Wednesday, June 6, 2007

the acrobats

Walking to the movie theatre in Luzhou to see what was playing I saw a mass of people gathered in a circle, some crowded on the department store steps. Kenny G’s saxophone wafting from the store was broken to bits by a loud disco beat coming from the open circle in the heart of the crowd. I pushed in closer and saw two men on unicycles and a third, microphone in hand, working the crowd. “Do I see a five yuan note there? Is that a five? That’s a generous person there, I can see. . . .What else is there? Some coins? Obviously the difficulty of retrieving coins is much greater; will they succeed in doing so?”

The unicyclists were young, half man and half bike: cyclotaurs. They wore circus wear, red Chinese shirts hanging open with velvet vests inside. Their clothes were dirty, and their feet were sheathed in greasy black cloth shoes (known here as “China flats”). All in all they were not too unlike a country cook after a shift, except for the small bikes welded to their asses. They jigged front and back, front and back.

On the ground bills were wadded and strewn. And they began to collect. They accomplished this in a flash, rolling back the hips and diving swiftly with the hand. The roll backwards gave them the split second of balance they needed to swoop down and grab the bill. Occasionally they would swoop down and recover shakily, nearly barging into the crowd and yanking themselves back only inches from the startled faces of the citizenry. After the rippling, the startling, there were smiles. And the beat kept on, and the strange birds kept swooping and pecking at the ground, flapping their gaudy wings about.

When I came back a few minutes later I saw the little girl who had previously acted as a helper perched on the shoulders of one of the bikers. The patter of the strong man with the mike went on. “As you may realize, the difficulty of two people retrieving money from a moving cycle will be considerably greater. . .” The girl, maybe seven years of age, wore a pink leotard and thick tights. She stretched her arms wide, flying in a circle, and suddenly clasped the boy’s head and slipped down so she was riding his back. At the key moment he let go one of her legs, she swung low on his back, and he dove down for the bill. I threw a bill into the circle too, and I saw money growing out of his mouth. Chinese consider money a morally polluted thing, and it is dirty as well. And he was stuffing it in his mouth, eating it as she picked it up, disgorging it into a bucket when his mouth got too full.

I went into the supermarket for some cookies and when I came out a ladder rose above the crowd. It shook. A small shape was ascending. A woman lay on her back on a table, rear braced with pillows. Her legs stuck into the air, quaking pillars supporting a board, on which the ladder stood. And the girl climbed the ladder, pausing again and again, like a small and querulous animal sniffing the air for danger. She wove her body between the rungs from one side to the other.

“This performer began practicing with her mother at the tender age of five. As you can see, in this open air performance, she is equipped with safety equipment neither above her nor below her. You see no halters, no safety net below her. A fall would result in bone breakage at least; at the worst, spinal paralysis or even fatality.

“Until 2003 we lived in our hometown in ~~, Hunan, when a flood swept away our home. Since then we have lived a wandering life, “selling art” to stay alive. This young girl has suffered countless falls from this very ladder; yes, she has shed numberless tears. I can see there must be three hundred people enjoying our performance this evening, and if each and every one of you were to pluck one yuan from your wallet. . . “

And at this moment the girl had formed a ring, her body bent backward, legs pulled under and feet hooking around her shoulders which were arched downward. She hung on the rung, rocking slowly forward and back, to and fro. And tomorrow where would she be? And in 30 years would she have been promoted from the ladder to the table and flat on her back, watching a “daughter” of her own trembling twenty feet above? And would she feel drops of tears and sweat splatter on her own body from above? And how could she not feel every ache as her own, a body of memory there on the table within the body of flesh and bone?

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