of worthy causes for which I was described as a devoted and generous donor: this
league and that society, for Asian seniors and Chinese orphans, for the poor,
the ill, and the disabled, for the abused, the illiterate, the hungry, and the
mentally ill. There was an account of my delight in the arts and the substantial
amounts I had given to fund artist colonies, the Youth Orchestra with the San
Francisco Symphony, and the Asian Art Museumthe major recipient of my
lagniappes and largesse, before and after deathwhich enthusiastically offered the unusual venue for my funeral, the
de Young, in which the Asian was housed.
Reading the roster of my achievements, I should have been
bursting with pride. Instead, it struck me as nonsensical. I heard a roar of
voices coming from every bit of chatter from every dinner, luncheon, and gala I
had ever attended. I saw a blur of names in thick, glossy programs, my own
displayed in "Archangels," below those in the fewer-numbered and more favored "Inner
Sanctum," to which that Yang boy, the Stanford dropout, always seemed to belong.
Nothing filled me with the satisfaction I believed I would have at the end of my
life. I could not say to myself: "That is where I was most special, where I was
most important, and that is enough for a lifetime." I felt like a rich vagabond
who had passed through the world, paving my way with gold fairy dust, then
realizing too late that the path disintegrated as soon as I passed over it.
As to whom I had left behind, the obituary said, "There are no
survivors," which is what is said of airplane crashes. And it was sadly true,
all my family was gonemy father, of a heart attack; one brother, of alcoholic
cirrhosis, although I was not supposed to mention that; the other brother a
victim of a road-rage accident; and my mother, who passed from life before I
could know her. I don't count my stepmother, Sweet Ma, who is still alive, but
the less said about her the better.
The choice of an open-casket ceremony was my fault, the result
of an unfortunate aside I had made to a group of friends at a tea-tasting party
I had hosted at my gallery. You see, I had recently received a ship's
container of fantastic items that I had found in the countryside of Hubei
Province. Among them was a two-hundred-year-old lacquered coffin of paulownia
wood made by a eunuch singer who had performed in palace theatricals. In death,
most eunuchs, except those in the upper echelons of service, were given only the
most perfunctory of burials, without ceremony, since their mutilated bodies were
not fit to appear before spirit tablets in the temples. In yesteryears, people
rich and poor prepared for the netherworld by making their coffins long before
they ceased to hear the cock crowing the new day, and the fact that this eunuch
was allowed to make such a grand coffin suggested that he was someone's petthe
prettier boys often were. Alas, this adored eunuch drowned while fishing along
the Yangtze, and his body went sailing without a boat, swept away to oblivion.
The eunuch's parents, in Longgang Township, to whom his possessions had been
sent, faithfully kept the coffin in a shed, in hopes that their son's wayward
corpse would one day return. The subsequent generations of this family grew
impoverished by a combination of drought, extortion, and too many gifts to opera
singers, all of which led to their losing face and their property. Years went
by, and the new landowners would not go near the shed with the coffin, which was
reputed to be haunted by a vampire eunuch. Derelict with neglect, the shed was
covered with the dirt of winds, the mud of floods, and the dust of time.
From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.