When Mr. Yiyi moved his full political weight to eclipse his enemies, the shadow he cast engulfed the entire city. People soundlessly vanished from jobs. Pang Pang was the first to disappear, right after the first print run of the magazine he had endorsed with every pore. At the launch party the previous night, he swaggered about, loudly insulting Mr. Yiyi, and taking intermittent timeouts to grovel in front of his government bosses. Those same bosses summoned him the following morning and announced he was fired. Operations were shutting down in the next few days. Pang Pang broke into abject sobs, according to sources who claimed to have overheard the scene.
Then Helena vanished. No one knew whether she was sick or traveling or had left for good. Her absence continued unexplained for a week, and as the days passed, it was assumed she would not come back. The rumor mill churned with stories. The most persistent one was that she had embarrassed herself on the twentieth floor, demanding to see Mr. Yiyi who remained silent behind his shut office door.
Mr. Yiyi mentioned his niece to Cloud only once, when they were reviewing a batch of new designs, which save for a detail here and there, looked like Helena's last collection for the company. He sighed, rubbed his finger along one eyebrow and asked Cloud what she thought of Helena's designs.
“Talent can't make up for everything,” Cloud replied.
Mr. Yiyi cackled and put in a pause. “Ah, yes Cloud. The problem with my niece is that she thinks talent makes up for everything. She wants to ignore context, circumstances. But that is impossible, ah.”
Then he asked what she thought of his talent.
“I think you have many talents,” she answered truthfully.
At this he cackled a shade louder and nodded. “Many talents, yes. Well said. As a child my niece used to admire me. But while she was here she looked at my work with different eyes. She deemed it superficial, ah. Too much beauty, not enough truth. She never expressed this, but my niece is not difficult to read. Her parents think the same. They think I am too preoccupied with the surface of things.”
He suddenly rose, waddled to a cabinet and unlocked the bottom drawer, slipping the key into his tunic pocket. He gestured for her to approach and she walked over. He held out a black and white photograph, dented at the edges. It showed a young man's face in close up. The face was splattered in something dark, the mouth and eyes yanked open in stark fury. The gaping jaw looked like it wanted to devour the camera pointed at it, and at the same time, the eyes appeared to glare inward, unseeing, consumed with their own rage. The young man's teeth drew her eye. White and flawlessly symmetrical, they formed a jarring contrast to the distorted features.
“His face was stained with so much blood, ah.” Mr. Yiyi spoke in his mellow lisp, without urgency. “He had just beaten a teacher to death. He was still holding the iron pipe, it was dripping with the teacher's blood, but I left it out of the frame. You can see his raised arm, here.” He traced the rolled-up shirt sleeve from which emerged a bare forearm that ran up to the edge of the photograph. “The teacher was lying there, at his feet. Maybe, he was still alive, I don't know. The teacher and the other students, all that I left out. I focused only on the face. I took many pictures,” he added, “but the composition of this one is perfect.”
Cloud stared at the photograph. She knew only vague, hear-say things about the Cultural Revolution. She had been born one year after it ended.
“There were no screams from the teacher,” Mr. Yiyi said. “He was quiet the whole time.”
Then he placed the photograph face down in the drawer and locked it shut.
EMPEROR is an excerpt from the story collection CHINESE ON THE BEACH
Image: Linda Heydegger