21 people attended today’s session, from Turkey, London, Pennsylvania, New York, California and other locales. After reading “Plum,” the excerpt from the novel “How Much of These Hills is Gold” by C Pam Zhang, we considered these opening questions, “Who do we see, who do we hear operating in this piece?” The discussion initially centered around beings and relationships: the narrator (age unknown), the mother and child (“Five, full of destruction”), another relative, some important pork, and a dead snake that captured everyone’s attention.
Participants noted how the child’s (Lucy) spirit and enthusiasm fills a home space already brimming with humidity, odors, textures and other sensations that made us wonder not only where home is, but what home is — the text seemed to reframe our very notion of home as we entered the characters’ kitchen to learn about how maternal rules govern the snake’s final home.
The title of the excerpt, “Plum,” inspired dialogue around the juicy fruit with edible skin, desirable and possibly symbolic of other biblical connections to a garden of temptation, a snake, and flooding. As the author referenced unfurling as a revelation, our layered discussion too led us to a paradoxical place, where one participant asserted that “Ma’s rules haven’t bound this child; they encourage liberty.” And as one participant described the snake as an ouroboros circling back onto itself eternally, our conversation returned to the snake and its meaning/associations: a symbol of healing? Caduceus? A mysterious death? What is its future purpose?
The prompt “Write about the one who makes the rules” elicited a range of rule-making subjects from oneself, to family members, to the spirit. One respondent felt that making choices along their life path requires a conversation between a gentler kinder inner being and a “voice in the heavens.” Each human being is multidimensional in listening to and following rules. Another wrote “rules are meant to be broken” yet confessed to being reluctant to break rules, to cause trouble, to get caught. The same writer proposed, “I admire those who break the rules for a ‘greater right.’” A listener responded, “I am a rule breaker, and I encourage you to be one.” Sometimes, wrote another participant, the spirit sets the rules and takes us on a wild ride. Still another wrote in a rebellious spirit about a brother’s rule for his teenaged sister: girls don’t call boys. Another writer observed what happens when a child is allowed to make the rules. First there is hesitancy, then unbridled freedom, then some reactionary rule setting, “worlds within worlds,” and finally a “shrieking as they are visible and naked.”
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It was Ma who laid down rules for burying the dead.
Lucy’s first dead thing was a snake. Five and full of destruction, she stomped puddles just to see the world flood. She leapt, landed. When the waves quit their crashing she stood in a ditch emptied of water. Coiled at its bottom, a drowned black snake.
The ground steamed pungent wet. The buds on the trees were splitting, showing their paler insides. Lucy ran home with scales between her palms, aware that the world unfurled its hidden side.
Ma smiled to see her. Kept smiling as Lucy opened her hands.
Later, too late, Lucy would think on how another mother might have screamed, scolded, lied. How Ba, if Ba were there, might have said the snake was sleeping, and spun a tale to chase the hush of death right out the window.
Ma only hefted her pan of pork and tied her apron tighter. Said, Lucy girl, burial zhi shi another recipe.
Lucy prepared the snake alongside the meat.
First rule, silver. To weigh down the spirit, Ma said as she peeled a caul of fat from the pork. She sent Lucy to her trunk. Beneath the heavy lid and its peculiar smell, between layers of fabric and dried herbs, Lucy found a silver thimble just large enough to fit over the snake’s head.
Second, running water. To purify the spirit, Ma said as she washed the meat in a bucket. Her long fingers picked maggots free. Beside her, Lucy submerged the snake’s body.
Third, a home. The most important rule of all, Ma said as her knife hacked through gristle. Silver and water could seal a spirit for a time, keep it from tarnish. But it was home that kept the spirit safe-settled. Home that kept it from wandering back, restless, returning time and again like some migrant bird. Lucy? Ma asked, knife paused. You know where?
Lucy’s faced warmed, as if Ma quizzed her on sums she hadn’t studied. Home, Ma said again, and Lucy said it back, chewing her lip. Finally Ma cupped Lucy’s face with a hand warm and slick and redolent of flesh.
Fang xin, Ma Said. Told Lucy to loosen her heart. It’s not hard. A snake belongs in its burrow. You see? Ma told Lucy to leave the burying. Told her to run off and play.