A Secret Map of Shanghai
By Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
18 November 2013
For a moment GG seemed lost in ceaseless yearning, as he stared out the old windows at the deep and endless sky. Outside, Xújiâhuì hummed with autumnal activity, with crowds of cardboard people, ants and bees, and sometimes even gods, architecting the destiny of the city. After eight months, eight days, and six hours, he felt he had learned everything he could from her. He was a god of the city, and the time had come perhaps for him to leave.
He turned to where he had bound Mrs. Plimm, his teacher of Geography, the sweet-tongued annihilator of History. His foreign Shanghailander was stretched out like a map, held tight to the corners of a bridal bed, waiting impatiently for his next move.
GG pulled off his shirt, revealing a body that was no longer a boy yet not quite a man. Mrs. Plimm was already naked. He marveled at how her ancient hair and chilled skin wept with the sky's golden colour. Her bountiful breasts were cloudy towers, holy barbicans of slanted ivory and white. All around them the room smelled of orchids and ambergris.
He remembered his own first lesson. It seemed so long ago, yet every little detail remained carved in the eternity of his head.
"Shanghai is a man, a perfect, Vitruvian man," she had told him, as she spread him, unblemished, on her endlessly expanding bed, "but you, my sullen boy, are still half-devil, half-child."
She pillowed him with a carnality that hid an infinitely regressing imperialism, taunting him, enticing him: "Listen, my little godling. You natives know nothing of power. You need to dream you are a mighty, mighty city."
He remembered the strange valise she had placed by his bedside, a shimmering mystery in pearly shagreen. Inside was a cornucopia of tools and implements, every single one of which had troubled and excited him.
"Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, stole this from a great city of books, and I stole it from him. With what's inside, I will tame your rough tigers, your insipid cranes, your pagan dragons. Never fear, my sweet little protectorate, I shall uplift and civilize you," she cooed. "You are my special burden."
Mrs. Plimm's voice was like a siren's, reminding him of the shape of abalones and the silkiness of tofu.
"Now then, to our first order of battle," she'd said to him, "every city is an idea, and to conquer it you must give it a name. You are my Shanghai. I shall name you; mark the ports that I shall enter, the roads that I shall tread."
A murder of crows flew past the window and GG made an involuntary shiver. He remembered how she'd introduced him to a novel use for a bamboo ear pick, a weapon that bloomed in a ball of the finest, softest down. He was extremely ticklish and he feared he'd simply die if she used it.
But his strange teacher had been gentle. She merely toyed with him, giving poetic names to every piece of exposed skin, teasing out each letter on his waiting flesh. Then she took away his ancient names, replacing them with cold epithets made of coal, steam, and iron. Every new word, every new verse summed up the vision of her perfect city.
"My man's head is at Qîngpu, pointing to Sûzhôu, the land of old dreams," she whispered sweetly. Back then, it had not mattered what she said. Her voice had filled his head and sucked his heart in her mouth, seducing him with myths and visions. "That is why when you are asleep they say, 'you have gone to Sûzhôu'. But forget the dusty past. In my name you will dream new dreams."
Much time had passed since that first immaculate afternoon. Yet even now, when he knew he was free to just walk away, he still felt her fetters of velvet and iron. He knew he could not simply leave her. Besides, no other devil would miss him. No one ever would.
Mrs. Plimm had bound him fully clothed to her bed's huanghuali frame, an unbreakable skeleton made from the finest of woods. At first he'd tried very hard to escape, to break free of her heavy harness, especially when she'd pressed the cold, cold hilt of her sharpest scissors on his cheek. He remembered the flash of fear that had passed over his eyes, like the quick schiller of moonstone. He had never been so scared in his life.
Mrs. Plimm had cut away his shirt. Once his chest was bare, she called him her initiate and revealed her tools of magic conquest—a bouquet of the sharpest, fiercest needles.
"Please, no," he'd begged, regretting following her from school.
"My man's left hand is at Baoshân Qû, holding the hand of Mâzu, the goddess of the sea." Mrs. Plimm continued, as she pricked his skin slowly, methodically with acupuncture needles.
"Here is a garden of ancient splendor," she whispered, as the first needle touched his skin. "And there," she added, as she pinned another, ". . . is a temple worth eight hundred years."
He remembered how she had lined his shoulders with generations of tiny swords. She had spiked both arms to the borders of his wrists, marking out her territory with unequal treaties. "His right hand lies at Jînshân Qû, crushing islands and mountains of gold."
In the course of the next hundred hours Mrs. Plimm had introduced him to her entire mystical arsenal—binding and claiming him under his thin, sallow skin. Like a cartographer, she uncovered and delineated Shanghai's borders on the contours of his young body, drawing from memory the hútòngs, streets, and avenues that were the capillaries, arteries, and veins of his beloved city. Then she walled it all up as her property.
When she'd reached the Huángpu Jiâng, the mighty river that bisected his waist, she returned to her infernal scissors.
"Don't," he pleaded, fearful he'd have to walk home in the nude. But his meticulous teacher had ignored him, cutting away indifferent trousers, peeling them away like a husk—as if searching for newer, deeper layers of secrets.
She stripped him inside and out, filling him with herself.
When she had cleared Pudông, Mrs. Plimm stopped suddenly, pulling out another ear pick. Instead of down, this one was crowned with a fistful of eagle feathers. How dark was her smile, how ravening, he recalled, as she showed him her new toy.
"Oops, I forgot about the ring, our wedding ring."
And then there was the ring—he could never forget it—a curious black girdle that she said was made from the eyelashes of goats. Once she put it on, he found that he could not remove it.
"Men and guns are not the seat of Shanghai's strength. Words are its true power and I am a woman of the Word," she declared, as she pulled the veil shut across their bridal bed.
"So now we return to literature," she announced, at his torment's denouement. Mrs. Plimm pulled a poetry book from her bag and said, "I will coax the sacred mollusk out of Pearl Tower with the ninety-two characters of the poem 施氏食狮史, the 'Lion-Eating Poet in the Den of Stone'. Then I shall set you free. . . Shíshì shîshì Shî Shì . . ."
The young man remembered how the darkness danced on the face of the silk floating sky, chiaroscuro, as if it were a shadow play where the gods were both puppets and puppet masters. He closed his eyes and imagined repeatedly how the Dôngfâng Míngzhûta, Shanghai's most famous landmark, had burst forth from fertile river soil, like a shoot of the thickest bamboo (and he knew, like all proper city gods did, that when they moved the wan earth moved with them).
Mrs. Plimm was true to her word. At the end she had set him free.
Yet for the eight months, eight days, and six hours they had been together, he never once tried to get away. Not once. Instead, he returned again and again to her devil bed of exquisite humiliations.
She was now part of his history. He could not erase her, nor forget her memory, even if he wanted to. He knew that a city like him drew from his life; and from the lives of his people, successive fictions—each no less true or false than the last. Veracity, she had told him, was slave to whoever sat on the temple's jade throne.
Mrs. Plimm was a goddess of the West, the direction of sunset, death, and age. GG was a thousand years old, but he was of the East, the direction of sunrise, of birth and youth, and he knew that in Youth there was power. Yet with their every entanglement, every battle, he had grown older while she became younger and younger.
It was past time for it to stop.
A soft whimper from the wedding chamber brought GG back to the present.
"Let me show you my dream of Shanghai," he told his teacher, in the tender flowing tones of a true Shanghainese. "There is a hollow in your soul that my city will fill, my once and future teacher; but only on its terms. You made me and now I unmake you."
"Whatever do you mean?" she asked, impatient for a new experience, pure and cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom.
"Turnabout is fair play. My Shanghai will take from you whatever it was you took from it," GG said, as he rummaged through her bag of pearl-gray shagreen. For the first time, he noticed the writing burned on its ancient leather: "Here be Dragons" in oracle-bone script and he smiled.
"Yes, here be dragons," he said.
Mrs. Plimm speared her pupil with curious eyes, craving a force that shakes empires. In the soft twilight he looked every inch the young Chinese god.
"Shanghai is a woman, a beautiful Vitruvian woman," GG whispered softly, as he traced the city's contours on her smooth body. "Her head is at Qîngpu, pointing to Sûzhôu, the land of old dreams. Her left hand is at Baoshân Qû, holding the hand of Mâzu, the goddess of the sea. Her right hand is at Jînshân Qû, crushing mountains of gold. Then there is Pudông. Pudông starts where her jade wheel crushes dew and ends with her toes touching the endless, restless water."
He stared down at Mrs. Plimm, a middle-aged woman of mixed heritage—American, Russian, French, and British. He gazed at her jade wheel, the territory he must reclaim, a single pool of ocean he needed to drain with a single cup.