THE LAST CHANT – A SHORT STORY BY CHIN LI
He’d been walking for a long time, from one end of the world to the other end. Starting as an old worn-out self, ending up as a mere handful of sand. But still, walking was the only thing he could do. Even though he couldn’t shake off what he was running away from. That was everywhere. Like his Siamese twin. Like the sound of his footsteps he didn’t want to hear.
But he could now hear everything loud and clear, right in front of him. He opened his eyes. The crowd was getting bigger and the chanting more rambunctious. And waves after waves of placards everywhere. Make Love, Not War! Democracia! Not In My Name! He stopped and watched, feeling tearful but also queasy. The chanting was hypnotic. Bairns Not Bombs! Not My President! Full of conviction. Not a hint of doubt. The faces looked familiar, yet somehow alien. Hope Not Hate! Blessed Are The Poor! Somewhere in the dim distant past he felt part of all this. He could just about remember it. The passion, the sore throat from all the shouting and chanting. No ― not now, not anymore. He wasn’t him anymore.
Suddenly he saw a young woman marching past wearing her heart on her sleeve. He felt an electric shock coursing through his body. Christ, why does she have to do it literally? He stared at her, trying to figure out the truth. God, that’s her bleeding heart hanging there!
Bewildered, he turned and walked away. It doesn’t make sense! Everything had turned stark naked. One of the placards said Capitalism Kills! He glimpsed heads rolling down the street. The crisp hissing of the guillotine. He held on to his umbrella for protection.
Feeling out of sorts, he knew he needed a refuge. Somewhere he could lay out all his thoughts to dry. He felt feverish and rancid inside. He thought about the park, but it had become a no-go area. Huge crowds had occupied it for weeks. He remembered taking her to the park whenever he was free, ever since she started to walk. She’d be running round, shouting and laughing, wanting to climb every tree. He would let her. That’d be fine, just you be careful! If only he could go back to where they were, he thought, all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well! As he skulked around side-streets and dilapidated buildings, he found everything becoming slippery. Get a grip! He was angry with himself. Everybody coped, why couldn’t he?
From time to time the chanting from afar exploded into an uproar, as if the crowds had suddenly descended on him. They’re coming for me! His lips felt parched; so did his mind. First they came for them, and then they came for her, and now… He screwed up his face ― I’m innocent! He was determined to stand his ground. Even though he felt the ground underneath his feet shifting all the time. This endless chanting was such a racket. It was splitting his head.
She often made a racket with her young friends when they were playing in the house. They would sing, song after song, at the top of their voice, and would command him to join in. He would smile, shake his head and go back to his newspaper.
I used to live in cities…
and couldn’t afford to believe in miracles… He started singing to himself. When they said aye one had happened, I just laughed it ― laughed it away… A few passers-by with expressionless faces appeared and disappeared. He smiled and nodded to them, but they ignored him. I opened my eyes, and a shooting star was shooting past… Oh no, that wasn’t the mi–i-i-racle… The song was trailing behind as he came to a shabby café. Where did one go wrong and how, oh how… could one go back… He stopped at the door.
There was no one inside the café. After standing there for a brief moment, he went in and sat down by the window, propping his umbrella against the wall. A half-empty cup of black coffee stood, lonely and sad, on the table. He considered it for a moment, and then lifted it up and drained it in one gulp. A bitter after-taste lingered in his mouth. You followed the directions from your GPS to the last detail… and still got lost… The song continued in his head. They’d moved the roundabout without telling anyone… and I took the wrong turn… He lifted up the cup again. Oh no, I took the wro-o-o-ng turn… ending up nowhere near… where I’d like to be… He stared at the empty cup, cocooned in the forlorn melody.
She sang all the time. A sweet and carefree voice. A voice he instantly recognised at the school gate even with his eyes closed, despite the loud chattering of children coming out of their classrooms. He remembered somebody said that in the beginning there was the voice… But perhaps it was music that came before everything? That was what he once fervently believed. Now he wasn’t sure. The cello could still mesmerise him ― even just a few of its lingering, melancholic notes would move him to tears. Even a simple placard saying Make Love, Not War had moved him to tears.
Suddenly a shadow darted across the street and vanished. He picked up the umbrella and dashed out but couldn’t see anything. Feeling agitated, he marched to the end of the street and found himself walking into a little square. There he caught another glimpse of the shadow. He hurried towards it, but a couple of trees were blocking his view. He quickened his pace ―
and stumbled! Something was strangling him and he was flung violently sideways, his head banging on a tree. The umbrella fell as he tried to free his neck with both hands. Somehow he managed to turn and look. There was nobody! Confused, but also relieved he wasn’t confronting a knife, he tried to straighten up. To his dismay, he couldn’t move. A thick branch of the tree had wrapped itself round his neck which he didn’t notice until now. He made a desperate attempt to disentangle himself from it, but his fingers didn’t work properly. Come on, you fool! He was furious. And then he noticed other branches curling round his legs as well. Damn! Somebody must have set a trap to harvest his soul… He wriggled his body with all his strength, but that only made the branches tighten their grip. No matter how hard he tried, it was all to no avail. After struggling for a while, he felt completely exhausted and collapsed on the grass.
It seemed like eternity before he eventually opened his eyes. The square was quiet. The two trees stood there, innocent and still. He pulled himself up, kneeling for a few seconds to wait for a sickish feeling to subside. There was nobody about, not even a cat. For a fleeting moment he felt as if he wasn’t there either. He bit his lips hard to get some sensation of pain, then slowly got up, retrieved his umbrella and limped into a narrow lane.
He’d been chasing shadows all his life. But along the way he’d lost his own. Like following a wave in the sea ― when he thought he had it fixed in his gaze, the wave had already moved on and he couldn’t tell which one was the one he’d singled out the moment before. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain. She was such a happy child! He shook his head, trying to dislodge the tears in his eyes.
Despite crippling tiredness, he stumbled on. Then, without him knowing, his feet delivered him out of a dark alleyway into the brightness of the city’s main square. And he was hit by the thunderous chant of “We are the ninety-nine percent!” Banners everywhere; flags everywhere. Loud music; people dancing, laughing. Somebody waving a placard next to him ― La Lutte Continue! He panicked. Before he could turn back, a young woman materialised in front of him, barring his way. She thrust a leaflet in his direction. “Come and join us, comrade, come!” He felt her hand on his elbow. No, I’m in a rush! The leaflet fell helplessly to the ground as he hurried away, barely registering the look of disdain in the woman’s face.
Just as he thought he was safe, the chanting suddenly became unbearably loud, right inside his ears. “毛主席万歳! 毛主席万歳!” One moment he could hear it, and the next he couldn’t. And then it exploded again. Bloody hell! The panic began to swirl faster in his stomach. He swallowed hard, and walked on, the tapping of his umbrella on the cobblestones synchronising with his steps. As he was hastily turning into another backstreet, he was greeted by a massive crowd, a sea of yellow umbrellas flooding towards him like a tsunami…
He turned and ran, cursing and swearing. The yellow umbrellas were dancing with choreographic ferocity, radiating youthful passion and boundless energy. It was too much for him!
Wir sind das Volk! Wir sind das Volk! Wir ― sind ― das ― Volk!
He kept running, but could still hear the deafening chant behind. “Send them home!” “Defend our Fatherland!” “Lock her up!”… He pushed himself harder, his umbrella waving like a lance.
Nothing was real. The world was one big hoax. Where did the hours go when they left the belly of the clock? Were they man-made, or were they born of the gods? Fragments of random thoughts entering his fragmenting mind. Black stars dancing mockingly to his face. Where the hell am I?
Then abruptly the chanting stopped. Everything was switched off. In the blink of the eye, a towering monstrosity came into view. Battered by centuries of wind and rain, much of its masonry had already peeled off. And yet it was still standing, intimidatingly majestic. He slowed down, sensing a glimmer of hope. A little later, and with difficulty, he pushed open the hefty door and stumbled inside. The door shut automatically, and blackness engulfed him. Reaching out with his left hand he found a void. He stood there for a while to let his eyes adjust to the absence of light. Slowly the darkness began to pale, and he could make out an empty nave with pews at the far end, and a hunched shape was there before the altar. Then someone whispered from behind,
je suis Ahmed! je suis Charlie!
He swung round ― Leave me alone! He hissed. He wanted to shout but couldn’t see anybody. Muttering to himself, he turned and walked quickly to the pews. Now he could tell the dark shape was a monk kneeling on the floor. He tiptoed towards him. Excuse me! Don’t mean to be rude, but I need your help. He couldn’t see the monk’s face, as the monk was covered by a brown habit with a disproportionally large cowl.
He froze, suddenly reminded of a photograph. But he had burned all his photographs, which one was he thinking about? That was long ago. As soon as he had burned them, he regretted it. One of the many mistakes in his life he couldn’t do anything about. There was a time when he preferred a photo to what was real. As if the capture of the momentary was infinitely more valuable than the actual flow of life. As if he wanted to fix everything on glossy paper lest it would disappear.
The monk was absolutely still. He raised his voice: Sorry to disturb you…
Goodness! What was I saying?
“It’s hard, my son,” the half-covered face turned towards him, “but we must persevere.”
I beg your pardon… He wasn’t sure he heard him right. He wasn’t sure who was speaking.
The monk rose, and the cowl fell back. A gaunt face. Sorry to bother you, he tried again. But the monk turned away abruptly and started walking swiftly towards the south transept. Although feeling annoyed, he swallowed his words and followed.
The south transept was lighter, and he could see a gigantic fresco on the end wall. But the centre of the fresco was so dazzling he couldn’t look at it directly. He shifted his gaze and saw four cherubim, wings out-stretched, circling the Son of Man to the left; and on the right there were three seraphim standing, serenely attentive. There were bells of varying sizes, all painted dark green. He thought he heard bells ringing, albeit faintly. Out of the corner of his eye, he could make out a tiny figure in flowing white satin, seated cross-legged at the centre of the picture, with hands held in a Guanyin pose, from where a brilliant light emanated. Why did he bring me here? And then his heart missed a beat ― he realised he was on his own. He turned round, and round, trying desperately to prove his eyes wrong. Where’s he gone?
And then he saw the monk… inside the fresco, standing to the left of the Son of Man. That’s him! But this monk was wearing a white habit, not the brown one he saw a moment ago. In a flash it dawned on him why he was brought here. This is crazy! He saw the monk in the fresco gesticulating and walking towards the centre of the picture.
He hesitated. Have I gone mad? I’d better go! And then he saw her face. Seven of them! All watching him, imploring him not to let her down. Her mother said he couldn’t help but let other people down. He couldn’t even look after a child. He felt deeply hurt by this, but knew it was true. Her mother should know ― they’d been together for long enough. He wanted to tell her all his lost dreams, but realised the loss was in the telling. The dream that was told was never the dream that was dreamt. Put it into words, and the words would gobble it up. He turned away, but the beseeching stare of the seven pairs of eyes held him captive. He couldn’t move, his hand gripping his umbrella, trembling. Damn it! I’ll sort this out! He turned round to face the wall again, and then walked straight into it.
The sea of yellow umbrellas was retreating. Smoke everywhere. And a young woman came crashing into the cathedral. She was gasping for air as she ran, fear in her eyes. Then she stopped in front of the south transept fresco. The sound of machine gun fire was getting louder outside. She looked, and saw an umbrella in the picture, fully open, right at the centre. This is an odd painting, she thought to herself. And at that moment the soldiers burst in through the door…