AM I DEAD? WHAT COLOR AM I? AM I DREAMING? I'M STEPPING ON GRASS. ARE MY SOLES STAINED GREEN? ARE MY FEET FROZEN? ARE MY FEET BOUND? ARE THE TREES ASKING? AM I STIFF?
SUN BOUNCES OFF FROZEN ICE CRYSTALS COATING MY TOENAILS. HEAT SEARS MY BOTTOM LIP. I PERFORM A HANDSTAND ATOP A CIRCUS TENT. I CATCH THE RINGS. HARRIER HAWKS CIRCLE PERFORMERS. MY MOUTH OPENS WIDE. A RAINBOW SHOOTS FROM MY TONGUE'S TIP. I'M CHOKING ON LEAVES. ARE MY FINGERNAILS ATTACHED TO MY FINGERS? TURNED INSIDE OUT, MY FUR-LINED FELT BOOTS SMELL WET. THE INSIDES OF MY CHEEKS ARE FILLED WITH SNOW. TOO NUMB TO CARE. LUBIANKA PRISONS BULLIT POCKED WALLS SEAR MY BRAIN.
AROUND MY NECK, A WREATH OF ROSEMARY, GINSENG, SPEARMINT. CRYSTALS FORM ON A CLAM SHELL. CLAM SHELLS DANCE ON MY BACK CUTTING MY RIBS. I SMELL ICE. MY FINGERS SQUEEZE THE STARS EXPLODING FROM MY HEAD. I HAVE NO BREATH. AM I DEAD? AM I HOLDING MY BREATH IN MY HAND? LIKE A DANDELION WEED, I BLOW MY BREATH AWAY. AM I DREAMING? WHAT COLOR ARE MY EYELASHES? ARE THEY FROZEN? WHAT IS THE LENGTH OF A WORD? TINY HAIRS STICK TO THE ROOF OF MY MOUTH. WORMS PRANCE ACROSS MY HAIRLESS CHEST.
AM I EATING THE SUN? AM I MAN, CHILD, WOMAN? ARE MY EYEBROWS ORANGE? I SUCK ON A BROWN BEATLE NESTLED IN A MEMBRANE INSIDE A PERFECTLY FORMED ORANGE. THE BLISTERED BEATLE IS SUCKING MY EYEBALL. AM I DEAD? IS THE RED WOOL BLANKET WITH A YELLOW HAMMER AND SICKLE TICKLING MY CHIN? I SCREAM MY NAMES. THEY SMACK HARD AGAINST THE INSIDE OF MY FOREHEAD, CRACKING THE OUTSIDE SHELL ETCHED WITH MY POETRY.
AM I FROZEN? I'VE GONE FROM DEATH TO DEATH. AM I FORGIVEN? AM I DEAD? I SCREAM, "VICTORIA?" I SCREAM, "SINGLI!" I SCREAM, "SISTER 13!"
February drizzle blanketed the Beijing streets, slicking the surfaces of four Mahjong tile-shaped buses. Comrade James Mo's daughter, Victoria Francis, who had flown from the United States to Beijing for her father's memorial, sat in the family designated section of the bus. Shivering, she knotted her scarf tighter around her neck, whispering to herself, Even this light fog feels and smells curiously metallic, bleak.
Belching black exhaust smoke, the metal coaches snaked like wet worms toward a dirty horizon, heaving and groaning over ubiquitous potholes. Drivers, their khaki uniforms crumpled, were transporting passengers to a memorial hall in the center of the city. Victoria relaxed her shoulder against a section of scuffed paneling, shivering at the touch of her cheek rubbing on the cold, greasy window. Looking at her breath in the glass's reflection, she thought, God, look at that traffic. How much longer? It's taking forever. And this bus smells like a bad Chinese restaurant.
Ensnared in bumper-to-bumper traffic, they vied for street space along with clusters of bell-ringing bicyclists, honking vehicles, and knots of noisy pedestrians spilling off sidewalks into clogged streets. The yellow and white coaches had been dispatched from the Central Translation Bureau in Beijing where Comrade James Mo, aka Guoshi Mo, worked as a translator of Mao Zedong's papers, until Comrade Mo's death in January 1996. A monotonous din of frayed windshield wipers sent shards of water into the air as buses inched toward the hall parking lot. Exiting the coach along with a clack of cadres, family, and dignitaries, Victoria strained to wave to her half-brother Valery, who stood on the memorial steps shielding his wife Alla from the rain.
"Valery, over here."
Handing a red, flowered umbrella to Alla, Victoria's half-brother smiled and waved back, trotting over to her, arms outstretched.
"How was the ride? So much traffic I didn't know if you'd be late." Walking back toward Alla, Valery reminded his sister, "We should get inside; we're part of the receiving line." Then shifting to a hateful tone, he informed Victoria, "Father's fifth wife has already taken her position at the head of the line."
"Her name is Dr Chin, Valery. Call her by that."
"How can you be so calm, Victoria? Father survived all those years in prison and a brutal exile, only to fall down the stairs in his own apartment while Chin was in Canada visiting her son. My point is that she wasn't there to take care of Father. Don't you think it's odd that we never knew her first name? And besides, she's not a famous surgeon or anything."
"Yes, Valery, but this is no time for bitterness. Let it go."
Gloves, thick woolen overcoats, and head coverings comforted mourners who silently shuffled single file to long tables positioned under tarps outside the hall. Somber cadres scribbled condolences to their fallen comrade under a handwritten sign: "Ink pens will be collected." Most guests secreted away the leaky "Made in China" pens, tacky souvenirs of an important historical event. Two white rice paper scrolls as long as a country mile, covered with personal messages, hung outside on both columns of the entry. Men and women pressed against each other, their breath lightly filming the head of the person in front, patiently waiting to pay their respects to Comrade James Mo's family and to walk past his body.
Shuffle, inch. Shuffle, inch. Pause. Wait. Shuffle.
So it went for close to an hour until guests were situated inside the hall, smelling of salty tears, damp wool, tobacco, incense, and nauseating perfume. Comrade James Mo was a high-ranking member of the International Communist Movement, and a well-known interpreter of Mao Zedong's papers. Comrade Mo, an editor and writer, and the vice chairperson of the Classical Chinese Poetry Society, died on January 17, 1996. Due to complications in flying his daughter, Victoria Francis, from the United States to China, his memorial was postponed until February. In the interim, Comrade James Mo's body would be frozen in a Beijing mortuary.
Funereal Chinese music blared from elevated speakers. Scratchy and high-pitched, the dirge was punctuated by sobs and wailing, making it impossible to differentiate between the music and grieving mourners. Invited guests were largely Chinese, but off in a corner a cluster of Russians huddled together. Old men and women with canes, young men, young women, bald men with beards, fat men, and silver-haired thin men passed his body lying on a wood slab surrounded by a towering forest of white calla lilies, as James Mo's loyal cadre of poets, revolutionaries, and intellectuals bowed three times.
Comrade Mo's skull, lovingly nestled on two golden silk pillows, showed a receding hairline with wisps of silver framing his creamy, marbled face. From his feet to his breastbone, contrasting sharply with an umber-colored wool suit, a brick red pall appliquéd with the yellow hammer and sickle snuggled his body, keeping the cold at bay for his final journey. At ninety-two, James was handsome even in death.
Comrade James Mo, named Guoshi Mo at birth, was born into a small land-owning family in Fusui County on November 5, 1903. According to the Chinese astrological calendar, he was born under the sign of the tiger. Guoshi, one of six brothers and sisters, were all university educated. Before graduating from Peking Normal University, Guoshi Mo changed his name to James and traveled by boat to the United States on a student visa to study for a master's degree in education at Peabody Teacher's College in Nashville, Tennessee. During his short time at Peabody, twenty-five-year-old Mo excelled at tennis, badminton, and volleyball, winning a bronze medal in a coveted tennis championship. An active cell of the Communist party existed at Peabody, and after joining the International Communist Party in 1928, James set about engaging in progressive activities while spreading the word of the revolution at various American schools.
Summer vacation was hardly over when he received a telegram to go to New York City to work with Chinese immigrants. Comrade Mo hitchhiked to Manhattan. Accommodations were a room in the headquarters of the Anti-Imperialist Alliance. Working for Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, James rose to power quickly with his life as a student coming to an abrupt end. From then on Comrade Mo became a passionate professional revolutionary fighting to realize his dream of saving his homeland. Much later in life he would look back and conclude that the decisions he made were not in his best interest.
Considered an agitator, a photograph of Comrade James Mo was front and center in a 1930 New York Times article reporting on United States Communist activities. American authorities noticed his party work, adding him to the FBI's list of people viewed as suspicious. He was arrested twice, spending time at Riker's Island. In 1932, James was secretly spirited out of New York and sent to Moscow for training at the Lenin Institute, the Soviet Union school for Communist cadets. A skilled writer, he was appointed vice chief editor of Save China Times. At that time a young Chang Ki Shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalists Party, the Kuomintang, was in power.
Lining the walls of James's memorial were thirty large white chrysanthemum arrangements laden with bright silver and green leaves and ribbons, along with banners and scrolls and lavish floral displays expressing messages in Chinese. Prominently featured on the stage was an elaborate gold-framed portrait. From the easel, a young Comrade Mo, in his blue worker's uniform, surveyed the throngs of mourners pushing forward for a last glance at this remarkable man. A copper brazier burned fragrant shavings, filling the hall with aloeswood, a dark resinous heartwood native to Southeast Asia. Crippled, aged comrades leaning on canes solemnly removed their hats, bowing three times. One mouthed, "Farewell, friend."
Grief-stricken women, young and old, sobbed while clutching one another as they tried not to crumple under the weight of their sorrow. Titanium white chrysanthemums, pinned to mourners' coats, dripped with tears. An old woman whispered, "Comrade Mo's feet went out from under him as he tumbled down the stairs at his apartment. Now he's a cadaver, frozen for a month. Has he thawed? Are there puddles on the floor? Can you imagine? Falling on his way to exercise. No one knew he bled internally. His fifth wife, Dr. Chin, was traveling in Canada. What a shame. Look, his daughter, so elegant. And just think, all those years in Siberia under the harshest conditions."
Comrade James Mo's daughter, Victoria Francis, wore a calf-length black cashmere coat. Knotted at her neck was a scarf of cherry-colored silk. She was unemotional and awkward as she stood in the receiving line next to her half-brother Valery Rudenko, a tall, mustachioed Eurasian with an enviable head of wavy black hair and a tennis player's body. Victoria—a stunning woman with elongated hazel eyes, olive complexion, strong cheekbones, and a model's figure—shed no tears as she slipped on a somber face like an actor preparing for a role. A thick mass of chestnut hair brushed against her buttocks as she leaned in to clasp the gloved hand of the next mourner. One moment Victoria might be mistaken for an American Indian. Showing a profile, perhaps a mix of African-American, Spanish, or Italian. The siblings had inherited their father's good looks, his athleticism, intelligence, and his artistic genes. James Mo's mother was Han Chinese, and his father native Zhaung from Guangxi Provence, a mountainous region in Southwest China.
On this suffocatingly gloomy day, dedicated to the father she barely knew, Victoria closed her eyes. Agony. Why am I here? I hate funerals. When she and Valery first met in 1983, she told him, "My album of childhood memories did not include a father or a half-brother." She said she had longed for a father. A man who could see immediately if something was bothering her. She told her brother, "I felt his arms around me; he'd kiss me and promise he would resolve any problems. I've never told anyone, but when I realized I may not have a father, I fabricated one. Don't laugh, but that man was Mao Zedong. Preposterous, right? And the reason he wasn't with me? He was creating wars in China. When I first met Father for the first time, he expected me to be his dutiful daughter. I was forty-eight years old—there was no way."
Standing in the receiving line, Victoria scanned the musty hall that was filling up with her Father's life-long Communist friends, men in his poetry group, and one or two who shared time with him in the Siberian Gulag. Victoria leaned into her brother, whispering, "Its bone chilling in here, colder than outside." Valery nodded and put his arm around her. Alla squeezed Victoria's hand. About her father, she thought, We saw each other seven times since meeting in China in 1982. I still don't know for sure how he found me. Even in death, I don't think I can ever forgive him for what he did to my mother—and to me. She cocked her head. When did I meet Valery? Had I turned fifty? Ironically, I grew up an only child. Now I have an extended family that will be with me forever.
Victoria's mother, seventeen-year-old Celia Edelson, was a member of the Young Pioneers, a revolutionary, when she met magnetic twenty-four-year-old Comrade James Mo in Cleveland, Ohio, where he had traveled from New York to give a speech at a trade worker's ceremony. Smitten, Celia followed him back to New York where they lived and worked for the Communist party. When the FBI got too close for comfort, James was sent to Moscow. Leaving Celia alone and brokenhearted, she returned to her family to work in their fish stores. Shorty after James was situated at the infamous Hotel Lux in Moscow, party approval was given for Celia to join him. They lived at the hotel until 1933 when, pregnant with Victoria, the Communist party, citing political reasons, sent Celia home to her family in Cleveland for the birth of her child. Victoria was three months old when her mother learned the disturbing news about James and cut off all communication with him. Despite Victoria's endless questioning, her embittered mother vowed never to discuss James with her daughter. Celia kept her promise
Named Victoria Francis Mo at birth, her Chinese name was Sengli Mo, and she halfway believed her father existed only in her fantasies. After being rehabilitated, Comrade James Mo was sent back to China in 1956 after an eighteen-year exile to perform hard labor in the frozen tundra, only to be rearrested and sent to Mao Zedong's Cadres School on the outskirts of Beijing for further rehabilitation. She wasn't positive he was alive until the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC contacted her in 1981 to tell her he had been searching for her since 1973—after his release from Mao's Cadres School.
Victoria questioned her mother often, especially when she got older. These inquiries infuriated Celia. "Do I have a father? Where is he?"
I was four years old when Mother dragged me to court to change my name from Victoria Francis Mo to Victoria Francis, never giving me a reason for dropping my surname. FRANCIS! What kind of last name is that? Where did she even get that name? Secrets stacked on top of each other for all these years, secrets and an iron refusal to acknowledge my father.
Conceived in Moscow and born in Cleveland, Ohio, Victoria was raised by her unwed Russian Jewish mother, her maternal grandmother, and aunts and uncles. They worked hard selling freshwater fish from their three stores in Cleveland, Ohio. The close-knit family did not burst at the seams with eruptions of laughter. Victoria's home life was not the acme of existence. A testament to anger and sadness caged itself inside the Edelson home.