1.Suspicions of Starfish
Suspicions of starfish brought us back to the waters off the oceanographic station in Bermuda, the place which Walter Garstang, borrowing the cadences of Tennyson, eulogized as the “. . . watch-tower of the Sargasso Sea! / Its coral cap twelve miles across, / On this one spot my treasure-house would be. . . .”
For us, it was literally a treasure trove waiting to be tapped. An expedition two years ago on the R/V North Wind IV had sampled animals from this very location. Back in the lab, one particular sample caught everyone’s attention. It was from a strikingly colored starfish - serum from their gonadal tissues was included in a standard biological activity screen, where we found that it had potent anti-proliferation activities against all the mammalian cell lines we tested it against. The results were so dramatic that we ran it five times with all manner of control experiments just to make sure we weren’t imagining the result, or worse, that some kind of contaminant was spoiling our cell culture system. Out of all the compounds we had ever screened in our years of bioprospecting from literally every continent and coast, this one had the most potential as a drug for controlling tumorigenesis in cancer. It could make all our careers, and it could repay our venture capital several times over - if only we could get more serum to characterize the active substance.
There were some unusual features, which we thought we could figure out in due time.
At high concentrations, for example, it actually promoted proliferation and uncontrolled dedifferentiation. It caused fractal-like patterning of axonal branches when added to neuronal cell cultures. But that was irrelevant for now. We had to get more starfish, and figure out how to isolate the substance that was inhibiting the cancer cells. The starfish itself was difficult to identify, despite being so dramatic in appearance. Finally, a retired Smithsonian zoologist wrote to us, having seen the picture which we had privately circulated, stating that it was most likely a species which had only been collected once before in the 1870s by an Agassiz-led expedition. We found independent corroboration of this, and looked up the original description - although the atoll had remodeled somewhat over the years, the locality, as far as we could tell from the maps of the period, was almost exactly identical. The collector, one J.M. Hall, left no other notes or specimens.
When we returned we brought along the one field biologist in the employ of our company, whom we all called Smithie. He was on the last expedition on the North Wind, and according to the collecting logs he was the one who picked up the starfish, even though he himself had no recollection of actually handling the animal. “It’s very odd,” he told us on the boat, while looking through the pictures in the file, “I would have thought that I would easily remember seeing something as colorful and charismatic as P. flabel latum.”
Our small motorboat halted in seemingly open water. I looked over the gunwale and saw that it was teeming with life below. Corals like tinsellated boulders, fishes, worms, sea fans, and other creatures swarmed busily under us. “They’re supposed to be on the shaded faces of brain coral,” Smithie told us, pointing out a few possible spots to scan. The
boatman puttered the engine and coasted us around slowly. “There!” Smithie gestured to him to turn towards where he was pointing.
We came up alongside the coral boulder but it was just out of reach. Smithie leaned over and stuck his arm into the water, but the starfish was still too far away. There were so many of them, they seemed to be aggregating for some reason. The longer we looked the more we could see. It was a bonanza, an amazing haul if we could get even a fraction on board and on the dry ice we had carefully packed into a cooler. “This bloody thing is getting in my way.” Smithie took off his life jacket and passed it to me. It was at that point that I noticed his eyes were red. I watched as he stretched out again, but the boat tipped and he slid into the water, head first.
The boatman and I caught his legs and started pulling him in, but it is surprisingly difficult to haul in someone who is not making any effort to save himself. He was completely still, arms half-floating, head completely submerged, barely a twitch. As we pulled, I tried grabbing his shirt and tugging him from there. But the water around his body started
to become pink. Was he bleeding? My tugging twisted his body around and his face was turned towards me, and I could see that he was hemorrhaging from his eyes, ears, and nose. It wasn’t blood, though. It was the wrong color. The fluid was leaking at such a rate as to stain even the water lapping up against the hull. I pulled my hand out and found that it was coated in tiny pink spheres, like the eggs of a marine animal.
I looked down to see if Smithie’s body was caught on something, and then we all saw it happen. The starfish were enveloping themselves in a milky white plume. It was mixing with the pink cloud that now surrounded our whole boat. They were spawning, and so was Smithie. Without a word we let him slip back into the water.
My wife Sylvia passed me a square plate of glass, partly wrapped in thin yellowing paper, that was in the package she had just received in the mail from her cousin Emma. The paper was old and friable, so I gently pried it apart to pull out the glass. It was dark and smokey, and cracked diagonally across. There was something printed on its surface which I could not see clearly. I held it up at an angle to the light and was so startled by what I saw that I almost dropped it: an emaciated woman, eyes closed but with a permanently strained expression on her face, wearing a dress trimmed in lace, with long hair reaching down to her waist, lying on a cloth spread over a table in what seemed to be a parlor.
It was a glass plate negative of a Victorian memento mori - a keepsake to remember the dead by. All the tones were inverted. The hair that should have been jet black was silvery white, as were the dress and the cloth. Her face was an eerie charcoal cast in this negative image.
I set it down carefully on the remains of the paper wrapping. Sylvia was reading the letter that Emma had written and taped to the package.
She chuckled, “I’m sorry, I should have read this first or you would have been spared the terrible shock. Emma says this is stuff from a decaying trunk in her attic, that her mother,” my wife’s Aunt Jennifer, whose funeral we had just attended a fortnight ago, “had left behind and she thought since I liked family history I should have. That woman in the picture is my great-great-grandmother, Maude. She was only 35 when she died. That’s my age!”
“Here’s a locket which her husband kept with him all the time. Look at it, it’s got a lock of her hair in it. According to family lore this locket was brought over by Granny Maude’s own father when he made the crossing from Europe. One of the men in the family had found it on the battlefield after a vicious battle in the Napoleonic Wars, and pocketed it. So I guess it’s loot! That’s thrilling, isn’t it, dear?”
“It’s kinda creepy, actually.”
“Well, I’m gonna keep this on me. Did you know that Abner - that’s my great-great- grandpa - never remarried? He raised his three kids all by himself. Never loved another woman. I’d like a love like that.” She smiled and pecked me on the cheek.
“That’s some way to put pressure on a newlywed couple,” I kissed her back.
Two weeks after the package arrived, Sylvia went to the hairdresser’s, who was surprised that she came in so soon after her last visit. Her bangs had grown out and started tickling her eyes, and she wanted to trim them again. Barely a week after that, they were starting to annoy her again. She pinned them aside with some hairpins, and decided to let it grow out long rather than go back three times in one month.
It was surprising how fast it grew. From being around her neck it soon draped to her shoulders, and just kept growing and growing. She’d not had hair this long since college, and she had forgotten how heavy it was to carry it around. At the same time her appetite grew and she began eating almost as much as I did. I asked her one evening over dinner at home if she thought she might be pregnant, and she threw a fit because she thought I was saying she was getting fat from eating so much. But to the contrary, she was getting slimmer even as her hair grew in volume.
Eventually Sylvia was trimming the ends herself in the bathroom every morning with a pair of kitchen scissors, just to keep it manageable. It would easily have reached to her waist otherwise. Surfing on the Internet for “what to do with lots of hair” she found out about the Locks of Love charity, and started sending her clippings to them.
She was growing much less energetic, too. Walking would tire her. Her cheeks seemed
hollower. She was hungry, so hungry, that she would be snacking almost continuously. My wife was wasting away, wrapped in a shroud of her own long hair. We finally went to see a doctor.
“This is very strange,” the doctor said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It seems like the growth of your hair is sequestering all the metabolic resources of your body. That’s why you’re so hungry. That’s why it’s growing so fast. Let’s try fasting for a day or two. Do you think you can do it? That might stop the growth of hair and break the cycle. I’ll prescribe something to suppress the hunger pangs.”
It didn’t work. Soon the amount she would have needed to eat was more than her gut could process. The hair was burning up her stored reserves, breaking down her flesh to make more of itself.
It was not long before she had to be admitted for medical observation. Sylvia could barely speak now. I did not think the drips that went into her veins were of any use in sating that hunger which was consuming her.
“It’s like a cancer – that’s the key to the one last shot we have at beating this,” the doctor said, “we’ll put her on a round of chemotherapy, and kill the active cells in her hair follicles.”
Sylvia looked at me with fear and resignation mixed in her eyes. They were too weak to cry. I held her hand. She motioned to her neck. I kissed her, and saw the chain still around it. The locket. It was the locket. I unhooked it, pocketed it, and whispered in her ear, “I’m taking it away. It was this locket all along. It’s gone now, you’ll be okay.”
She could barely nod in reply.
The chemotherapy killed the hair, which fell away completely in less than a week, and she made a brief recovery. The toxic shock was too much, though, for her weakened liver, and she died in hospital. At the funeral parlor, I looked over her, at rest as if sleeping, in her bridal gown, which seemed to fill more of the coffin than her wisp of a body. I was startled to see a stubble of hair on her scalp and turned to the funeral director, who was beside me.
He anticipated what I was going to ask, and said, “Don’t worry sir, it’s normal. The skin pulls back after death, and exposes more of the hair. It’s not really growing. If you wish, we can put a wig on her.”
I looked at Sylvia again and dared not believe what he said. I put the locket in beside her body, and told the director, “No. Close the casket. Keep it closed the whole funeral and never open it again.”
As a young student in the 1950s I was privileged to hear first-hand the famed pingtan storyteller, Zhang Daimin, whose version of the Alternative History of the Three Kingdoms (as opposed to the canonical Romance), was among the first recordings made in China on magnetic tape, a decade prior. He delivered his performance in a traditional teahouse (razed during the 1970s and now the site of an air-conditioned megamall) without any musical accompaniment, and with only a young boy in attendance to pour him innumerable cups of tea.
Unlike most storytellers of the genre, his characterizations were not the most convincing or dramatic. There were others who could pro ject a more martial Guan Yu, a more cerebral Zhuge Liang, a more calculating Cao Cao. What mesmerized us all were his long, rambling asides, in which he intimated to us revealing anecdotes about the personal lives of these characters - stories that were never committed to paper, but drawn forth seemingly from long personal acquaintance with each of these personages. He would talk about them as comfortably and even nostalgically as one would a long-lost comrade or childhood friend.
He disappeared during the Cultural Revolution. Just before the violence became deadly, my grandfather sent me and two cousins away to the coast, from whence we were smuggled via Macau to Taiwan. Our family had a connection to the Whampoa Military Academy, which endangered us in the mainland, but found us protective patronage in the Republic. I was able to settle into a quiet, bookish existence on the outskirts of Taipei.
Because of Zhang, one of my scholarly interests was the evolution of the arts of the traditional storyteller. These performers could weave a tapestry of details out of the barest skeleton of a plot from an old prompt-book. Being chiefly an oral art, these details were rarely recorded, and were either learnt from a past master or invented anew with
each telling. Many storytellers borrowed anecdotes or the thematic elements of especially diverting plots from other artists, but Zhang was unique because he never seemed to borrow from anyone else. He claimed that he learnt all that he knew from his father, who had disappeared when he was just a child. I had always assumed that the little boy pouring
tea for him was his son; I imagined that he would have been about the age his father was
when he himself disappeared.
My studies also brought me to the phonology of Middle Chinese. When I listened again to the recording of Zhang, I realized that what I had originally thought was the lilting Mandarin inflection of someone brought up speaking Cantonese was more akin to the articulation of someone habituated to long hours practising Middle Chinese trying to
recover his lost Mandarin to function effectively in the modern world again. During the course of my research, I found a reference to a famous storyteller in my hometown during the waning years of the Yuan dynasty. I traced it to an unofficial gazetteer of 1387, written under a pseudonym (but by style attributable to the same retired official
who wrote the official gazetteer), that described uncanny and supernatural events that had occured in the county over the past fifty years. One of the stories he recorded was of the storyteller Zhang Rong, who appeared in the town soon after the dynastic transition, explaining that he was the son of another famous storyteller who had been based there
three decades before, Zhang Daimin. An old schoolteacher who went to listen to Zhang Rong could remember the stories told by his father (stories, incidentally, about the Three Kingdoms) and swore that the two were one and the same person. In terse, ambiguous classical prose, the chronicler reports that Zhang Rong replied to the schoolteacher, who was named Zhou: “The sameness [of him and his father] is the sameness of our story. My story is my memory [presumably Zhang Rong’s memory of his father, but the sentence could also be interpreted to mean that which he remembered of himself ].”
I would not have worried too much about the coincidence of names - after all, there are millions of Zhangs and only so many words that are euphonious in a given name - had I not been told of a storyteller in his forties who had appeared in my hometown claiming to be the son of Zhang Daimin. His name was Zhang Rong. His specialty was the Alternative History of the Three Kingdoms, which he performed without accompaniment.
A photograph I was given showed him to look almost exactly as I remembered his father to be.
I took the opportunity afforded by temporarily warming cross-strait relations to pay my first visit to my hometown since leaving it forty years ago. Zhang Rong was scheduled to perform at the megamall built over the old teahouse. The performance was part of a traveling show organized by the local Partys culture bureau, and the acts before him included girls dressed in garish costumes balancing spinning bowls, and young children reciting Tang poems with earnest monotony. He finally came onstage, took a bow, and leaned forward to tell the audience about a conversation he had with Liu Bei, in the persona of the gardener who tended the peach trees in the garden of the famous Oath.
Amplified by tinny portable speakers, his speech still had the same sing-song lisp that I remembered. The milling shoppers stopped to listen. But even the great storyteller was no match for the modern attention span. He abbreviated his story, leaving out many details that I rememebred, and finished ten minutes later with the same crowd-teasing coda they
all ended with: “and to know more about what he said, come back again for the next chapter.”
He was politely applauded, and shuffled offstage to make way for three martial artists
bearing ribboned spears. I pushed my way through the crowd to confront him. A stagehand
passed him a bottle of mineral water, which he uncapped and sipped delicately. I called to
him, “Zhang Daimin!”
He turned around and faced me. Seeing my old, whiskered face, he smiled. “Old sir, it
seems like you might have heard my father in his day. Is that correct?”
“No, I heard you. I know who you are.”
“My father taught me everything I know, sir. He taught me surreptitiously when we were in the country during the Cultural Revolution. I was born during his exile. People say we sound alike, because I grew up listening to the sound of his voice every day, and every night.”
“Tell me, Zhang, do you remember Old Master Zhou? He was the schoolmaster at the Confucian Temple the last time you passed through this town. I know who you are, Zhang, I know.”
“Yes, old sir,” he took on a soothing tone to his voice, “I remember Old Master Zhou. I told him exactly what I told you. The sameness of my father and me is the sameness of the story that we tell. My story is my memory of him, it is the memory that will remain of me.”
Our fish was getting sick and we were sure that it was going to die. It was an ancient goldfish, almost as old as I was. When I was a year old, my favorite thing in the world was a densely illustrated poster of the freshwater fishes of the world. The origins of the poster, like that of all childhood totems, were unclear, but it happened to be taped to the side of an old bookshelf in my playroom, and I would sit in front of it for hours on end, babbling and pointing and staring at the closely stippled pictures. As my parents told it, they were worried that I would somehow lose my humanity by being fixated so strongly on an inanimate ob ject - so they got me a real live fish to stare at, and put it right in front of the poster. A quarter-century later, it was still staring back at me, in its fifth tank since that first September. It outgrew the first two, the third broke, and the fourth was too big for the furniture we bought when Shirley and I moved into our new apartment. I set up the new tank in our living room, and Shirley insisted that we put up the fish poster behind it again “to keep the fish company”.
By then, most of its golden glimmer was lost. Only flecks of color remained at the edges of its scales, like glazed counter-top tiles that have become worn down by too much scrubbing. The fish (I never gave it a name) was pouty, and had a knobbly head. We first noticed the symptoms (apart from its general decline over the years) when one of those knobs started swelling well beyond something decent, and it began listing towards the side of the tumor.
To be honest, I wasn’t too upset that it was dying. I wasn’t the sort to be sentimental: When I moved out, I junked most of my childhood things, because my parents wanted to rent the room out. Shirley, though, was upset that I wasn’t more upset.
“So if I were dying you wouldn’t be beat up about it?”
“That’s not true. I’d be very sad if you were dying. But you’re not dying, the fish is.”
“That’s precisely what I’m talking about. You’re ignoring it; you don’t want to confront the fact that people die.”
“I’m not ignoring it - I’ve already accepted the fact that it’s dying. And it’s not people, it’s a fish.”
In the end, I conceded the point. We set up a camera in front of the tank to take a picture of the fish each day, and planned to assemble those pictures into some sort of album or memorial. Those pictures would effectively be a memento mori, except that it wasn’t dead yet while we were snapping the pictures, and frankly that seemed more morbid than sentimental to me.
Because we were compiling this album, I started to pay closer attention to the appearance of the tumor on its head, and thereby noticed the curious turn that its growth was taking. As it swelled, the growth became less a mere bulge than an appendage, and the scales covering it were new and deeply colored, but with a peculiar array of small black dots. This was the same golden orange that I remembered from the early days, when we were both much younger. The pattern of the new scales was distinct from that of the old, and where the two joined, the difference in color and imbrication looked almost like a seam.
A week or so later I noticed a shift in the eye that sat just below the tumor. The downward pressure of the growth had first forced that eye to droop, but now it was looking upwards again. Within the span of a day, between the photograph we took on a Saturday and the one we took on Sunday, it then traveled an inch upwards and now sat in the middle of the lump. Simultaneously, the skull was caving in, as the tumor kept on expanding. The old fish was disappearing as a new one was being made.
The fish struggled for a month as the other eye, then the gills, and then all the fins moved over to the new territory. The transposition of its fins was the most curious step, because it was unable for those few days to swim in any semblance of a straight line.
Eventually, the old fish was nothing more than a whitish lump on the head of the new.
That too soon disappeared. We put the camera away. Shirley was horrified by the fish now and refused to even come into the room, so I had to move the tank to a corner of my cramped study.
When I came back to remove the fish poster that was still on the backing wall, I finally noticed on it what I should have recognized all along: the common goldfish Carassius auratus auratus. Our reborn goldfish was a picture-perfect copy.