The museum staff in charge of conservation and restoration did a minor bit of spit and polish, though no repair of chips or cracks. Such is their attitude about maintaining authenticity. A Chinese preservationist would have made it look as good as new, and painted it a nice, bright lacquer red and shiny gold. Because the coffin was rather deep, the bottom was filled with styrofoam in the shape of edamame pods, and over that went a layer of velvetbeige polyester, it was most dreadful. That was how I came to be exhibited in the museum auditorium, lying in a large black-lacquered coffin carved with celestial animals and the name of its intended tenant, who no doubt would seek me out with an eviction notice shaking in his hand.
Had I seriously been making arrangements for a premature death, I would have asked to be cremated like the Buddhist high monks, poof, gone, without attachment to the body. As for a suitable receptacle for my remains, no single urn would have sufficed. I would have chosen nine boxes of different and delicate proportions, all from The Immortals, say, a meander-patterned box from the Southern Song dynasty, a round tao yuanming for collecting chrysanthemum flowers, andmy absolute favorite, which I had overpriced on purposea simple Ming brush box made of black-lacquered leather. I used to open it, inhale, and feel the poetry streaming over my face.
The nine well-chosen boxes would have been arranged on a table during the reading of my will, three rows across, three down, like the three tosses of I Ching coinsboth random and meaningful. Nine friends, equally chosen with thought from the best of society, would each have been asked to select a box with a portion of my ashes. Per my request, they were to take me along on a trip to a lovely placeno sedentary fireplace mantels or Steinway piano tops for mewhere they might scatter my ashes but keep the box as a memento. The boxes, being museum quality, would have increased in worth over the years, and made people remember me "with growing appreciation." Ah-ha, they would laugh upon reading that part. Thus, my ashes would have taken a more lighthearted and peripatetic course, and I could have avoided that abhorrent spectacle of an open coffin. But there we all were, me included, waiting our turn to view the macabre.
One by one, these friends, acquaintances, and strangers from the different times of my shortened life stood by the casket to say farewell, adieu, zai jen. Many people, I could tell, were curious to see what the morticians had done to cover up the mortal wound. "Oh my God!" I heard them whisper noisily to one another. To be honest, I, too, was shocked to see how outlandishly they had prepared me for my debut with death. A shiny silver scarf was wrapped into a puffy bow around my lacerated neck. I looked like a turkey with aluminum foil, about to be put in the oven. Even worse, Bennie Trueba y Cela, the docent who grieved for me the mostthat is to say, with the greatest display of wracking sobshad given the mortuary a photo taken during an expedition that a group of us had made to Bhutan three years before. In that picture I looked strong and happy, but my hair was awfulno hot water to wash it for three days. It hung in long greasy strands, the crown was plastered down, and there was a big groove around my forehead where a sun hat had been glued to my scalp with heat and sweat. Himalayas, ha Who knew it would be so hot there when trekking? Who knew that Bennie would later give this same photo to a mortuary girl to show her what I looked like "in the best of times"? And that that silly girl would give me this same mashed-down Himalayan hairdo and color my skin as dark as a Brokpa maiden's, so that now people would remember my face all wrong, like an old mango that had shrunk and shriveled?
Not that I expected everyone to say, "Oh, I remember Bibi, she was beautiful." I was not. I had a keen eye for beautiful things since girlhood, and I knew my faults. My body was as small and short-legged as a wild Mongolian pony's, my hands and feet as thick as unread books. My nose was too long, my cheeks too sharp. Everything was just a little too much. That was the legacy of my mother's side of the family, insufficient excess, too much that was never enough.
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.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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